Today’s story was collected in August, 2011. My thanks to Adrian and Sophia for sharing their story, and for their dedication to building community. Welcome to my world, of the best stories ever.
This weekend, I’m at an international tournament at Dufferin Grove Park. Some of my interviewees are competing, so I feel obliged to come out. It’s bike polo, my new favourite sport.
For the majority of my bike interviews, I am unaccompanied. Today, my companion is a rat.
Rats are, far and away, the best companions. They’re intelligent, friendly, affectionate, logically inclined, kind and patient, clean. I have loved many rats without regret, so when I feel the whiskers against my forearm and see the bright eyes watching my face, I’m smitten. Boitsbeel is a caramel shade, with alert red eyes. He steps onto my page where my pen is poised and when his owner leans across to apologize, I wave off the kindness. Adrian Cohen-Gallant and Sophia Ilyniak are bemused at Boitsbeel’s unconventional approach.
“Do you two play bike polo?” I ask, since they are both into the rules and Adrian’s shoulder is badly road-rashed. He laughs and tells me that was from something else entirely. No, he doesn’t play.
“I really want to. My bikes are too nice for this.” He grins, embarrassed. He has a Peugeot Sprint from the ’70’s, and someone beside us suggests that it will get banged up. While Adrian and the competitor discuss bikes, I notice Adrian’s incredibly long dreadlocks, and Sophia’s shorter but equally stylish hair cut. Like absolutely everyone else here, they are both lean and muscular, so it’s no surprise I thought them polo players.
“Can I ask your ages?”
Sophia happily replies, “We are both twenty, and suffering students at college.”
Adrian’s comments to the competitor become technical, and he turns to me when I look surprised and tells me he is a machinist, so getting into bikes was easy. He volunteers with Bike Pirates.
“Oh! I just interviewed Geoff!” I tell him animatedly. The conversation mysteriously turns to ghost bikes, and the bike book magic takes over again. Adrian and Sophia have found an intriguing way to recycle these bikes, once a monument is dismantled.
“Near the corner of Dufferin and College, there’s as a piece of good accidental urban planning,” Adrian says. “Behind the rows of apartment buildings is a big, open lot, where everyone has a place to relax and be a community.” Children, parents, students, single moms sit together, enjoying the sun.
Two years ago, a Green P parking lot was erected here, at the behest of a nearby community centre. The centre needs parking for its monthly events. On their website, the Toronto Parking Authority claims that it “contributes significant revenues to the City’s general reserves while successfully meeting its mandate to provide safe, attractive, conveniently located and competitively priced off and on-street public parking, which is required by commercial strips and neighbouring residential areas to survive.” And, this really is a “green” Green P. The ticket dispenser is solar-powered. The lot was designed so that groundswell drains off into strategically placed flowering gardens, at either end.
I am concerned when I read further down that “the Parking Authority has been successful in ensuring that businesses in these areas continue to grow and the neighbourhoods remain vibrant” because the parking authority has discouraged the spontaneous community gatherings. Does ensuring that a business grows by giving it more parking spots naturally result in a neighbourhood remaining vibrant? I beg to differ, but maybe I’m old-fashioned.
Adrian and Sophia decided to symbolically and literally lay stake to the land. In the Green P bed, which was only maintaining a few straggly trees, they planted a large community garden. It is the day after the bike polo tournament, and I have ridden over to see this wonder. The garden includes raspberries, beets, peas, bok choy, and a variety of herbs. People snip off bits from the herb garden for their dinners, and Adrian has become a “veg pusher.” He delivers produce to his delighted neighbours, as things ripen.
In the centre of the garden is a canopy, under which is an old wooden table and some mismatched chairs. Sophia proudly tells me this is named the Dragon Alley Community Garden, and someone declares, “It’s amazing what you can do with a parking lot.”
There are baby showers, birthday parties and dinner parties celebrated under this canopy. A couple of days ago, Sophia discovered a group of young girls—from a range of backgrounds and ethnic groups—working on crafts together at the table. Some of the area children never get outside otherwise, because their parents worry about the traffic on Dufferin. This small utopia affords a safe haven for kids to play, to accept differences in others, and to discover themselves.
To protect the garden from vehicular traffic, Adrian erected a fence of discarded ghost bike frames and wheels.
“The ghost bikes continue to protect people—and their interests—from cars,” Adrian says. The fence has been taken down because someone complained about the design, but bike wheels continue to encircle much of the garden, vigilant.
“People just don’t understand that we’re trying to build and respect the neighbourhood’s need for safe space,” Adrian explains gently.
“Are people who park here miffed at the garden?” I ask. Sophia says most drivers comment on how beautiful the garden looks. Of the thirty-five available spots, only four or five are ever used.
A seven-year-old comments, “They built this so people could park their cars, but we just come here and play.”
People arrive spontaneously, bringing freshly squeezed lemonade and glasses. Children stand quietly behind, wanting to be part of happenings. Many are well-read and articulate, eager to make friends.
A black cat brushes against my leg. His name is Blanche. Boitsbeel climbs around Sophia’s shoulders, heedless. She found him at a pet store, waiting to be fed to a lizard in the window, so she intervened. Sophia offers Boitsbeel water from the lid of her water bottle.
“It’s like a modern-day agora!” I exclaim. Adrian laughs, because Romans used that word to describe the birthplace of democracy, hardly what the Green P authorities are nurturing.
Sophia has had numerous meetings with the authorities. At first they insisted she remove the garden entirely. Now, they just want the canopy taken down. They argue that the garden is a liability issue and insist a neighbourhood association be formed and that they buy insurance, in return for which the authority will provide a ten-by-ten garden planter. Adrian calls this tokenism and refuses to do anything about insurance unless they offer him authority on the land. And then he laughs.
“It’s just a garden!” to which I think “No, it’s a vibrant, but misunderstood community.”