Photo Essay

A Lot in an Empty Lot

Mark tours an overlooked empty lot near the otherwise-bustling corner of Upper James and Rymal, and survives to tell the tale.

By Mark Fenton
Published May 26, 2006

My tour began in the parking lot on Upper James between Winners and a sort of clump-mall (I don't know the official term for it) that contains a Second Cup, Pizza Pizza, and Whistling Walrus. They have planted lovely flowering trees here and I stopped briefly under one and tilted my head backwards to experience the glory of spring. I could almost forget I was in a parking lot.

Flowering trees in a parking lot
Flowering trees in a parking lot

This was only the briefest of interludes. I had a big journey planned. First, I had to visit my bank, which I'll call the more business oriented/less fun part of my journey. "I am getting this out of the way at the beginning," I told myself. "After that it's going to be pure adventure."

From there I proceeded to the Fortinos parking lot at Upper James and Rymal Road. I parked my small Japanese car between two large SUVs. It was well hidden (as long as the SUVs don't drive away, I thought, half an hour later). Approaching my bank, I made an immediate connection between the building my bank is in:

The CIBC Building at Upper James and Rymal evokes Frank Lloyd Wright's Martin House
The CIBC Building at Upper James and Rymal evokes Frank Lloyd Wright's Martin House

and the Martin House, by Frank Lloyd Wright, in Buffalo.

The Martin House, by Frank Lloyd Wright (Photo Credit: Great Buildings)
The Martin House, by Frank Lloyd Wright (Photo Credit: Great Buildings)

Note the similarity of the staggered low overhangs from which a monolithic brick chimney emerges (in the case of my bank, a faux-chimney). If you live in Hamilton and are a Frank Lloyd Wright enthusiast, I strongly recommend the hour-plus drive to Buffalo to see the Martin House. But most of the time I settle for the bank: fewer kilometres for vehicle emissions and no border formalities.

The other thing I find intriguing about my bank is that when you enter there's an inexplicably huge foyer at the end of which are the bank machines. There's usually a woman seated at a desk in this foyer, and I always say something like, "Boy, how did you get such a big office?"

She expands the professional smile she's already wearing, as if to say, "How many times have I heard that one? What a jerk!"

I want like anything to have a picture of this foyer, but I have a hunch that taking photos in a bank is sort of frowned upon, what with those video monitors everywhere. Cameras are like guns. When the other side has more and bigger ones than you it's prudent to just keep yours hidden.

The banking passes without incident and I head east across James Street, leaving my car in the parking lot by the bank. This act alone increases my stress for a number of reasons. I've had encounters in the past with people hired by a store to carefully track the pedestrian movements of people who park in their lot, in search of people who park at this store/complex but shop at that store/complex.

I've even been approached by these people when I'm carrying a just-purchased item, with receipt! I can usually talk my way out of it by saying that I'm meeting my godmother who's parked across the street shopping in one of those shops, and she's going to see that what I bought is OK and then give me more of my allowance so I can come back and spend even more money in these fine stores over here. I speak slowly and evenly and make direct eye-contact and I'm pretty good at it, but it's a hurdle I don't need right now.

Another problem is that I take these walks often and often forget which parking lot I've parked my car in, and have once or twice been on the verge of calling the police to say my car's been stolen, which will, upon cross-examination, reveal that I went from strip mall to strip mall without driving my car, thus contributing to unbalanced lot vacancy and violating the private property of a store owner (as parking on a store property is a privilege not a right).

It would be like those movies where a guy witnesses a murder and is morally obligated to call the police and then has to explain to the police how he managed to see it all in the back bedroom of the apartment across the street, and how he can incidentally describe everyone who's been in and out of this apartment in the last year, and he is able do this, is in fact now morally obligated to do this, because he's been watching the woman who lives there with a telescope pretty much all day every day for the last three years, which he admits, when probed, that he knows full well is a bad thing to have been doing, but surely, they must agree, not as bad as murdering people.

Anyone watching for parking creeps would have a long time to watch me leave the parking lot and cross James Street, which takes a good three minutes. It's one of those crossings where I let one rotation of lights go by without a walking man, and then realize I have to push a button to make the walking man deploy. The pole the button is on is ten feet behind me and when I walk back I have to figure out which button is the one for across the street and which one is instead for the light that allows me to cross the traffic access to the parking lot, perpendicular to where I actually want to cross. Once I've pushed the right button it takes two rotations of the light to give me a walking man, who I will miss the first time because it only lasts about five seconds and that five second span usually comes when I'm looking over my shoulder to see if a parking monitor is watching me, and having missed it, and only after another rotation realizing that I've missed it, I have to start the whole process again.

When I finally do get across there are a string of car dealerships on my left and a Future Shop on my right. I head down a dead end road between them, which ends like this:

Yellow and black diamond - Warning: foot-high weeds and mushy stuff ahead
Yellow and black diamond - Warning: foot-high weeds and mushy stuff ahead

There are no pedestrian walkways here and the two tires behind the barrier, coupled with the diagonal chessboard bereft of kings, queens, pawns and all the other soldiers who might offer guidance isn't exactly inviting. If you take this journey, be warned that you will be walking through foot-high weeds throughout, and there's lots of mushy stuff you don't see until you're in it, so I recommend long pants and boots.

I have to confess at this point that this is not a documentary of a single journey. I did this walk two days in a row, so if you notice some photos are sunny and some overcast, that explains why. I am indeed ashamed of my lack of documentary integrity here, so the path I took was identical both days. The first day I was struck by the amount of rubbish I found, and so the second day I brought a big garbage bag and collected a bunch, partly to help clean up Hamilton, but also as a pretext for being here, should I be questioned.

Copious amounts of discarded rubbish
Copious amounts of discarded rubbish

I estimate, perhaps vainly, that at least a dozen or so people who read my essays later take the walks I've recommended. If that's the case, and we all bring a garbage bag and fill it, we'll have the place cleaned up in no time.

This road intrigues me:

An intriguing dirt road through the field
An intriguing dirt road through the field

It doesn't seem to go anywhere useful or even connect with Rymal Road. As I'm into extreme documentary and never ask that the way be made easy, I turn the opposite direction.

This jumble of wire might have been a trap to catch trespassers
This jumble of wire might have been a trap to catch trespassers

It's pretty wild here. Weird wire might have been a trap to catch trespassers like me one time. Stick with it, Mark, I say, already talking to myself. Something interesting awaits me on the rise ahead:

A fenced, landscaped square sits on the rise ahead
A fenced, landscaped square sits on the rise ahead

This place is carefully landscaped and with cut grass. Compared to what I'm in now, it's as even and manicured as a golf green. It's protected by chain link fence, with its gate wide open on the side of my approach, as though it were expecting me.

The gate sits open on the side of my approach
The gate sits open on the side of my approach

I'm less thrilled by the welcoming entrance when it turns out to be graveyard; as if I needed to be invited to the prospect of my death. But I do go in. Most of the graves date from the mid 19th century. What is this place doing here?

"Cemetery Gates" (from The Queen is Dead, 1986) by The Smiths begins playing in my head:

A blessed sunny day
So let's go where we're happy
And I'll meet you at the cemetery gates...

So we go inside and gravely read the stones
All those people, all those lives
Where are they now?
With loves, and hates and passions just like mine,
They were born and then they lived and then they died.
Seems so unfair
I want to cry.

This is the song I'll download into my iPod, when I'm coming here again, or rather I would if I had an iPod. [Ed. Note: If you want, and if you live in a jurisdiction in which doing so is not illegal, you may wish to search for Smiths MP3s so you can download this song, which Mark describes as "simultaneously elegaic and chirpy". We at Raise the Hammer cannot stress enough that you should not do this if the laws that govern your place of residence forbid such activity. We'd hate for anyone to suffer wrenching legal entanglements as a result of their efforts to experience this essay in a multi-media format. If you can procure the song by lawful means, so much the better.]

When I returned the next day it was windy and had just finished raining. Instead of "Cemetery Gates," I thought of Thomas Hardy's poem "During Wind and Rain." I won't quote the whole thing, although I strongly recommend searching for it on the Internet, where it's widely available along with Thomas Hardy's other two thousand poems.


This one is a high water mark, and is a sort of impressionistic piece about a family who accumulated all sorts of wealth and privilege, complete with a large estate property (which I'm now imagining is the kind of thing that was probably where I'm standing right now before it was all turned to car dealerships and litter and scrap metal) and how in the end all that remains is their names on tombstones:

They change to a high new house,
He, she, all of them--aye,
Clocks and carpets and chairs
On the lawn all day,
And brightest things that are theirs....
Ah, no; the years, the years;
Down their carved names the raindrop plows.

I love how those four dots at the end of the fourth line take care of the decades between when they were out on a blessed summer day enjoying all their new stuff and the yard, and a time way later when they're all dead and buried. BOOM! Four dots and we rush way ahead to everyone staring up at the lid probably underneath the kind of tombstones I'm standing here with right now. Makes you think, huh?

I'm just running these lines through my head, when I'm jolted back to reality by what sounds like a woman's voice on a police bullhorn, and I'm sure these orders are directed at me and they've been onto me since I took my first picture of the bank.

Looking around at where the sound might be coming form I realize what this area reminds me of. It's that scene near the beginning of Blue Velvet where Jeffrey Beaumont is walking home through a similar near-urban but undeveloped non-space after visiting his Dad in the hospital:

Scene from Blue Velvet (Photo Credit: LynchNet)
Scene from Blue Velvet (Photo Credit: LynchNet)

and finds that creepy ear!

Scene from Blue Velvet (Photo Credit: LynchNet)
Scene from Blue Velvet (Photo Credit: LynchNet)

If you've never seen it, this movie is disturbing, dreamlike, and groundbreaking. Questionable choice for a first-date movie. Definitely not a good pick for, say, movie night with your future mother-in-law. By the way, I'm not making any connection between how I appear when I go on these walks and how Kyle McLaughlin appears in the above photo. Kyle on a scruffy day is better groomed than me on my wedding day.

It turns out that what I thought was a police bullhorn was just someone at one of the car dealerships broadcasting that a certain salesman has a call. I hear a few more of these on my walk. It's amazing how far the message carries. If you worked there you could take a picnic lunch out here, listen for your messages from the loudspeaker two hundred meters away, and just call the appropriate person while continuing to enjoy your tuna sandwich.

I move away from the cemetery and find this interesting object:

Rusty metal cylinder: at home in Hamilton?
Rusty metal cylinder: at home in Hamilton?

It's about four feet in diameter. It sort of bongs when I kick it so I know it's hollow and not solid steel. I have no idea what it is or how it got here. Then it occurs to me that if I lived in a fisheries town it wouldn't seem strange to find a dead cod beside a gas pump way inland; or that if I lived in a lumber town I wouldn't puzzle over a carefully hewn and splintering pine log in a vacant lot. So it's probably natural in a steel town to have odd metal cylinders in advanced stages of rust here and there.

Speaking of rust, I move on to find this!

A forgotten dumpster
A forgotten dumpster

This, you'd think, would be an excellent place to deposit the bag of litter I've collected. There isn't even a sign forbidding it. However, on closer inspection I determine that it isn't emptied regularly, in fact it doesn't look like it's been emptied in recent years. Again I ask: how did it get here and why? I'd be best to bring my collection of litter back to my own stash of garbage, which will obviously mean crossing the street with it back to my car in the Fortinos parking lot where, I'm pleased to note, I still remember the location of my car.

The beauty of this walk is that I can insinuate myself back and forth between the green space and the back alleys of large box buildings, through friendly pedestrian gateways like these:

Friendly pedestrian gateway
Friendly pedestrian gateway

as though I were a needle moving in and out of a lush fabric.

Finally I leave the green-space for good and am back to my old familiar world of harsh directives.

Sign: THESE PREMISES ARE PROTECTED BY VIDEO SURVEILLANCE
Sign: THESE PREMISES ARE PROTECTED BY VIDEO SURVEILLANCE

Fine; you monitor me, I'll monitor you.

It fascinates me that the signs I come across in my journeys always forbid me from doing things. They don't thank me or couch their expectations of me in words befitting a human reader with human feelings. Never, for instance, have I seen: Oh, Hi there, nice to see you taking some time to chill out and enjoy the fresh air! Feel free to enjoy the shade of that tree that should be directly behind you, as you read me. Just don't upset those staff members who come out here to smoke, or take anything, or leave a mess, and I'm sure we'll get along just fine. I wish we could talk further, but I'm out of space.

Close to my home, there is a sign I pass regularly and whose harshness has always struck me:

Sign: RESERVED PARKING PRIEST ONLY UNAUTHORIZED VEHICLES WILL BE TAGGED OR TOWED AWAY
Sign: RESERVED PARKING PRIEST ONLY UNAUTHORIZED VEHICLES WILL BE TAGGED OR TOWED AWAY

With the words "PRIEST ONLY" outlined in red, this tells me the priest isn't someone I want to mess with. But this sign hangs out with the priest regularly, or at least hangs out with the priest's car, which must be a fairly holy and benevolent vehicle. You'd think some of that might have rubbed off on the sign, and the sign might instead come to say:

Look, I realize all the other parking spots are taken, and I agree that this would be an excellent place to park. But considering all the priest has given to the congregation - not least to you; remember back when you were a self-indulgent youth with an addiction problem? - don't you think you could find some parking down the street? I know you know it's been particularly hard for the priest since his hip replacement, even though he never complains about it. I'm not going to insist upon it or anything, I'm just leaving it to you to make the right choice.

The sign could still quote that edgy bylaw at the bottom in a small font as a kind of extra nudge in the direction of righteousness. Sure, it's a lot of text, but maybe in the future each of us will walk around with something like a portable optical mouse, and you'll just place it on any sign you see and it will take you right into a website with a personalized text that not only encourages you to obey the law, but also reinforces your general sense of civic responsibility. It can all be geared to your age level and degree of personal maturity. I tell you, it wouldn't surprise me given all the advances they're making with wireless.

On the other hand, perhaps the fact of signs speaks of a society in which everything is permitted unless expressly forbidden; that for the stretches of walk during which I see no signs, I am free to indulge any whim which occurs to me. I wonder how many places in the world a person is allowed that!

As I bring myself from thoughts of signs back to the present, I notice that there is a delightful collection of trees back here.

The trees in this alley seem to say, 'Please sit for a moment and enjoy our shade while our organization videotapes you.'
The trees in this alley seem to say, 'Please sit for a moment and enjoy our shade while our organization videotapes you.'

I understand there are regulations requiring businesses to impose a certain number of trees on their property, and obviously planting streetside is difficult as it interferes with parking. This is a particularly diverse and inviting collection of trees here out behind the loading dock, and compellingly spaced. They say to me: Please sit for a moment and enjoy our shade while our organization videotapes you.

I do just that, but only for a few minutes, and then I move back to James Street, with my big bag of litter.

On the day of my first journey I took an odd series of turns and found a long corridor of grass at the end of which was a single house. By the time I got close enough to read the sign posted below a basketball hoop I noticed one of the residents standing there, immobile, watching my approach. By that point I decided that it would be more suspicious to turn and walk away, without introducing myself, so I apologized for coming this way, and asked if I should turn around or if it would be alright to pass along her driveway, since I had come this way unknowingly and in good faith.

She answered, "This time," and watched me silently as I passed within a few feet of her. This was such an unsettling experience I certainly didn't want to repeat it on my second day along here, although I couldn't resist getting a zoom shot of the sign from about half a mile away.

NO TRESPASSING on ... the basketball net
NO TRESPASSING on ... the basketball net

Looking at an expanded detail of the photo from the safety of my office, what strikes me is that the words No Trespassing now seem to address an encroaching basketball, daring to violate the airy whiteness of the hoop's mesh, and who, as if basketballs knew what No Trespassing meant, would stop mid parabola, read the sign, and withdraw - as it would on rewinding videotape - back to the hands of the person who launched it.

Would that signs could have such an affect on non-human entities. We might then set them up on paths to the graveyard and stop death in his tracks.

Mark Fenton lives in Hamilton and works in transportation logistics. He is the author Pim, a children's book for all ages. The eponymous Pim tweets daily @PIMSLIM_. A physical copy of Pim will be published soon and in the meantime Pim is available as a Kindle e-book which you can buy. Mark maintains a website at www.markfenton.ca.

7 Comments

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[ - ]

By adrian (registered) | Posted May 26, 2006 at 23:53:23

I love these photo essays. Congrats on your best photo tour yet: wickedly funny, entertaining and brilliant.

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By JM (registered) | Posted May 29, 2006 at 13:26:11

The cemetery is the Ryckman family plot (hence Ryckman's Corners)

The transcription of the stones is online at http://interment.net/data/canada/ontario...

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[ - ]

By dolphin (anonymous) | Posted May 30, 2006 at 00:24:57

Wow. A mind like that could survive all kinds of modern travesties.
Excellent essay.

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By fastcars (registered) | Posted June 03, 2006 at 00:14:11

Mark--That's a Starbucks in the 1500 block of Upper James. The Second Cup is further north, in the 1400 block.

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By Bleedin'Heart (anonymous) | Posted February 07, 2007 at 02:56:58

I could not comment on the last photo journal
(Ancaster Business Park)because the last photo goes allllllll the wayyyyyy downnnnnnn the
paaaaaage.
All of these pieces are priceless & wonderful takes on the 'outer limits' of Hamilton.
The Ancaster 'Baby Bird, or Arrow sign' -yeah.
It's hard to decide what it resembles. Maybe a baby bird being squashed by an arrow?

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By Genghis (anonymous) | Posted September 03, 2007 at 21:17:39

"Look, I realize all the other parking spots are taken, and I agree that this would be an excellent place to park. But considering all the priest has given to the congregation - not least to you; remember back when you were a self-indulgent youth with an addiction problem? - don't you think you could find some parking down the street? I know you know it's been particularly hard for the priest since his hip replacement, even though he never complains about it. I'm not going to insist upon it or anything, I'm just leaving it to you to make the right choice."

Or modified to read "Deserved Perking"

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By rjyourwood (registered) - website | Posted March 19, 2012 at 03:21:41

Nice tour that you have brought us on. I felt that the dilapidated area has plenty of room for improvements. Those back roads and pathways can be revived, and I think houses and even shops can be built so that area can be brought to life.

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