The Waterfront Night Market : The Good and the Not-So-Good

Years ago I went to a food focused festival, which lead me to conclude that that type of event wasn’t really my thing. I found it way too crowded and I didn’t see the appeal in lining up, over and over, for small portions of food which had been prepared right there on the street, and then trying to enjoy that food while being jostled along by throngs of people. However, based on the wild popularity of this type of festival in Toronto, I am in the minority with that opinion.

For over a decade, all those eager crowds were unable to convince me to try again — while I happily go to many festivals around the city, I’ve not been to a similar food-centric one since that one. That is, until this past Saturday when Nick and I biked over to the Toronto Waterfront Night Market. What drew me in? Without question, it was the location, the decommissioned electrical generating station called Hearn.

↑ We were on a spit of land about 6 kilometres to the east of downtown resulting in this view as we arrived. ↑

I photographed and wrote about this fascinating location (in this post) after going there last summer for the Luminato Art Festival, and was really keen to see it again, and to have Nick experience it too. It’s a mind-boggling and stunning location — a gigantic ruin complete with hanging cables, caved in ceilings and plenty of dust and dirt. While I was in there, I recall being surprised that we were actually allowed to be in there. It had danger written all over it.

So, it didn’t surprise me when, at the last minute, the city nixed plans to hold the Night Market inside Hearn this past weekend, forbidding any part of the event to be held inside, based on potential safety and fire issues. The three day event was still to be held there though, outside on the grounds. It must have been a massive challenge for the organizers to make major adjustments to their plans, mere hours before the festival was to open.

↑ When only a poop emoji soap will do! ↑

My overall opinion was positive and I’m glad we went.

The Good:

1) The Location – Note that this is also on the “Not-So-Good” list below : As mentioned, the fact that this festival was being held at The Hearn Power Plant was the main reason I wanted to go. And even though we didn’t get to see inside, it is an impressive sight from the outside. The 215 metre (705 feet) tall smokestack is the third tallest in Canada, exceeded only by Inco’s in Sudbury and a smelter stack in Flin Flon Manitoba. (Look at me, all knowledgeable on the subject of smokestacks. lol, I got that info from this wiki list.)

Since we rode our bikes, riding along the lake and therefore bypassing most of the traffic, we didn’t feel the full impact of the main complaint people had –more on that below.

2) The Darkness – Again, this is something on the “Not-So-Good” list, but the fact that this was a night market was the second reason I wanted to go. In short, I love going out at night and wish there were more events held after dark. It made for a unique surreal environment.

3) The Makers’ Market – While I understand that some of the vendors had pulled out after a rainy Friday night, in exposed circumstances which had resulted in ruined stock — see this story by the CBC about how they felt — there were some lovely items for sale. Creative people and the things they make are always on the good list for me.

4) The Food – This is where I admit that we went to a food festival but didn’t end up eating anything. Our reasons for that (included below) were not based on the fact that we weren’t hungry or that the food didn’t appeal. On the contrary, with some exceptions, the offerings looked very good and people were clearing enjoying the choices.

We did have a drink made 100% from a mixture of fresh mango and pineapple and it was delicious, though.

The Not-So-Good: (I usually try to only write about good things here, however, in this case, I don’t want to be recommending an event that won’t appeal to everyone, so will include some things that didn’t work.)

1) The Location – Made clear on Facebook comments, location was considered to be a major downfall by many people. Hearn is really hard to get to — this is a site in the middle of nowhere, that was abandoned for decades. The narrow and badly deteriorated access road, without any sidewalks, resulted in long line ups of cars coming in and out, and streams of people walking a long distance on the muddy shoulder because the shuttle buses were infrequent and over-crowded.

Also, since the grounds were mostly packed dirt and it had rained earlier in the day, there were many puddles to avoid and uneven places to walk. Anyone who’d worn nice shoes or sandals would have been upset. I’d worn a pair of flat shoes that I didn’t care about because I’d been there before, however I did see some ladies with ruined footwear and some having difficulty walking on the rough terrain.

This was the first year that the Night Market was held at Hearn, after seven years of it being further to the west, near the water (hence the word “Waterfront” in the name) in the parking lot of T&T Market on Cherry Street. I imagine they moved it so they’d have some inside space and then that didn’t work out after all. Many commenters much preferred the previous location.

2) The Less Than Friendly Reception – The entrance area was a confusing mixture of many cars and people moving in different directions, men with flashlights shouting and waving their arms, and buses idling. There was a palpable grumpy pall upon arrival.

There were a lot of bikes but nowhere for those who opted to ride over to safely park them. When I asked an attendant where we should put ours he told me they would be removing the bikes that had been locked to the chain-link fence in a lighted area. He suggested we go back and leave them beyond the entry point — in other words, bicycles weren’t welcome within the secured area. (Note: safe places for bike parking have become a common and expected feature of most events in Toronto these days. People are being encouraged to ride when they can and accommodations are being made for bikes, so it was surprising that racks weren’t available.)

Of course, biking is not a feasible option for all so, given the remote location, most people drove, and were clearly surprised by the $20 parking charge for an event that had been advertised as having “Free Admission”. A notice about the charge on their website and/or a sign set up on the road before drivers waited in the long stream of bumper-to-bumper traffic would have been a good idea. Drivers were annoyed and in the short time we were near the entrance area we saw several drivers choosing not to attend once they heard the price. Then they had to get back into the bumper-to-bumper traffic to get out of there.

3) The Darkness – As mentioned, Hearn is essentially an abandoned site, so there was very poor lighting beyond the areas with the booths and food-stands. Everyone was forced to stumble along quite a distance in the dark, to get to and from where the action was happening. People were tripping and slipping all over the place. As for us, we had the benefit of our bike lamps, which we’d taken with us rather than leave them unattended, and we walked really slowly.

4) The Horrible Smell – There was a very bad odor engulfing a large part of the food area. I think it was a combination of the exhaust from the food-trucks along the southern edge and maybe some port-a-potties set up a bit too close (sorry to be rude but that’s what it smelled like). I’ve also since read that a dish called Stinky Tofu likely contributed to the stench. Good grief, to each their own but if that was the tofu I can’t fathom how anyone would choose to eat it. It totally turned our appetites off, for sure.

I laughed on the way out when I overheard a woman say to her friend, “Yeah, it did smell bad there, didn’t it?”

5) The Tight Crowd – The food area was absolutely jam packed when we were there, (which was between 9 and 10 on the Saturday). At one point we could barely move in any direction and I felt claustrophobic and a little panicked. There was no way I could have stayed and ordered food.

6) No Place to Eat – I would have thought that a food festival would allocate some space where customers could go to enjoy what they’d purchased. People were forced to chow-down right there immersed within the crowd.

7) The Entertainment – While there was a large area set up with a big stage, all we heard while we were there were snippets of recorded music and a guy shouting what sounded like instructions into the mic. They might have been preparing for a band but we didn’t hear any live music.

So, with seven “Not-so-goods” versus four “goods”, will we go again next year? Yes, I believe we will. The good outweighed the bad for us and we found the Waterfront Night Market to be an interesting experience. Now, if it does go back to being held in a parking lot? Maybe not. The availability, or lack thereof, of Stinky Tofu might be the clincher!