When I think of the great moments of liberation in my lifetime – Paris in May 1968, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 89 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 by 300 cyclists, ranks as possibly the most exhilarating.
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, 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 to figure out the havoc this essentially religious view of the automobile was going to wreak 15 metres below on the surface of the planet.
We now know that Moses was a criminal about whom the best thing that can be said is that at least he was an organized criminal. The world view of the woman who stood up to him, Jane Jacobs, has been vindicated, but the landscape of North America 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, if you ignore the devastation caused by skyways, that there’s something deeply poetic about them. Or there would be, if you could get rid of the cars.
We took the Gardiner last night.
How can I describe the hush that came upon us when we realized we’d done it? And who, exactly, had done it? Was it not a collective idea, 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 300 people would be borne aloft upon the hopes and dreams of all those who have seen a vision of a better world? There’d been no plan, certainly. 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. Rogue Cyclists Block Gardiner, the Sun headline the next day read.
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. “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, the tight cluster of skyscrapers and the CN Tower on our right. For a little while a great boat kept pace with us, its sails plumped out like the belly of a fat Buddha.
And in the midst of it all, Liam, hunkered down in the middle of it, everyone calling encouragement to him, his wheels so tiny that his bike wobbled on the downgrades. But long after he’d doubled, tripled the distance that counted as the most he’d ever ridden in his life, he pedalled on. I could have gotten him into the trailer, but he insisted on going the distance.
We couldn’t get 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, so it’s not like they were going anyplace quickly.
For half an hour, peace on the Gardiner, 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 our rear, scattering people. It was a dangerous stunt.
I suppose he was trying to make a point. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and hope he’s young and doesn’t understand. Maybe he’s 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 after 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.
As Eva-Lynn pointed out later, that half-hour on the Gardiner was the safest bike ride the boys have ever had. By a strange coincidence, a day earlier the mayor had proclaimed that the Gardiner should be torn down. The Gardiner does no one any good.
As we rode back through the neighbourhoods 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.
David Thomson is a professor of comparative literature at the University of Toronto.