"The new spirit of Hamilton is what this celebration is all about. The spirit of Hamilton, in steel, concrete and glass, and in groves of trees, and a reflecting pool right in the heart of the city…

"There will be music for every taste. Fun. Refreshments. Discovery. And best of all, people. People like you who are excited about their new Hamilton. People who will someday say to their kids and grandchildren, ‘I was right there when the new Hamilton happened. On the Plaza of The Lloyd D. Jackson Square, on August 22, 1972!’"

- From a newspaper ad promoting the opening of the grand enterprise that was to save downtown Hamilton.

Next week Jackson Square turns 40. Middle-aged. Or, as things go in the world of retailing, positively ancient.

I didn’t arrive in Hamilton until the early ‘80s, so I can’t tell my children about that splashy rooftop celebration.

And, though I’ve seen old pictures, I don’t really know the places they tore down on that 48-acre spread in the heart of town to make way for the mall. Maybe we should have just left things alone.

But the city fathers were determined to modernize our old downtown and the Superblock that holds Jackson Square is what they came up with.

The developer that built it still owns it today, Yale Properties of Montreal. They have holdings across the country, but Jackson Square is the company’s only retail complex.

Never scared of competition

A quarter-century ago, I talked to Emil Mashaal, of the family that owns Yale. The Eaton Centre was coming, right next door, with 100 new stores.

"We’re never scared of competition," Mashaal said then. "Downtown Hamilton has to stay competitive."

When the new Eaton Centre was added to Jackson Square, he predicted, "people in Brantford or St. Catharines who want to go to a large shopping area might consider Hamilton instead of Toronto."


A view of the Jackson Square construction along James Street North. Old neighbours like Zellers are gone. (Jackson Square archives)

Mashaal is still on the job in Montreal. I left him a message, didn’t hear back. But we know how things worked out. There was Lime Ridge Mall. Mapleview. Big-box power centres everywhere.

How’s Jackson Square supposed to compete with all that?

"Forty years ago, Jackson Square was a shopping centre with offices," says Jocelyne Mainville, leasing manager for Yale in Hamilton. "Now we’re a mixed-use complex."

Schools where there were stores

She’s gotten creative with space that wasn’t performing anymore and in recent years brought in Liaison College chef school, the Suzuki School of Music, College Boreal — a great place to brush up on your French.

You can go to the dentist at Jackson. The bank. The tailor. The travel agency. The food court. About 24,000 people work downtown, 4,000 in the Yale-owned office towers that rise over Jackson Square. They can use services like this.


Jackson Square managers Scott Kyle and Jocelyne Mainville aim to keep adding to the mix of services offered at the mall. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

But if they’re looking for national chains, it’s a leaner selection today — Coles, Roots, Urban Planet, a few others.

The fashion sector faded at Jackson. Dollarama, on the other hand, does great and just expanded. You can say that’s Hamilton, but the chain is a category-killer wherever it goes.

Lots to like

The truth is, I like Jackson Square.

I like the way it bustles at noon hour. I like how it keeps me cool or warm or dry — the way no power centre can. I like the plump jam-filled doughnuts at Denninger’s. I like getting my printer ink at Grand & Toy — which closed its suburban mall locations here.

I like The Source, which I still call Radio Shack. I bought my iPhone there and they took lots of time to show me how that little marvel works. And I sure like the cinemas — the only ones we’ve got downtown.


Colleen Gleeson, Jackson Square regular, visits the mall's anniversary gallery. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

Colleen Gleeson is at Jackson on this day. She’s retired from human resources at McMaster. She does not go to Centre Mall or Mountain Plaza anymore. "Not since they ruined them," she says." Both have recently been converted to Big Box, with great plains of asphalt separating the stores.

She comes down here, gets her nails done, stops at the market, maybe has lunch.

Name one change

And what could they change to make Jackson Square a better place? "The people outside," she says.

Ah, yes, the world beyond the front doors. No quick fix there.

For a week though, the mall is determined to celebrate. It won’t be a party like they had 40 years ago, with a feast and then music by Hamilton’s own Tranquility Base.

Jackson Square manager Scott Kyle, 53, was actually there. His father worked for Seagrams and was helping the Chicken Roost run the party on the Plaza. It finished at midnight with fireworks.

Not so splashy this time. But near the King and James entrance to the mall, there is a gallery of photos from when the mall was going up. It’s very interesting. The real treat, however, is high above the mall.

Most of the top half of the 24-storey Stelco Tower has been empty for years — which is a tale for another day. But on Aug. 22 Jackson Square will take people up on a normally out-of-bounds elevator to the 21st floor.

The view there is 360 degrees, the best around. Go up, look down, check out this town — and try to guess where we’ll be in another 40 years.

Paul.Wilson@cbc.ca | @PaulWilsonCBC

You can read other CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson here.