A Bridge Over Troubled Politics

In the upcoming municipal election, I'm going to remember the symbolism of the bridge. I'm going to cheer for the great things that we can accomplish when we work together.

By Ned Nolan
Published October 21, 2014

A bridge is a powerful political symbol. It is an archetype of public infrastructure, the pooling of public resources to rise above shared obstacles. A bridge is a unifier, a bringing together of disparate communities. A bridge symbolizes breaking away from the status quo and building a better common space.

A few weeks ago my neighbours and I attended the official opening of the new Pearl Street pedestrian bridge, which spans the Canadian Pacific railway tracks near Locke and Hunter streets. After a long summer of noisy and dusty construction, this gorgeous public gift of hardwood and steel was finally unveiled. Our Ward 1 City Councillor, Brian McHattie, who is also running for mayor in Hamilton's upcoming municipal election, was there to cut the ribbon.

Ribbon-cutting for the Pearl Street Bridge
Ribbon-cutting for the Pearl Street Bridge

Almost immediately, the bridge was in use: Children walking to school, commuters walking to work, parents with strollers, dog walkers, cyclists, seniors. I use the bridge daily myself.

Where were we before our thirst for this bridge was quenched by the city? We were going further out of our way, using busier, more dangers streets and we were more disconnected from the neighbourhoods across the tracks. On the whole, we were experiencing a more mediocre city.

Power of the Status Quo

When I lived in Ottawa, my morning walk to the university took me about ten blocks out of my way to a noisy street that crossed the Rideau Canal. I heard some rumors about a pedestrian bridge being built in a more convenient location, but for now, this was my route and, as the cars whizzed by, I didn't really think twice about it.

We generally don't question the built space around us, we just shuffle through it. This road goes here. That road goes there. That's the power of the status quo.

Then, the City of Ottawa unveiled the new pedestrian thoroughfare. It led straight to campus. It connected to recreational trails along the canal. It was beautifully designed and landscaped. My morning commute went from 30 minutes to about 15 and it became an enjoyable, peaceful morning ritual.

When I think back to my years in Ottawa, I think of the views from that bridge overlooking the canal and my walk to and from school. And I never knew what I was missing until some visionary at Ottawa City Hall made it happen.

Like the Pearl Street bridge, the pedestrian bridge across the canal in Ottawa instantly exploded with a steady stream of pedestrians. There was this profound, un-satisfied public craving; this innocent reliance on government to do the right thing and to pool our public resources for the greater good.

Vision and Teamwork

Individuals can't build bridges like these and the free market won't. That is what good government is all about: Vision, teamwork and the social contract.

Politics has to start with the ideal: What kind of society do we want to build? It has to survey what is and craft it into what should be. Too often we lose sight of this. We forget about the obligation we have to one another at opposite ends of town and the great things we can accomplish as a whole when we work together.

The negative politics of austerity and divisiveness has us cheering instead for what we can't do, what we're not ready for, what we can't afford. It has us resenting our differences instead of celebrating them.

As the Ford brothers in Toronto have demonstrated, there is a dangerous seductive power to this kind of cynical politics. It is a perverse inversion of the vision and idealism which should be inherent in the exercise of choosing a leader.

Building Bridges

In the upcoming municipal election, I'm going to remember the symbolism of the bridge. I'm going to cheer for the great things that we can accomplish when we work together.

I will vote for a leader who sees beyond the mediocrity of the status quo, someone with the vision to change things for the better.

I will be voting for a leader who has the confidence to invest in well-planned, world-class public infrastructure with proven long-term social, environmental and economic benefits, instead of those who would sacrifice these important common goals for short-term and short-sighted savings.

I will be voting for a leader who has a collaborative approach to politics, someone who brings people together and unites us as a city, not those candidates who seek to pit us against one another for the purpose of getting elected.

So many politicians get caught in the troubled waters of politics. Down in that raging river there is more pandering than principle; more lobbying than leadership; more vapidity than vision. I will be voting for a leader who rises above, someone who builds bridges and walks confidently across to a New Hamilton.

Ned Nolan lives with his family near the Pearl Street bridge and is a lawyer with the downtown firm Nolan Ciarlo, LLP.


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By stiefhaus (anonymous) | Posted October 21, 2014 at 15:26:40

Well said. I moved to within a block from this bridge a couple weeks before the old bridge was decommissioned, and immediately noticed a disconnect. Now that it has been re-opened, the neighborhood feels like a more inclusive community. It is too bad this wasn't possible with the other crossings of this rail line at their respective demolition times. That said, I will be voting for McHattie as well and look forward to the positive changes he will champion for the wonderful city of Hamilton.

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted October 21, 2014 at 19:36:27


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By RobF (registered) | Posted October 22, 2014 at 09:31:44

Re: Vision and Teamwork. I agree, we need to recover the notion of a politics beyond the possible, rather than wallow in one that constantly thwarts change by saying we can't afford it. It is true that most positive, progressive changes come from surveying what is, and crafting it into what it should be. This is a kind of idealism made practical ... but you need transformative ideas. You need people who dare to dream that something different and better is possible.

I'm reminded of the closing line of Ted Kennedy's eulogy for his brother Bobby:

Some men [sic] see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.

Comment edited by RobF on 2014-10-22 09:33:05

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By bikehounds (anonymous) | Posted October 22, 2014 at 12:46:26

Thanks for this great piece! I hope the 2014 change-up in council brings more positive visionary leaders instead of backwards facing do-nothings we've been stuck with for years. Our once great city deserves better than Brad Clark's empty pandering.

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By Historic (registered) | Posted October 23, 2014 at 15:54:16

I, too, will remember the symbolism of this bridge in the upcoming election. But the symbolism I will be remembering is somewhat different than the author's perspective. This bridge was recommended for replacement in 2008. In Paul Wilson's piece in The Spectator on the Pearl Street bridge he states,

"Still, McHattie says, as far as the city considering funding for a new pedestrian bridge, "it was nowhere on the priority list." However, in addition to voting on budgets for arterial roads, councillors do get to advocate for road projects in their own wards. And McHattie did that for the Pearl Street bridge."

It took 6 years for our council and Ward 1 councillor to get this bridge replaced. And I don't believe there is a coincidence in the timing that it occurred during an election year where the councillor is running for Mayor.

Brian MacHattie has vision. There's no doubt about that. But he's had the ability to advocate for replacement of this bridge and allocate funds to do so. So why did it take so long to replace the bridge?

If it wasn't on the priority list, then get it on the priority list.

The city does deserve better than Brad Clark's empty pandering (as one commenter posted). But it also deserves better than the glacial pace that Brian MacHattie exhibits on projects in his own Ward.

The fact is, Brian MacHattie is nothing but vision. He's a planner, not a doer. Hamilton needs a doer. Unfortunately, there isn't one running for Mayor. So maybe MacHattie just boils down to the best of a bad bunch.

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By scrap (anonymous) | Posted October 25, 2014 at 13:29:31

Very nice article, I use the bridge to get to swimming.

The social contract is dead, pretty well buried under decades of austerity politics.

What we need is bold leaders who stand on principles, morals and ethics. They will stand in defiance of all obstacles to do the right thing. All things must be taken into account, we must consider the natural world around us that is disappearing.

Difficult times are what is in front of us.

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