How the Gardiner Expressway Became the 156th Wonder of the World
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How the Gardiner Expressway Became the 156th Wonder of the World

Toronto's movie mayor muses on our city's finest architectural feat.

Legend has it that the shape of the Gardiner Expressway precisely mirrors a varicose vein on the leg of Fred Gardiner, its builder.

I was around City Hall at the time, in the mid-50s, though I never glimpsed Fred’s naked flesh below the waist. But I can only thank heaven that the expressway wasn’t inspired by the vein that bulged on his forehead when he was in an apocalyptic rage—otherwise, drivers would now be ending their commutes in international waters south of Centre Island.

I have little patience for those who now rail against this temple of tire marks, this edifice of en routed-ness, this plateau of pre-parking, for it is one of our city’s most endearing and cuddly public works.

Indeed, if not for the shortsightedness of dreary pedestrianazis and gormless politicians, the Gardiner Expressway’s full glory would be ours to behold, and to be fiscally beholden to.

Who amongst us has not dreamt of ascending to the sky, rising above the grime and the gum, to see the world as the gods must have done so (albeit gods satisfied with a modest height for their Olympian perches)?

And to sit astride a city, all the while ensconced in a 1963 Chevy Biscayne, a metallic-smelling breeze caressing your cheeks as Ritz Crackers, cheroots, and the latest issue of Canada’s only celebrity magazine, General Hooray, linger at your fingers—well, what else, other than democracy and fat-free salami, could one want?

The Gardiner’s sexy narrow-waisted design means that drivers progress at a speed that allows them to contemplate life in all its mystery: why am I here? Who is that idiot ahead of me? Why do other drivers ignore my turn signals? Can anyone see me scratching myself down there? And so on and so forth.

In Fred Gardiner’s original Speer-like vision, this expressway would have connected to 17 other new asphalt cousins, linking the far-flung wastelands of Leaside (via the Chick Chesterfield Parkway) to the denuded slush fields of Forest Hill (via the Lorne Greeneway), from the psychiatric wards of Etobicoke (via the John Diefenbaker Becauseway) to the chipmunk-infested flea markets of Scarborough (via the Avro Arrow Aqueduct). The shade these crisscrossing aerial roadways would have provided to 83 per cent of Toronto might have kept our sun-shy Scottish citizens pale, but such is the price we pay for progress.

And while many gripe about the claustrophobic and clammy gloom beneath the Gardiner’s mighty arches, they would do well to consider what economic engines were once planned for there, including the British Commonwealth’s first drive-thru divorce court, high-speed grease traps, manslaughter morgues, and a student driver reform school. We can only dream of these now.

Aeons from now, archaeologists in their platinum future pants will uncover the glory that was the Gardiner, and wonder to themselves, “How could they build something so exquisite, and then fail to finish it?”

(By the way, the Gardiner will be closed this weekend for repairs on its balsa wood and plasticine underpinnings.)

Bert Xanadu is Toronto’s movie mayor circa 1973. Follow him on Twitter @moviemayor.