AN ESSAY

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.

Our brightly painted bicycle was an act of graffiti that doubled as a neon beacon for cyclists; and so, naturally, the arts and cycling communities considered the yellow ticket that was stapled to the Raleigh’s frame some days later as a call to arms. The slip charged the OCAD U Student Gallery for illegally parking a bike on public property, and threatened to fine us and to destroy our bike if it wasn’t moved within seven days. Feeling saddened and helpless, we posted a placard in our window and a write-up on our blog, The Good, asking for help. At first we received a handful of touching, supportive emails from neighbours, friends and followers; but soon, our inbox was flooded with hundreds of such messages from as far away as Brazil and Australia, thanks to a feature on BoingBoing. As a symbol of Toronto’s politically divided populous, the ticketed bike was a hot topic. Local and national news outlets fed the flame and soon the City had no choice but to pay attention to our protest. Enter the politicians.

Adam Vaughan and Gary Crawford are the two City Councillors who took interest in our story early on. The fact that Vaughan and Crawford lob political hardball from opposite sides of the net inside City Hall speaks to the bike’s political charge. Councillor Vaughan was the first to call the Gallery to assure us that we needn’t worry about the ticket. He was quoted in our first Toronto Star article as saying, “It’s [Ford’s] war on creativity that’s underway. These spontaneous pieces of art that spring up in the city, this is what makes Toronto a great place, what makes it a vibrant culture, an interesting urban environment. There needs to be some discretion.” While we’re grateful for the initial support that Vaughan lent and for his continuing crusade against the Ford brothers’ policies, it’s worth noting here that the Councillor dropped our cause completely as soon as we began liaising with Gary Crawford on the related city-wide art initiative now known as The Good Bike Project. We never heard from Vaughan again; unless you count the request we received from his office some months later to remove a painted bike we’d placed on Albany Avenue in memory of Jane Jacobs. 

Our dealings with Councillor Crawford were no less confusing. We first met Crawford at the end of May when he walked into the Gallery to congratulated us on our bike’s sudden celebrity and to invite us to take our neon vision city-wide using bikes from the City dump. As cyclists and arts workers, we were excited about such an opportunity; but were also perplexed. Our neon bike was one part graffiti and one part cycling, and at that moment City Council had both in its crosshairs. As a practicing artists and Ford supporter, Crawford seemed an equally contradictory character. And so we started talks with Crawford full of both caution and optimism: perhaps this partnership would spark real dialogue and inspire change, we thought. 

It was at this stage that we conceived of the colour code and imagined how painted bikes, reclaimed from the garbage, could be used as colourful, coded markers of grassroots initiatives around Toronto. When The Good Bike Project was announced by Councillor Crawford at a City Council meeting in June, our understanding was that while we would receive no public funding, Crawford would connect us with the waste depot where impounded bikes are stored and provide us with the logistical support that we needed in order to realize our vision. That morning, when we stood to receive applause from the Council, we felt proud and excited. Our neon bike, which we’d been able to unlock after the long-lost owner gave us the key and her good blessing, stood out like a beacon against the grey suits and drab décor.

Our hearts sank soon thereafter when, against our express wishes, Mayor Ford initiated an impromptu photo-op with our bike, which we’d left on the floor of Council in order to field questions from reporters in the media gallery. Within minutes the image of Ford sitting astride our bright orange two-wheeler was all over Twitter and Facebook, making it easy for outsiders to confuse the initiative as the Mayor’s own. Ford’s agenda was confirmed the next day when we realized that his assistant, Tom Beyer, had started a Facebook page and Twitter account for our project, which he then insisted on managing for us. 

This sequence of events marked the first in a series of shortcomings and broken promises that left us largely alone to realize a project started at the City’s prompting. As it turned out, the City never connected us with sponsors, was unable to coordinate all of the bicycle deliveries we requested, and did little to help us transport bicycles to our project sites. To add insult to injury, Mayor Ford never replied to the letter we hand-delivered to his office, in which we advocated for the protection of the Jarvis bike lane and politely asked him to explain how he could support our project whilst also giving cyclists something to protest. Furthermore, no one from City Hall donated as little as one dollar to the campaign we started on the crowd-funding site, RocketHub. We worked on this project for part of every single day between June and October; and the City’s failure to sustain the fervor of interest and support of those early days shows a lack of respect and appreciation for the long-haul work of artists and art administrators. 

Countering the City’s luke-warm commitment to The Good Bike Project is the spectrum of extreme reactions we’ve absorbed from fellow Torontonians. The grievances that we hear most often relate to occupied bicycle parking spots and to the waste that we’ve created by painting bikes that could be repaired or salvaged for parts. Some critics have gone further, accusing us of “insulting and embarrassing children who can’t afford bicycles”, “bringing out the worst in the city’s cycling community”, and “blurring the meaning of ghost bikes, which commemorate fallen cyclists”. We’ve replied to all such notes, emails and phone calls in the hopes of either correcting misunderstandings or starting meaningful dialogues. 

From our perspective, we’ve painted rusted, broken, sad bikes from the City’s waste dump that were otherwise destined for our landfills. In doing so, we’ve given something that was considered garbage a second life, which we consider to be a good thing. Admittedly, it would have been great to work more closely with mechanics at the beginning of the project; but to be honest, the potential of this partnership didn’t occur to us until we began fielding responses from the cycling community. We’re happy that our painted bikes have helped identify a disconnect between our city’s dump and our city’s bike mechanics, and we’re currently working to close this gap by setting up a formal partnership between the two. It’s important to note that we’re cyclists ourselves and wish to see as many people on bikes as possible, which is why we worked with Bicycles Without Borders on a summertime fundraiser for their cause, and participated in this year’s St James Town Bike Redux event, where we gave away a usable bike in a pay-what-you-can raffle. 

To that end, it was always our hope that our project would bring attention to various issues facing our cycling community, including parking spots. We’ve not placed one good bike on a cycling ring, except for the original. Any painted bikes that were attached to a ring were abandoned there, and we painted them specifically to bring attention to the fact that abandoned bikes take up a huge number of valuable parking spots throught the GTA. Furthermore, U-Locks attach easily to immobile bikes, and many people did thank us for providing makeshift parking spot where there were few before. At the end of the day, the volume of negative feedback, which sometimes verged on rabid, can be seen in a positive light, as it is evidence of just how much people expect from artists. It’s impossible to address every public issue with one project, let alone to execute something perfectly; but that’s what it’s felt like has been demanded of us from the beginning. 

Though The Good Bike Project has come with a great deal of frustration and hate mail, the wonderful people we’ve met and the shows of support we’ve received all made for an enriching, uplifting summer. Our first feel-good day happened in Regent Park, where we hosted a painting day in early June. It was a scorching summer afternoon, and we didn’t know what to expect when we set up ten primed bikes in a parking lot at Dundas Street East and Parliament Street. Our first participants were Ellen Simpson and Mike Chang, who both worked diligently as a on the blue bike, which was later installed outside the Regent Park Community Learning Center. Our other hardworking participants were Deshawn Hurley-Phillip and Daniel Wright, a committed duo who completed one pink bike and one orange bike. This team had amazing energy; Daniel even spray-painted his sneakers and took away a couple of half empty spray-cans so that he could paint his skateboard. An hour or two into the event, a crowd of kids descended and there was much joking, a great deal of mess and a lot of questions. The pint-sized painting helpers were curious and eager to learn about how we started the project and about our colour code. Their enthusiasm and sense of engagement was affirming, and the entire afternoon was defined by a sense of cooperation, collaboration and sharing. 

That afternoon, a gentleman riding by on his bicycle stopped to ask after our lot of painted bikes. As fate would have it, Bruce Dawson and his partner Rachel Conduit are the proprietors of The Avro, a friendly neighborhood bar in Riverside that has its very own mobile-garden-tricycle. The Avro team heads up a rich community program that includes bike rides, tobogganing afternoons, and gardening events. Meeting Bruce and Rachel was a turning point for us as the duo has been supportive and encouraging every step of the way. They’ve rolled up their sleeves and helped us paint, they’ve tended to a bike basket garden, and they’ve even thrown in a couple of beers on the house. Connecting with Bruce and Rachel is just one example of how this project has made our world seem smaller, cozier and friendlier. 

Our guardian angels at The Bicycle Commons also shrunk our Megacity down to neighborhood size this summer. The Bicycle Commons is a quiet, dedicated organization that works to expand, empower and unify the city’s cycling community by organizing public workshops, bike repair classes and events.  Their chief representative, Ray, showed up at our doorstep one day to offer us bicycle locks and a helping hand. It was nothing short of serendipitous to meet him when we did, as our progress had been stalled by a combination of our depleting funds and the City’s inability to connect us with the corporate sponsors we’d hoped would supply us with locks. Ray solved all of our problems, dropping off seventy locks and securing a venue in Kensington Market for the bike-painting event that we’d already been forced to cancel and re-plan after yet another spat with City Hall. 

On that painting day in August, we met Ananya Bhattasali, a student at Sheridan College who was spending her summer holiday in the city. At the end of the afternoon, without promping, Ananya offered to continue helping us with the project. Having recently moved to Toronto from Bombay, she said that painting the bikes and seeing them on the streets helped her feel more connected to this new place. From thereon in Ananya was a constant companion, spending afternoons painting with us under the hot sun, and even in the pouring rain, in alleyways and parking lots. Without her enthusiastic energy and diligence, we’d probably still be painting bikes. Such was the nature of our summer, which was full of wonderful happenstances and new friends.

We’re unable to retell our every hardship, triumph and encounter; however, one needn’t look further than the bikes themselves to see the rich range of our experience: they’ve been tagged, re-painted, ripped apart and beaten-up; they’ve been stolen and recovered; some have been decorated with stickers, others with notes about loved ones; many bikes were marked with a distinctive white scrawl that read “not art”; and few were left untouched. Journalists seemed to take pleasure in painting this so-called vandalism as a sign of the project’s failure; however, we consider every marking, adornment and missing part as a sign of dialogue and engagement. The Good Bike Project was always supposed to be about mapping community, sparking conversations about Toronto The Good and seeking out the true meaning of neighborhood. Every email, comment, phone call, placard and flower was an exchange that showed us, if anything, that Torontonians don’t suffer from indifference.

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