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Beneath the Gardiner, a soul-destroying wasteland lurks

No one willingly walks under the Gardiner Expressway. Beneath its crumbling arches, the elevated highway is as grim a place as you can find in Toronto. If you want to know what it's like to feel dehumanized in your own city, do as I just did and take a long stroll underneath the Gardiner – and then ask how anyone could argue that this ugly patch of urban rubble is the beginning of a better future.

"The possibilities are endless," says John Tory, visualizing everything that isn't there as he touts his plan to preserve the eastern section of the highway. I, on the other hand, have just experienced the reality, at dank and dismal ground level, and it shatters all that wide-eyed mayoral innocence. Our elevated highway comes across a lot more like a soul-destroying wasteland that insults the city in the very act of rising above it.

The long-running debate over the Gardiner's future has deeply divided Toronto's council, to put it mildly. The battle between the mayor's "hybrid" option and a more ambitious tear-down solution (which would see the elevated highway replaced by a broader boulevard) could reach an epic showdown at City Hall this week; after the first round Wednesday, council recessed with no decision.

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But at my humble pedestrian level, there's no need for sober second thought. The Gardiner is the enemy, a lofty, alienating force that treats me like I don't exist. You're not supposed to be here – that's my first lesson as I try to move forward under its arches. There are guardrails everywhere, channelling the speeding cars and trucks racing off the Gardiner's ramps onto its lower-tier counterpart, Lake Shore Boulevard. Much of the expressway's bad reputation, I have to admit, comes from this junior highway that helps to raise the Dante's Inferno feeling even higher. But someday, in that endless-possibilities world that city hall's utopians-of-convenience are promising me, Lake Shore will get its Champs-Elysées moment and become tree-lined, sophisticated and benign.

This I can almost believe. But even at my most credulous, I can't buy Mr. Tory's vision of a remade, happy-face Gardiner whose underside is replete with climbing walls and skateboard parks and pop-up cafés. Having walked from Spadina to the Don River, I can say with sad confidence that the distance is too great and the surroundings too dispiriting to attract more than a few in-fill projects, no matter how much money and ingenuity is invested/wasted.

I'm talking about this desolate netherworld as if it were a real place. But really, it's just an afterthought – what you're left with once you erect a 1950s idea of a futuristic viaduct to avoid the messy interactions of urban life. Look under your bed after ignoring it for 50 or 60 years – the effect wouldn't be so different. The creators of the Gardiner, lifting the automobile high above earthbound gridlock, refused to see the highway for the ground-level dead zone it so obviously was meant to be for a helpless pedestrian.

How can anyone not acknowledge all this awfulness? And why would they strain so hard to see its invisible good side? It's dark, of course, even on bright days. The permanent shadow cast by the elevated decks of the Gardiner discourages all forms of life. There are no plants, no bits of green to relieve the tedium of the packed muck that serves as the Gardiner's base – or landing spot for its crumbling concrete. Yes, you can build condominiums beside this highway, because people have to live somewhere. But every day the people who live there will have to cross through this accidental dystopia to get to the real city, and pretend not to notice how barren it all is.

We're good at that in Toronto – not seeing the ugliness we perpetrate in the interest of profit, progress and political compromise. I have to admit that I've got so used to turning a blind eye that I'd never paid much attention to the possibilities of Keating Channel, the mini-canal at Cherry Street that figures as a Venetian vision in the minds of developers who favour the tear-down approach to the eastern Gardiner; the mayor's hybrid version would keep the highway right beside the canal. And then a boat, perhaps even a fishing boat, motored by and I suddenly saw a rival world opening up along the lake, a real possibility and not a pretend one.

Having the Gardiner around enhances sensory neglect – it necessarily numbs our appreciation of our surroundings, to the point where we choose not to see them, or make them better than they are, or deride them for their inability to lower commute times. That selective anesthesia is everywhere in evidence around the highway, and I can understand why, because there's no benefit in paying attention. Having walked too far with my eyes wide open, I felt ill by the time I reached the Don River path. Fortunately, being on foot, I could get away fast – to the easy streets that welcome us lowly humans.

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