Sunday, September 22, 2002


Despite minor interventions by weather and some very large Hamilton police, Car Free Day was a huge success in Hamilton.

Precisely, at 3:00 pm, as 50 cyclists prepared to depart for a Critical Mass bike ride the lurking, massive grey clouds opened up and poured rain all over the place. The shower, which lasted only a few minutes failed to dampen the rider's spirits: the sun was soon shining again on cleaner streets as the ride coasted out of Hess Village and onto downtown Hamilton streets.

The ride snaked its way through the downtown, a traffic calming, pollution halting mass of cyclists, including young children, enjoying the safety and thrill of riding together on streets built to serve the speed of cars rather than the needs of sustainable transportation.

The ride flowed over Main, King, Bay, York, James, John, Wilson, Catherine, Hughson and, half an hour later, rolled in to King William street to begin a street party that would last the next two and a half hours.

The vision of children playing in a liberated street space is a powerful one. In an urban environment overrun by roads and motor vehicles and polluted with smog and noise, the sight of children chalk drawing, dancing, running freely and playing is a joyful sight.

Adults were experiencing the pleasure of the car free space by reclining on pavement covered with sod, by mingling and talking, laughing and dancing to live music and live Djs.

Cars coming upon the scene looked for an alternate route, while the few insistent drivers who didn't quite get the message were escorted through a crowd which gave way slowly to allow them passage. It was "street hockey" etiquette that put the car in its place by reversing the usual power structure that sees cars dominate and erode human spaces.

People passing by on the Barton bus looked with astonishment on a scene that jarred with the normal reality for auto-inflicted Hamiltonians: here were people reclaiming streets for human interaction, for people not cars, for clean air not smog, for life not death.

Approximately 40 minutes into the festivities the group was challenged by two Hamilton police beat officers who, after stumbling upon an unauthorized expression of joy, eventually called in backup to deal with the dancing, chalk drawing, bubble-blowing crowd of all ages. An SUV-sized Sergeant Harris arrived on the scene and after some quick sizing-up, informed the celebrants that while the event was likely illegal ("we're not going to quibble over it" he informed us- we had no permit - imagine, a permit to use your own streets!), the police would "give us a break" and allow the party to continue. He warned that we were "lucky this time."


Lucky were the people who like their streets safe, active and democratic. The one remaining bike-officer stayed for a short while and then disappeared to leave the car free crowd to their own non-automotive devices. With only the occasional undercover drive-by, the party continued with a musical line up which included local performers Luna Tico drummers, Steve Sinnicks, Hamilton's knitters of radical song the Raging Grannies, and Guelph-based DJ Skywok with DMS and Jesse Miller spinning awesome techno and house.

The Rude Native Bistro on King William was the anchor for much of the day, setting up an outdoor food table on their narrow patio (a car free street would allow for expanded patio space) and accommodated our requests by allowing musicians to plug-in to their power supply until the tardy portable generator arrived.

They understood the value of a people friendly space and were totally in support of the idea of car free city spaces.

The estimated one hundred people who braved the threatening weather helped to create a vision of a possible -- and if we are to save the planet, a necessary -- car free future. And of course a party to remember and build on.

Local bike-mechanics from Recycle Cycles set up a bike stand to do free bike tune-ups for lucky cyclists. For the past five years these volunteer mechanics have been running a bike-repair workshop in the basement of a church, taking donated bikes and fixing them up to sell cheaply to people who can't afford, or don't want, the latest high-end bike model.

Huffy the Clown, a regular at Car Free Days in Hamilton, was there creating balloon animals for grateful children, some of whom took advantage of free face-paint; and there was a rusty honda civic which was made available to receive painted messages signaling an end to the automobile age and calling for a sustainable transportation future: "Paint the Car into Oblivion" read the banner above the car.

Indeed, it seemed entirely possible during those few hours of car freedom.

Hamilton Indymedia was there. The McMaster Silhouette sent a reporter and photographer to cover the event for the student paper at the university. And although the corporate media was notified they failed to show. Hamilton's only daily newspaper the Spectator was apparently busy working on important breaking news items for Monday, with the following headlines destined for the front page: "Chief wants hookers off streets," "Halloween pumpkins smaller this year," "Autumn's here, and that's all there is to it" and "City wards get names for next vote." 
Recycle Cycles is always looking for volunteers to help repair bikes and learn bike repair skills (all skill levels welcome) Visit the shop in the basement of Erskine Presbyterian Church, 19 Pearl Street North (enter off Morden) Saturdays from 9:00am until 12:00 noon.

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