TORONTO - On the east side of this cosmopolitan Canadian city stands a bridge that over nearly a century has attracted hundreds of tortured souls who have climbed over its railings and leaped to their deaths in the valley below.
The Prince Edward Viaduct, which spans the Don River Valley, has been the scene for more than 400 suicides since it was completed in 1919.
The bridge is something of a legend in Toronto. Officially named for Prince Edward after the Prince of Wales' visit to the city in 1919, it is more commonly known around town as the Bloor Street Viaduct after the street that runs on top of it.
It was the focus of a novel by Canadian writer Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient. In Ondaatje's 1987 novel, In the Skin of the Lion, the construction of the Prince Edward Viaduct becomes a symbol of the city's boundless optimism and potential.
But in recent years, the bridge has become more a symbol of hopelessness. Observers estimate that someone leaps from it once every 22 days, making it a suicide magnet exceeded in attraction in North America only by San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge.
"It's a bad bridge," says Al Birney, standing on the span in the wind of a blustery Toronto winter morning. "We look at this bridge and know there are at least 480 souls at the bottom who spent the last moment of their life on the way down. This is where they spent their last day before they went to eternity."
Birney, who heads a local chapter of the Schizophrenia Society of Ontario, has made it his crusade to have a barrier erected on the Bloor Street Viaduct in an attempt to deter those who come here determined to end their lives.
And against all odds, his quest is about to be realized.
Work crews have erected steel girders and are attaching 10,000 high-tension steel cables that will act as a nearly impregnable fence to keep potential suicides from climbing over the rail. Designed partly as a suicide barrier and partly as public art, the maze of steel cable has been dubbed the "luminous veil."
While Birney is collecting accolades and proclamations hailing his leadership these days, it took five often frustrating years to achieve his goal.
At first, he was dismissed as a gadfly and his proposal ridiculed.
"We didn't have too much success at first," says Birney in the soft brogue of his native Ireland. "We did know of people who had gone over that bridge who suffered from mental illness. The bridge had been up for a long time, and nobody had done anything about it. They all shied away from it."
He teamed up with a young man, Michael McCamus, who had studied journalism and was good in front of a camera. Together, they began pounding the pavement and working the phones, gathering 1,200 signatures on a petition and visiting city officials.
And public opinion began to weigh in on their side. Soon after Birney and McCamus got started, the public was galvanized by the suicide of Martin Kruze, a 35-year-old man who as a youth had been the victim of a sexual abuse ring operated by employees at the Maple Leaf Gardens, then home of Toronto's professional hockey team.
In October 1997, shortly after the man convicted of abusing him received a lenient sentence, Kruze walked to the Prince Edward Viaduct, past striking teachers on a picket line, and leaped over the side. Family members said Kruze had gone to the bridge contemplating suicide several times before.
Other horrible, high-profile suicides followed. Later that year, a high-achieving high school student leaped to his death after he was questioned by police in connection with a seemingly silly prank, inserting crank messages in a yearbook. In June 2000, novelist and Canadian television personality H. S. Bhabra jumped from the bridge.
Still, critics railed against the cost, which started at $2.5 million (Canadian) and rose to $5.5 million. Why spend that much money on a barrier for this bridge, they argued, when someone bent on suicide will just go someplace else and do it?
Birney and McCamus answered by finding a study done by researchers from the University of Chicago that found that after an iron fence was erected on the Duke Ellington Bridge in Washington, D.C., in 1986, no suicides took place there during the next five years. More significantly, the suicides at the adjacent William Howard Taft Bridge, which is about the same height as the Ellington, did not appreciably rise over the same period.
"The barrier will not prevent 100 percent of the suicides," McCamus says. "There are people who will go to other locations. But there's good evidence that there are particular people who will be stopped."
Birney and McCamus also had to deal with those who felt a barrier on the bridge would make it ugly.
"It's a heritage bridge. It's very beautiful," McCamus says. "People asked, 'Why change it, why alter it so dramatically for such a small minority? You're going to make it ugly and take away the view.' ... The way we got around that was to say, 'You're right. The bridge is a piece of public art.'"
The city of Toronto sponsored a competition to design a barrier that wouldn't be an eyesore. The winner was an architecture professor from the University of Waterloo, Dereck Revington, who intends his luminous veil not only to be a life-saving measure, but also to be one of North America's largest pieces of public art. At the least, he impressed his colleagues, winning a 1999 Canadian Architect Award of Excellence for the design.
The city of Toronto originally agreed to pay $2.5 million for the barrier, with the group led by Birney and McCamus raising the rest. They struck a deal with an advertising company, which agreed to pay $3.5 million in exchange for the right to place two electronic billboards on the bridge. Environmentalists and historic preservationists objected and the deal fell through.
Finally, last year, about 500 letters and 2,000 faxes to the City Council paid off. The city agreed to foot the whole bill.
Still, there are critics. One columnist for the Ontario edition of the National Post, a daily newspaper, this year compared the suicide barrier to "affixing an 'Eat at Joe's' sign atop the Eiffel Tower."
"The ugly fence now being erected is not a luminous veil, it is a 'delusional veil,' supported by members of the not-in-my-backyard generation," groused the columnist. "Indeed the whole project reeks of hypocrisy, given those who are hell-bent on taking their own lives will undoubtedly find other bridges (incredibly, Toronto has dozens of the things) or maybe even employ other life-ending methods. Go figure."
But Birney stands firm in his conviction.
"I think the families of the mentally ill can go home at night and rest content, knowing that their children are safe from that bridge," he says. "It was something that had to be done, and we did it. We didn't choose to be the guardians of that bridge. But there was no one else there."