Friday, April 27, 2012

You Should Read Making The Scene: Yorkville and Hip Toronto in the 1960s

Making The Scene
I just finished reading this, easily one of the best books about the '60s I've ever read – in Toronto or anywhere else. It takes a look at the legendary Yorkville scene during that decade, from its early days as a coffee-fueled hangout for Beatniks, through its height as an acid-fueled love-in during the summer of 1967, to its final days and its amphetamine-fueled death. The author, Stuart Henderson, mostly stays away from name-dropping all the famous writers, poets and musicians who emerged from the scene (although I won't: Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, The Band, Gordon Lightfoot, Margaret Atwood, William Gibson, early versions of Steppenwolf and Buffalo Springfield... the list goes on and on...) and instead looks at the deeper currents and trends driving the culture of the neighbourhood and its not-so-rosy relationship with the rest of Toronto. It's an absolutely fascinating look at the young people who flocked to Yorkville  – not just hippies and Beatniks, but greasers and bikers and thousands of "weekenders" too – and the story of how they might have lost the battle for the neighbourhood they called home, but in many ways won the war for Toronto, changing our city forever.

You can buy Making The Scene: Yorkville and Hip Toronto in the 1960s here or get it from our kickass library system here.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Toronto Boom Town, A Cheesily Aweseome NFB Film from 1951

This is great: a ten minute NFB film from 1951 all about what an up-and-coming metropolis Toronto is. The video is something like a newsreel film meets cheesy pro-Toronto propaganda, pitching viewers on "a city growing like mad, bursting at the seams".

It's plenty tongue-in-cheek and plenty self-deprecating (even back then Toronto wasn't really comfortable with its own awesomeness), filled with interesting little references that will stand out to anyone who knows the city today: a mayor who goes on CFRB every week to complain about traffic congestion, the construction of our very first subway, the naive optimism of the plans for Regent Park, a housing boom... there's even some foreshadowing of amalgamation.

My favourite bit, though, might be the shot from the tower of Casa Loma, of a city built among the trees. And the quote from a guy who looked out from the very same spot and said, "A million people, living in a forest."

Anywhoo, the video is lots of fun, well-worth the ten minutes. And it's also something of a reminder, as our villainous overlords in Ottawa take the axe to the National Film Board, that what they're out to destroy is one hell of a vital historical institution.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Partying With An Architect and A Skeleton in 1896

Toronto, 1896
This photo was taken by a guy named J.J. Woolnough. He obviously had a pretty weird sense of humour for a Victorian dude. He was born in England, in Dickensian London, where he started an apprenticeship as an architect when he was just 14 years old. A couple of years after that, for some reason that Google doesn't want to tell me, he sailed for the New World and settled in Toronto. Here, over the course of the next few decades, he worked for a bunch of different architectural firms – and also developed an interest in amateur photography (pun oh-so-very-much intended).

He took this photo in 1896 using cutting edge technology: flash lights. That's what they called those trays of magnesium powder that old-timey photographers had to hold up for a flash while they ducked their heads under a hood to look through the camera. The flash lights meant you could take photos in places that would otherwise be too dark. And only occasionally did they set those places on fire and burn them to the ground.

This photo was originally given the caption "Good Company... but he has seen better days!"

Woolnough's architecture, though, is what he's remembered for. In the 1920s, he was named official City Architect; he designed all of Toronto's city-owned municipal buildings for the next seven years. His Art Deco designs are still all over the place. Like, say, these ones:

The Horse Palace
at the Canadian Nation Exhibition
The Riverdale Fire Station
Toronto Fire Station #324 on Gerrard East
The Rosedale Viaduct
the northern bridge on Glen Road
Montgomery's Police Station
on Yonge north of Eglinton, at Montgomery; now the Anne Johnston Health Station
Gallery 1313
on Queen West in Parkdale
The Toronto Water Works Maintenance Department
on Richmond West at the end of McCaul, just south of Java House
The Symes Road Destructor
an old trash-burning factory near Weston and St. Clair, now rundown but apparently the subject of revitalization efforts, which you can read about in The Grid here
I came across the skeleton photo in a great book full of beautiful and fascinating images, Inside Toronto: Urban Interiors 1880s to 1920s. You can buy it here or get it from the library here. The Biographical Dictionary of Architects in Canada has a brief biography of J.J. Woolnough here.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

William Gibson & The Summer of Love

Yorkville, August 1967

The Summer of 1967. The Summer of Love. The whole hippie thing is at its height and Yorkville has become one of the biggest hubs for sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll on the continent. Just ten years ago, the first Beatnik coffee shops opened in what was then a quiet, residential neighbourhood – full of rundown Victorian homes, a few art galleries and upscale boutiques. Now, the coffee houses are everywhere, more opening and closing all the time – patios out front; poetry, folk music, go-go dancers, and rock 'n' roll inside. The Penny Farthing even has a pool on its roof. Streets like Cumberland and Yorkville, Hazelton and Scollard overflow with hippies, greasers, and bikers. And it all just keeps getting bigger and busier. Long-haired kids from all over Canada are hitchhiking across the country, thumbs pointed squarely at those few blocks north of Bloor, between Bay and Avenue Road – those same few blocks that have already been home to a shitload of super-cool people over the last ten years: folk singers like Joni Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot; poets like Margaret Atwood, Dennis Lee, Milton Acorn and Gwendolyn Macewen; rock stars like Neil Young and The Band, the beginnings of Steppenwolf and Buffalo Springfield and Blood, Sweat and Tears. Hell, even Rick James.

It's not just Canadian kids. Americans have been flocking to Yorkville, too. Some of them come for the scene — for the drugs and music and art and free love — and some for the chance to escape the Draft and the war in Vietnam.

William Gibson came for both reasons. He'd grown up in rural Virginia reading science fiction and the Beats — Ginsberg and Kerouac, but especially William S. Burroughs. One day, they would help influence him to become one of the most celebrated science fiction authors of all-time. But first, they helped influence him to drop out of high school. And with the Draft in full swing, he figured it might be a good idea to convince the authorities that he wasn't really cut out for a stint in the Armed Forces.

"I told them that my one ambition in life was to take every mind-altering substance that existed on the face of the planet," he remembered later. "I just went in and babbled about wanting to be like William Burroughs. And that seemed to do the trick... I went home and bought a bus ticket to Toronto. But I don't like to take too much credit for that having been a political act... It had much more to do with my wanting to be with hippie girls and have lots of hashish than it did with my sympathy for the plight of the North Vietnamese people under U.S. imperialism – much more to do with hippie girls and hashish."

Yorkville, 1967
Yorkville had a lot of both.

Apparently, Gibson plunged right in, smoking pot and hash, dropping acid and doing pretty much everything else he could get his hands on. He knew better than to do heroin – thanks to reading Burroughs – but other than that: "The opiates aside, I tried whatever was going. I sort of prided myself on it."

He wasn't alone. That very summer, just a couple of blocks away at the University of Toronto, Yorkville's hippies organized something of a multimedia conference on the benefits of dropping acid. "Perception '67" they called it. Allen Ginsberg came. (He even had breakfast with Marshall McLuhan.) So did one of the Merry Pranksters. Timothy Leary would have been there too, but the government wouldn't let him into the country. And as amazing as the popularity of LSD was, it was nothing compared to pot. Yorkville was awash in marijuana smoke.

Money, on the other hand, was a bit harder to find. There were thousands of kids in the village that summer, especially on the weekends when "weekenders" flooded in from suburbs like Forest Hill. But there were only so many jobs and places to crash. "For a couple of weeks I was essentially homeless," Gibson later told the BBC, "although it was such a delightful, floating, pleasant period that it now seems strange to me to think that I was in fact homeless."

Luckily for him, at least one young entrepreneur saw the popularity of drugs in Yorkville as a new kind of business opportunity. The world's first head shop had opened in San Francisco the year before, followed by one in New York City a few months later. Now, Toronto had a head shop of our own with an incredibly nerdy name to go along with it: Gandalf's. The store sold pipes and bongs and rolling papers and all sorts of other drug-related paraphernalia. The CBC called it, "A dope fiend's idea of a dream come true." And it seems that at the same time Gibson was looking for a way to pay rent, Gandalf's was looking for a manager. He got the job. And that's how he bankrolled a summer spent living, as he puts it, "in various wonderful sorts of sin".

Of course, all this drug-use and sex and long hair attracted plenty of media attention. The newspapers and television crews had been fascinated by Yorkville since the early '60s — spending most of their time freaking out over the supposed corruption of youth, but also trying to figure out exactly what in the hell all these kids thought they were doing. And so, in September of 1967, the CBC sent a crew into the neighbourhood to interview some hippies.

By an awesome stroke of historical luck, they happened to find William Gibson.

William Gibson in Yorkville, 1967
The video of their news report is posted online in the CBC archives. (I'll link below.) Gibson — in the slow, lazy voice of someone who seems to be stoned off their ass — rambles on about hippie philosophy, free love and the counterculture while he wanders around the neighbourhood. The CBC's narrator, Knowlton Nash, holds him up as a prime example: "a real hippie".

But in truth, by then, Gibson was sick of the whole scene. And with the summer winding down, he was just looking to get enough cash together to be able to move on. So, he says when the CBC showed up offering $500 for an interview, he was happy to lie through his teeth. "[N]othing I'm saying there, at such painful length, is even remotely genuine," he wrote a few years ago. "I'm thoroughly fed up... and want nothing more than a ticket out."

He got it. For the next few years, he'd move around even go to Woodstock – before returning to Toronto for a while. It was here that he met and married his wife, but they eventually settled in Vancouver. That's where he went to university, got into punk, and started writing the science fiction that would make him famous. They say that not only did he coin the term "cyberspace", but that it's because of him we talk about stuff like "surfing" and "neural implants" too. His 1984 novel, Neuromancer, is still a mainstay of first year syllabuseses. In 1999, the Guardian called him "probably the most important novelist of the past two decades".

By the time he left Yorkville, the scene had already peaked. As bikers and harder drugs became bigger problems and a few cases of hepatitis sparked a media frenzy, the authorities – who had long been calling the scene a "cancer" and "a festering sore in the middle of the city"  seized their opportunity to drive the kids out of the village. The counterculture spread across downtown Toronto, to Kensington Market and Queen West and just down Bloor Street to Rochdale College (until the government shut that down too). Meanwhile, Yorkville was turned into the super-rich-person shopping district it is today. When Gibson came back for a visit a couple of months ago, the Globe and Mail was there. “It’s as though they tore down St. Mark’s Place and built the Trump Tower,” he told them. “My Bohemia is gone.”

-----

If you're willing to suffer through the two ads per video our national public broadcaster makes you watch you in order to see anything in their archives, can check out the CBC's footage of William Gibson, complete with a couple of other interviews and footage of a women freaking out on a bad trip here — and there's another whole video about Gandalf's here

I first learned the nugget of this story thanks to "Making The Scene: Yorkville and Hip Toronto in the 1960s" by Stuart Henderson. It's easily one of the best books about the '60s I've ever read. You can buy it here or get it from the library here.

There's a feature-length NFB documentary about Yorkville's young people, which, because the NFB fucking rules, you can watch online for free here. York University has a neat virtual exhibit of Yorkville photos from the '60s here. And there's an archive of Toronto Star photos of the neighbourhood here. There's a nice rundown of Yorkville clubs and coffee houses, here, written by Nicholas Jennings, who wrote THE book about Yorkville's music, Before The Gold Rush.

Read that Globe article about William Gibson here. Listen to the BBC interview here. There's another interview I drew from here. And a book about him on Google books here. There also a biographical documentary about him, No Maps For These Territories.

Finally, Gibson has written about Yorkville himself on his blog. You can check out it here. And I will now proceed to quote a bunch of excepts from it and from the stuff he says in No Maps For These Territories.

ON KEANU REEVES AND THE DEATH OF YORKVILLE:

"When I first met Keanu Reeves, and we found ourselves talking about Toronto, he told me that he had played, as a child, in the excavation for the Four Seasons Hotel, on Yorkville Avenue. I was long gone to Vancouver, by then, but had been shocked, on subsequent visits, by the truly remarkable ferocity with which the ambient zone I remembered had been malled over. In retrospect, this had everything to do with Yorkville "Village" having been, in the first place, a developers' simulacrum of the West Village, briefly invaded, in my day, by a social simulacrum of the East Village.

"As the tide of "weekend hippies" washed back out, many of the more organizationally-inclined habitues were sucked up into the astonishingly Ballardian (as in HIGHRISE, it seemed to me) tower of Rochdale College. 

"The genuine ambients swam down into the twisty, virtually ungentrifiable streets of Kensington Market instead, and away from the Cronenbergian, acid-totalitarian creepiness of Rochdale, and I've regarded Toronto, ever since, as a city somehow uniquely blind to its own psychogeography."

ON THE OTHER DRAFT DODGERS:

"When I got to Toronto I actually – to my chagrin somewhat – I found that I really really couldn't handle hanging out with the American draft dodgers. There was too much clinical depression, there was too much suicide, there was too much hard core substance abuse. They were a traumatized lot, those boys, and I just felt like I – you know, I felt frivolous."

ON THE END OF THE "STRAIGHT WORLD" AND THE ROLE OF DRUGS:

"Most of the people – I suppose really everyone that I counted as a close friend – seemed to harbour the unspoken assumption that everything that had gone before us was ending. It was really a very millennial time – far more millennial than this last year of the century. [What did you think was ending?] The straight world. I think that's what I would have told you at the time. But the straight world didn't end. The straight world and the other world bled into one another and produced the world that we live in today. Drugs were absolutely central to that experience, but they weren't essential. They weren't actually essential to it. I only know that in retrospect. At the time I'm sure I would have said that they were – you know, ingesting the right chemical was absolutely essential to the experience. But in retrospect, no, it's simply a matter of being there and being somewhat open to possibilities... Recreational drugs are essentially a wank. And a wank is okay, but you really should know that it's just a wank. And I think that's what we didn't know – to use the generational "we" – and what some of us still don't know."