The Ghost of Expo '67

by Adam Gopnik
Listen to "The Ghost of Expo '67"

My own October crisis was haunted, in a highly particular way, by the ghost of Expo '67.

My family had moved to Montreal only two years before, and we lived then at Habitat '67, Moshe Safdie's architectural experiment in housing design, one of the beacons of possibility and hope that had marked that wonderful world's fair. The strange thing was that the remains of Expo had been left alone, were still standing, all around Habitat on the Cité du Havre. There was the " Labyrinth", for instance, the huge concrete structure where the National Film Board had shown its multi-screen, vaguely portentous movies. It was still there, with no one to tend it, and so were the concrete statutes of the symbol of Expo, those joined stick figures, all around. There were other old pavilions around too, all of them only a couple of summers before mobbed by tourists and two hour waits, now left mournfully alone to a handful of kids. We had them to ourselves - a world's fair abandoned, and we would ride our bicycles back and forth among the ghosts. Some sense of hangover of the chill of the aftermath of pleasure remained, mixed with the idea of hope in autumn.

That was the landscape on which I followed the crisis. Like any kid, my horizons were narrow - I resented the way that the crisis interrupted Habs broadcasts. I do recall my father, a civil libertarian, and a passionate liberal in every sense, but also an admirer of Trudeau, struggling at dinner with the complexities of the circumstance. Ours was a family in which everything got argued out over the dinner table, and my older sister, if I recall, already at McGill and a student radical, shared, though at a distance, her general disdain for the War Measures Act.

But all I knew then were the Habs, the unduly chilly autumn, and my bike. One day - when was it? in winter by now - I was stopped by two plainclothesmen outside the Labyrinth. They were suspicious, casing the area, and wondered what a lonely Anglophone kid was doing there, making circles in the already snow-littered cement. " What are you doing here," they asked me, first in French, which I struggled with, and then in English; in those days, a quick switch was acceptable. " Nothing, " I said, with the perpetual injured innocence of the adolescent. " Just riding my bike. " Where do you live?" they asked. I gestured with my head towards Habitat. They gave me a pair of matched steady opaque looks. The whole thing seemed suspicious - no one lived there; no one biked here - but I suppose I looked, at that age, more mangy than menacing and, lacking anything better to do, they pointed me home and told me to go there. I did. Later that same night, I remember, two more cops - Montreal cops, with the mustaches of insecurity that they all wore then - came to our apartment, and stared out from our terrace towards that other island of pleasure, the Île Sainte-Hélène. The next day, the hostage swap took place there; the terrorists flew to Cuba, from which they would, rather soon, given what had happened, come home. And I went back to riding my bike alone where the world's fair once had been.

Thirty years later I had become a writer, and I was covering the shock and strange white silence of another, bigger violence, on September 11th in New York. And even as I walked that larger and more terrified city, somehow the feeling of the pedals beneath my feet, back home in Montreal when I was young, I still recalled.