Where is the beating heart of Hamilton’s cycling culture? I’d look for it back in a time when everything needed to be done.
I don’t exactly remember the first time I met Neil Croft, but he came to the small Recycle Cycle volunteer bike repair group we formed in 1997 as the culture bringer, the poet-philosopher muse of the fledgling freewheelers.
Like a series on handmade postcards that Neil was famous for sending, I picture him in key culture creating moments. There he is on CHCH TV, a bit reluctantly in the spotlight, riding out to a huge empty warehouse, searching for a space for Recycle Cycles’ first home. We eventually settle in the basement of Erskine Presbyterian Church, still there today, I’d add.
|Neil arrives early to Hamilton’s first Critical Mass ride, May 1998
– photo courtesy Heather Croft.
In May 1998, Neil has risen to the occasion of Hamilton’s first Critical Mass bike ride, a concept he introduced to us after experiencing Toronto’s version. Neil gave us our slogan for the first poster advertising the inaugural ride: “subvert the dominant paradigm.” This bit of linguistic ingenuity sent us scrambling to the dictionary before leafleting McMaster campus bikes with subversive invitations. Already tall, he’s towering above the 60 plus cyclists gathered in Westdale in a homemade costume with a towel cape, the crowning article a custom construction helmet with a bicycle wheel mounted on top, slowly spinning horizontally adorned with colourful pompoms as we pedal Main Street toward downtown in afternoon rush hour.
Neil was our best mechanic, helping people fix their bikes, and repairing and selling bikes at low cost from Recycle Cycles. Now monthly mass bike rides allowed more social time, and we came up with a bike-themed art show in collaboration with the Art Gallery of Hamilton. Neil included his prized bicycle in the show, an elegant gesture acknowledging both the utility and the beauty of bikes. A Toronto bike choir performed at the opening night.
Hamilton cycling in the late 1990s didn’t have much to offer in way of infrastructure: essentially no bike lanes, no bike parking, and only the city cycling committee representing cyclists. We quickly surmised whatever good ideas they had were too easily ignored by politicians when it came to act. We decided to become the unruly cousins.
Some of us who enjoyed the monthly mass rides formed Transportation for Liveable Communities (TLC) Hamilton in 2000 with the goal of advocating for cycling infrastructure. We coalesced around Car Free Day, and events quickly grew to fill a full week, including bike-films, bike “drive-in” movies at Gage Park, poetry readings, historical bike tours, “bus and hikes” to local waterfalls using HSR transit, the first women-only bike repair workshops, street parties and parking meter parties. Yes, we dropped quarters into meters, laid down sod, chess sets, boomboxes, offered free lemonade, and bike tune-ups while displacing cars for some grassroots community building. It was Neil who sacrificed his car-free-dom to drive and buy sod so we could create the comfortable green party space at the side of the King Street downtown.
Our Car Free Weeks were funded with an annual budget of less than $200 and entirely volunteer run.
An un-permitted street party on King William in 2002 featured an outdoor DJ booth, live music from Steve Sinnicks and the Raging Grannies, and “street hockey etiquette” to deal with any drivers who insisted in passing through the now green turf zone covering the pavement. While kids hand painted a car, the beat cops who came along decided it was easier to let us continue than to try and bust it up.
The original core group from Recycle Cycles started, grew and maintained almost 20 years of public activism that led to real improvements for cyclists and, importantly, made room for more cycling culture to develop.
At some point on the ride all your pedalling gets you over the top, and that is how you can measure success, when things speed up, when they get easier. The HSR fleet fitted with bike racks. Bike parking, bike lanes and paths all expanded dramatically since 1997. MaCycle, New Hope bikes, SOBI, Yes We Cannon! We watch a new generation of cycling advocates try and start something, perhaps with a slightly critical eye on a polite respectability a step removed from the grassroots actions we engaged in.
Neil, who was with us all the way is gone. At a memorial get together to share stories from his life, some of the old Recycle Cycles crew were reunited amidst the sadness of loss. We can’t fix this, can’t make grass grow on pavement, can’t ride together as a group to a better future, there are no tools to repair our sense of balance.
We’ve earned a time to coast and reflect on what we’ve accomplished, and consider what we may have lost along the way.
This article appeared in the Hamilton Spectator on Oct. 7/15