Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Day We Took the Gardiner


Half an hour at the top of the city



When I think of the great moments of liberation in my lifetime—Paris in May ’68, the Berlin Wall in ‘89, Lynn Hill freeing El Cap in ‘94, the tens of millions of principled Americans refusing to participate in federal ‘elections’, and my decision to feel okay about having a fourth cup of tea just now—the Freeing of Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway on May 30, 2008, by 340 cyclists, stands out as possibly the most exhilarating because it was so spontaneous.  And Liam, who’d just turned eight, and Sebastian, twelve, were in the middle of it.  Eva-Lynn and I rode herd, making sure we were on the squish side of any trouble.  And the thing is, it was glorious.

 Well, skyways are designed for effulgence, make no mistake about it.  Loft, that’s what they get, in Chicago or Manila or wherever skyways are to be found, and if that’s not a prayer, exactly, it’s as close as you can get to heaven in a car.  In the middle of the last century, the Manhattan freeway designer Robert Moses had a beautiful idea, to arc heavenward with steel spans above all the problems of logistics and class, to disembody Henry Ford’s basic machine and spiritualize it as a sort of pure energy.  Of course it didn’t take a rocket scientist—and there were plenty of them around in that period as well—to figure out the havoc this essentially religious view of the automobile was going to wreak fifty feet down below on the surface of the planet.  Viewers of the sci-fi movie Bladerunner, for example, will have seen an excellent approximation of the dripping rusted hulk that is Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway.  We now know that Robert Moses was a criminal about whom the best thing that could be said was that at least he was an organized criminal.  The worldview of the woman who stood up to him, Jane Jacobs, has been vindicated, but the landscape of North America—of the world--is still cluttered with these vast relics, so ugly as to be almost sublime, like vestiges of some Stalinist five-year plan.  Nevertheless you can’t help but feel that, if you ignore the devastation caused by skyways, there’s something deeply poetic about the notion.  Or there would be, if you could get rid of the cars.


We took the Gardiner last night.


How can I describe to you the hush that came upon us when we realized that we’d done it?  And who, exactly, had done it?  Was it not a collective idea of three hundred and forty people, a moment of solidarity so intense as to share in the best of serendipity and consilience?  Was it not the destiny written into the script of the Gardiner long ago at the very moment of its creation, that one day three hundred and forty people would be born aloft upon the hopes and dreams of all those who have seen a vision of a better world?       There’d been no plan, certainly.  Three hundred and forty people riding along are just some traffic, and there are no leaders in such a flow of energy.  There is just the energy itself.  But perhaps some synergy in our collective consciousness of the world hit a critical mass, and there was no longer thinking, but pure thought.  Lane by lane, the Gardiner was closed.  Well okay, maybe I’m a little bombastic here (Sebastian comes in with a copy of the Sun as I’m writing this: 200 “Rogue Cyclists,” three arrests, front page spread “Bikers Block Gardiner,”) but I still get goose bumps remembering that moment when a sudden shout went up from the voices at the rear and passed to the front, followed by a hush.  We’d freed the Gardiner.


“We’ve taken the Gardiner” was on everyone’s lips.


For half an hour we rode along the top of the city, the lake with its precious fossil water on our left, the classic views of the urban core on our right, the tight cluster of skyscrapers and the CN Tower.  For a little while a great sailboat kept pace with us, its sails plumped out like the belly of a fat Buddha.  And in the midst of it all, Liam.  If you’ve seen some of the pictures of the event on the web, you have to look closely for Liam, because he was so hunkered down in the middle of it.  But everyone was calling encouragement to him.  His wheels are so tiny that his bike wobbled on the down grades.  But long after he’d doubled, tripled the distance that counted as the most he’d ever ridden in his life, he pedaled on.  I could have gotten him into the trailer, but he insisted on going the distance.  We couldn’t come off at the first ramp because the cars, jammed up with their own traffic mess below, were clogging the way.  So we went on to the next, and that took us pretty much across the whole city, into the westering sun.  Everyone was festive—even the drivers of the cars behind us were jocular, or at least philosophic.  The only exit into the heart of the city was backed up, probably like it always is on a Friday evening, so it’s not like they were going any place quickly, in any event.


For half an hour, then, peace on the Gardiner, a world with some justice.  A place for children instead of cars.  Simple joy in being.  City drifting past below. We joked about going on to the next city, to the end of the world.  But we’d seen the best of the city, and we came off at the Dunn exit.  The last five minutes were marred by a policeman ramming an American car through the rear cyclists—what is it about Canadians and their lack of irony about using big American cars to do their dirty work?—and accelerating to expressway speed up the left lane, scattering people.  It was a dangerous stunt.  I suppose he was trying to make a point, something about how cities should be for cars instead of people.  I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, and hope that he’s young and doesn’t understand how dangerous cars are.  Maybe he has had little experience with what gruesome accidents look like.  I trained on an ambulance and spent time at roadsides picking people off the sides of trees.  My nephew took two and a half years to die from a car accident.  It’s unsettling, as an American grateful to be living in Canada, to see the police acting like this, though I suppose it should make me feel nostalgic for my big American cities. There was already a police presence at the Dunn exit—what possible use could this dangerous display of power be for other than to intimidate people who are trying to find new ways of living in the world?  This man may well get away with such behavior, but the contrast between the dangerous activity of the police and the orderly way in which the cyclists had taken the Gardiner, lane by lane, was not lost on Sebastian.  The next generation has eyes, and they’re using them!  As Eva-Lynn pointed out later, that half hour on the Gardiner was the safest bike ride the boys have ever had.  Most riding in the city is a more or less desperate attempt to keep out of the way of inconsiderate drivers.  The funny thing is that, by a strange coincidence, the headline in the Toronto Star earlier in the day had proclaimed that even the mayor of Toronto had admitted that the Gardiner should be torn down. The rest of the story had been about various attempts to water down this admission so that it wouldn’t take effect right away.  As Jane Jacobs pointed out in her last book before she died—keep in mind that she had fled Manhattan for Toronto during the Vietnam War—the Gardiner does no one any good.  By dumping high volumes of traffic into the one-way streets of the urban core, it slows traffic across the city.  Well, I’ve written elsewhere about my plans for the Gardiner, which would be to make it for gardeners.  There should also be a nice writing studio set up in the center lanes for Scott Gardiner, the Canadian writer who is much more talented than the fairly dull regionalists Atwater and Munro, and whose latest novel includes a scene in which the king of Canada makes his palace out of the grain elevators near the Gardiner.


As we rode back through the neighborhoods and finally pulled out at Dovercourt and headed north up the hill, we all called to each other with the kind of love you have for people with whom you’ve seen paradise.  Perhaps such affection is not very deep, but it is lustrous nevertheless.  Liam finally faltered on the hill, and we tried to get him in to the trailer, but he rallied and with the last of his strength made it home.  He’d done a full circuit of the whole of downtown Toronto on a miniature bike.  


There has to be a morning after.  Sebastian got online and consulted the official stories of the Toronto newspapers.  It’s hard to imagine a better education for a boy than to read what the newspapers say about an event at which he has been a participant.  “But that’s not true,” Sebastian has been saying every few minutes, as the papers add yet another centimeter to the Pinocchio’s-nose version of the event.  “Inspired by actual events,” we joke.  It’s like in Henry IV, I think it is, with Falstaff’s rendering of his encounter with pranksters in the dark.  With every telling, Falstaff becomes more and more the hero of the event.  As our own day goes on, the police, in a continuously revised official account perhaps bolstered by one too many donuts, gradually emerge as the heroes, and the cyclists as more and more irresponsible by not planning the event, yet paradoxically culpable because they are schemers who plotted the event.  The number of bikers shrink as the day goes on, but paradoxically their powers seem to increase. By early afternoon the cyclists have become rogue bikers.  I suppose by suppertime they’ll be terrorists. 


The official account of the day we took the Gardiner reminds me of what someone was saying yesterday to me at a coffee shop about how the Canadian national weather service recently managed to improve its weather forecasts by over fifty percent.  “How did they do that?” I asked.  “It was simple,” the guy said, “they put in a window.”



David Ker Thomson is the homonym of David Ker Thomson.  A homonym has the same spelling as a given name but a different meaning.



♀►☺Ω☻◄♂ said...

Incredible retelling of the evenings events. I highly suggest sending this to NOW Magazine. Excellent job.

♀►☺Ω☻◄♂ said...

Nevermind then! ha

sagetyrtle said...

We missed the Gardiner (we'd have been in the front lines if we'd been there) but I would love to read this essay on my podcast. Can you let me know if that's all right?

zhozh said...


Your writing is beautiful. Loved Against Bike Lanes, which I saw at Counterpunch. Am also an ex-pat American Princeton alum (in Winnipeg)who likes to claim his part of the lane when en bicyclette.

I don't know if this post gives you a way to contact me, but if so, please feel free to.

mistah charley, ph.d. said...

I just read "Against Bike Lanes" and would like to add this fragment of autobiography.

Boston, MA, Commonwealth Ave, early 1970s, mid-afternoon. I was riding my bicycle between the parked cars and the traffic lane. The passenger side door of a car stopped at a light opened and I ran right into the door edge with my chest (the corner impacted in the general area of my heart.) Everyone involved - myself (then in my mid-20s), the car passenger, the car driver - was surprised, some of us more than others.

I did notice, however, that although I had a pain in my chest and trouble catching my breath, that the car driver had only one and 3/4 arms - I did not observe him closely enough to decide whether this was a congenital condition or a result of trauma.

I walked the bicycle home (the front wheel was bent) and never rode it again.

And while I'm at it, I'd like to mention my catchy acronym MICFiC -
for the

M ilitary
I ndustrial
C ongressional
Fi nancial
C orporate Media Complex -

a conspiracy to use, abuse, and confuse the people, to "milk, shear and slaughter the sheeple", figuratively speaking - except that the slaughter is literal.