Vince Pietropaolo/Klixpix, for The New York Times
More than 400 people have jumped to their deaths from
the Prince Edward Viaduct, and it is hoped a new $4
million barrier will stop the suicides.
A Veil of Deterrence for a Bridge With a Dark Side
New York Times Feb 16, 2003
Feb. 16 — Toronto is not known as a city of romance or beauty like
Montreal, Quebec City or Vancouver, but it has its share of
alluring views of powerful skyscrapers, moody Lake Ontario and the
deep leafy furrows of the Don Valley that divide the city's ethnic
There is no better place to take in all those sights than the
windy top of the Prince Edward Viaduct, which as the Brooklyn
Bridge united New York, gained the historic distinction of turning
Toronto into a single city when it was built in 1918.
The structure became a literary landmark as well in 1987 when
Michael Ondaatje described the construction of the double-decker
bridge in exquisite poetic detail in his novel "In the Skin of a
Lion," marking it as the epitome of this city's latent but
limitless possibilities in the collective imagination of
But the steel-arched bridge, spanning the Don River and Don
Valley Parkway with a 12-story drop, also has a dark side, one Mr.
Ondaatje suggested in his novel by describing how a gust of wind
blew a nun off the bridge before she was scooped up in midair by a
construction worker suspended on a rope.
Reality has been less kind. More than 400 people have jumped
from the bridge to their deaths, including 100 over the last
decade, lending the viaduct the morbid nickname of "suicide
magnet." Only the Golden Gate Bridge has been the site of more
suicides in North America, according to mental health advocates
Next month, however, it seems the suicidal jumps will stop.
Workers are putting the final touches to a series of barriers
across the bridge consisting of 10,000 stainless steel rods and
bow-string masts designed so no one can get through them. The
structure, which is costing the city $4 million, is intended to
create what the architect calls a "luminous veil" across the
"I've been given a great opportunity to deal with life and
death," said Dereck Revington, the University of Waterloo
architect who designed the new structure. He said his work was
inspired by Nicholas Temelcoff, the Ondaatje character who caught
the falling nun. "A barrier needs the same kind of elegance and
grace as Temelcoff," he added.
But many here have opposed revamping one of Toronto's aesthetic
treasures and obstructing one of the city's most spectacular
views, and the project has fueled a debate about how far local
government should strive to prevent people from ending their
Toronto is a cold, even unfriendly place compared with many
other Canadian communities, but it has a lower suicide rate than
the country as a whole. The suicide rate here, and in the rest of
Canada, has declined since the early 1980's. So why spend the
extra money on this problem at a time when the needs for more
public housing and health-care services have become increasingly
"Critics say that it costs too much," noted a Toronto Star
article on Jan. 28 acknowledging a slew of letters to the editor
excoriating the project. "They say it won't save lives. They say
the `unfortunates' inclined toward self-destruction will just go
elsewhere. They say it's ugly. They say it's an uncomfortable
reminder of unpleasant things."
It took five years of lobbying for Michael McCamus and Al
Birney, two local mental health advocates with relatives who
suffer from schizophrenia, to persuade a reluctant City Council to
set aside the money for restructuring the viaduct. The two men
argued that if New York and Paris could add protective structures
to the Empire State Building and the Eiffel Tower to avert
suicides, Toronto could do the same.
Their campaign picked up sympathy in 1997, when a 35-year-old
man named Martin Kruze jumped off the bridge to his death shortly
after a man convicted of abusing him as a child received a
two-year prison term, a sentence widely viewed as too lenient. The
case drew national attention because the convicted abuser was part
of a ring operated by employees of Maple Leaf Gardens, formerly
the arena of the Toronto Maple Leafs ice hockey team.
Mr. McCamus and Mr. Birney reinforced their campaign with
several academic studies showing that similar fences reduced
incidents of bridge suicides in other cities.
One such study of the Duke Ellington Bridge in Washington,
D.C., showed that the building of a barrier there in 1986 did not
cause a corresponding increase in suicides at the nearby Taft
Bridge, suggesting that certain sites have a special draw for
potential suicide jumpers. Given a barrier, those considering
suicide are forced to pause, giving them an opportunity to rethink
their predicament and seek help.
"If you thwart jumpers from an immediately accessible site,"
said Alan L. Berman, executive director of the Washington-based
American Association of Suicidology, "you will save some lives."