When City Building is a Lost Art, Vigilantes Must Save the Day
If the rise in urban vigilantism is any indication, city residents are mad as hell and they’re not gonna take it any longer.
Who can blame them?
But no, we’re not talking about the cacophony from the usual kvetchers and malcontents — anti-vaxers, right-to-lifers, Freedom Convoyers — we’re referring to a new breed of anonymous downtown vigilantes who wander the darkness quietly, politely, discreetly, doing what they can to reclaim the city from the forces that have taken it hostage. For the most part, that means fighting the vehicular invasion that has left vast swaths of the public realm inhospitable, often dangerous, for human usage.
These vigilantes are determined to make streets safe and the air breathable. They paint crosswalks, install pylons and plant trees — all without permission. Tired of waiting for the city to respond let alone act, they take things into their own hands.
Other nocturnal stalkers have launched a campaign to rid neighbourhoods of SUVs, 4x4s and other over-sized, heavily-polluting space hogs by deflating their tires. In a car-addicted city like Toronto, that would easily be worth a 911 call. No surprise there; for the mine’s-bigger-than-yours set, a ute with four flats — deliberate flats — is nothing less than a form of vehicular castration. Not just humiliating, but painful.
Fortunately, for local SUVers, The Tyre Extinguishers have yet to establish a Toronto cell. Based in the U.K. this merry band of protesters is active in more than 13 British cities from London and Liverpool to Manchester and Brighton. Being English, they bring a sense of humour to their mission, which is to “disarm” SUVs and eliminate them altogether.
“We are people from all walks of life with one aim,” The Tyre Extinguishers explain on their website, “to make it impossible to own a huge polluting 4×4 in the world’s urban areas. We are defending ourselves against climate change, air pollution and unsafe drivers. We do this with a simple tactic: Deflating the tyres of these massive, unnecessary vehicles, causing inconvenience for their owners.
“Deflating tyres repeatedly and encouraging others to do the same will turn the minor inconvenience of a flat tyre into a giant obstacle for driving massive killer vehicles around our streets.
“We’re taking this action because governments and politicians have failed to protect us…. Everyone hates them apart from the people who drive them.”
Taking Safety Into Their Own Hands
When the Tyre Extinguishers open a Canadian branch, they will have to add the pick-up truck to its list of designated targets. Though these ridiculous and dangerous vehicles outsell all their competitors in North America, they have no place in the city except as working machines.
Until then, local vigilantes will have to be content to flout the rules by stencilling lines and icons to create impromptu (and illegal) bicycle lanes where none has been approved. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, a guerrilla group called Crosswalk Collective L.A. is busy painting striped street crossings throughout a city long ago handed over to the automobile. “The city doesn’t keep us safe,” the Collective declared on Twitter, “so we keep us safe.” That’s as true in Toronto as in L.A. Despite official disapproval — no surprise there — the group carries on regardless, posting pictures of its efforts and soliciting ideas and locations on its website.
“At every turn,” says the Collective, “we’ve been met with delays, excuses and inaction from our city government, as well as active hostility to safe streets projects from sitting council members.”
Sound familiar? Councillor Denzil Minan-Wong and his fellow dinosaurs at Toronto City Hall would feel right at home in La La Land. Civic bureaucrats there respond much the way they do here: reminding the hoi polloi that unauthorized street alterations are subject to summary removal. Instead, residents are told to take their paint cans home and cool their heels while indifferent officials decide whether or not they deserve a crosswalk, or other traffic-calming measures. People have died waiting both in L.A. and Toronto, where the city grants crosswalks only when it absolutely can’t refuse. Clearly, slowing speeding drivers takes precedence over pedestrian safety.
Across much of the city, the problem is that the post-war city was planned around the needs of cars and trucks, not people. The best example — or worst — is Scarborough, where fully 40% of all traffic deaths in Toronto occur. It is yet another reminder of the extent to which the dismal pseudoscience of urban planning has failed.
In an age when city-building is a lost art, it’s up to residents to fill the vacuum. At best planners, politicians, developers and real estate experts have a finger on one small part of a much larger puzzle. They see little beyond their own silo. They are the problem, not the solution. Just ask the vigilantes, someone has to save the city.
Christopher Hume, former architecture critic and urban affairs columnist at the Toronto Star, left the paper in 2016 to pursue other interests. He is currently working on several documentary projects and writing a book about the political history of 21st-century Toronto.