Heavy, wet flakes of snow were falling outside, and Dundas Street looked all shades of brown and grey. Adding to the scene was an abandoned, rusted Raleigh bicycle, which we were pondering from the dry and relatively warm front room at the OCAD U Student Gallery where we are the Program Coordinators. Together we started considering ways to use it as a pseudo sign-board for the Gallery in the springtime. It had a beautiful frame, complete with curved handlebars and a wire basket. A coat of bright paint and some greenery would be nice, we thought. Little did we know that this brainstorming session was determining our summer plans.
On a bright May afternoon the bike was sanded, primed and painted, much to the interest of passersby. Some were perplexed, asking us why we were wasting time painting a piece of garbage. Others told us the bike was a valuable antique and probably worth some money. A pair of policemen wandered over from the station at the corner and asked us we were up to. On hearing about our rusted bike they left, only to return later with a list of flower varieties that would suit the bike’s basket. Kids were the most enthused about the painted Raleigh, and many stopped to talk about its transformation. One girl asked us to paint her bike orange, and a number of others stopped to say “cool” or “sweet bike”. A passing elderly man waved his cane and exclaimed, “that’s one funky-ass bike you’ve got there”. One woman stopped us to shake our paint-covered hands and to thank us for making our street more beautiful. When the bike was completed, we watched from inside the Gallery as people gathered around the glowing bicycle to chat and take photos.
Our small, simple act of beautification morphed into something bigger thanks to the perfect storm that surrounded it. The climate in Toronto has been tense ever since conservative Mayor Rob Ford took office in December as he’s picked fight after fight with the “left wing pinkos” living in the city’s core. Liberal city dwellers take particular issue with his decidedly anti-bike and anti-art policies. Ford once referred to cyclists as a collective “pain in the ass” during a Council meeting, and he has publicly condemned their so-called “War on the Car” on several occasions. In June, his motion to remove the newly installed Jarvis bicycle lane became a reality. His cause is the bottom dollar and he denounces cycling safety as a waste of money, which seems contradictory when you consider that it will cost the City $200 000 to remove a bike lane that cost $59 000 to be installed. Unsurprisingly, Ford is not a patron of the arts either: In the spring, he announced a “War on Graffiti” that resulted in the removal of a barely completed, publicly funded mural in the Junction neighbourhood; and during the election, Ford was booed from the Art Gallery of Ontario where he spoke against the merits of public arts funding.