Accidental Spaces

Accidental Space

Once again, these photographs were taken on my Nokia 6682 cellphone.

The next segment of my Yonge Street series will be delayed a bit as I still have to finish writing it. It’s well on its way, but I ask for your patience. In the meantime, here’s another urban-related article.

A few days ago, Erin and I had the opportunity to skip past a generic Wendy’s, and sample the hamburgers at the Hot Rod, er… diner, at the corner of King Street and River Road in south Kitchener.

It’s hard to describe this restaurant… actually, it’s rather easy to describe it; it’s hard to think of it as a restaurant, with its bricks and mortar. It’s actually a trailer, with a kitchen featuring a fridge and a deep fryer. It has two tables-for-two salvaged from some fast food joint, two screen doors, a few picnic tables, an adjoining extension and ice cream shop, and the torn-up pavement of a disused parking lot. This building would not stand up to the weakest tornado.

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However, eating here, we had what could well be the best burger and fries deal in the K-W area. We ordered a Hungry Hunke, which consisted of two cheeseburgers, a “family size” serving of fries, plus one drink. If this was intended to feed a single individual, it would have to be on a dare (the photographs, or carcasses, of individuals who eat the whole thing in under twenty minutes, are mounted on the Hot Rod Wall of Fame). Fortunately, the cook/owner did not object to สัตว์ใต้ท้องทะเลErin and I adding an extra drink and treating this as a dinner for two. The whole thing cost $15. The burgers were thick and juicy, the fries excellent and too numerous to finish.

I should also note that this place offers poutine, and a variety of different styles of fries. Newfoundland Fries are served with canned green peas, gravy, fried onions and salad dressing, and the West Coast Fries are served with ground beef and gravy.

What is remarkable about the Hot Rod is that it really shouldn’t be here. It’s obviously not intended to be here for a while. They don’t have a building, they have a trailer, renting space in an empty parking lot. The fact that the Hot Rod diner has been here for any length of time (at least a few years) is an accident of geography. The parking lot the diner is on is sandwiched between road and railway track, on a strip of industrial land in an otherwise inaccessible part of the city. There are some beautiful condominiums overlooking the Grand River to the west, but few demands to redevelop this particular spot. Any redevelopment would have to be quite creative to get around the space limitations.

The Hot Rod serves to remind us that the really remarkable businesses and buildings of our cities are often unplanned. Sometimes, they operate only because nobody else wants to use the space. They add colour to the area through innovation that neither corporate franchise nor official plan can offer.

Sadly, other parts of the city (with the exception of certain industrial areas) might object to Hot Rod operation. They might call it an eyesore, even if they furtively sneak in at night to order a quick bite instead of a Big Mac at the Golden Arches. If this parcel of land becomes valuable, people searching for the best fries in town will probably have to look elsewhere.

When I studied to be a planner, I learned that it was one of our duties to do our best to improve public space for the benefit of all. If we had derelict areas in our cities, our responsibility was to try and help redevelop it, either by removing the impediments that made the space undesireable, or by convincing the politicians to buy out the space and give it away to corporations or organizations that could put in the necessary investment to improve the area.

The problem was, if we were successful, and the land became desirable, then the free market kicked in. Property values went up, as did rents, and the poorest people of the area — as much our responsibility as the rich — could no longer afford to live there. And businesses such as the Hot Rod, which may well contribute some of the colour that made the area worth revitalizing in the first place, could be forced to locate elsewhere while the bland corporate franchises moved in.

It was a dilemma; how could we help the poorest of our constituents without pushing them out of the area with any success we might achieve? (Of course, failure just hurt them in the area they were living)

I never got a satisfactory answer.

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Exterior shot of the Hot Rod diner

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View of the parking lot and of King at River Road.

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