Yorkville State of Mind

The place may have changed, but the vision lingers on

One of the great ironies of the 1960s in Canada is that conservatives understand the era’s significance better than those on the left. You do not have to remove too many volumes from the right-wing bookshelf before a trend starts to emerge: the 1960s matter to Canadian conservatives.

You could read William Gairdner, who, for more than two decades, has been madly sounding the alarm about the way the cultural revolution of the 1960s has continued to savage Canadian families. More recently, Brian Lee Crowley’s Fearful Symmetry: The Fall and Rise of Canada’s Founding Values does its best to show how, from the 1960s to the ’90s, Canadian society disastrously abandoned what he presents as tried and true Canadian values. Canada, he claims, had always been a small-government society rooted in the Protestant work ethic. The 1960s era threw all of this out of whack. Presumably he does not want to go back to the restricted racial covenants on house sales or the rampant anti-Semitism that was also a hallmark of “traditional” Canada. That is the beauty of polemics based on nostalgic history; you get to choose what parts of the past you want to resurrect.

But the key point remains. For conservatives, the 1960s matter.

The 1960s also did not end with the decade. With the high-spending, morally dubious, Quebec-loving Pierre Trudeau in power, so the story goes, the party went on and on. In some ways, it keeps on going. Trudeau, after all, repatriated the Constitution and stuck Canada with that hallmark of 1960s liberalism, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. By putting certain rights beyond the power of the parliamentary majorities (notwithstanding the notwithstanding clause), the Charter is the surest sign that 1960s values, at least in their liberal incarnations, became Canadian values.

This sense that the 1960s changed so much for the worse is also what lies behind the commonly held conservative view that the media are dominated by liberals. Despite almost all evidence to the contrary (including such stubborn facts as the right-wing ownership of almost all of the media outside the Toronto Star and the CBC), the view remains. It does so, in part, because the 1960s transformed basic values. The era set new, expanded limits on what was and was not acceptable.

It is odd, then, that there have been so few champions of the decade among left-leaning historians in this country, or at least in English Canada. Among the Canadian left we are more likely to encounter nostalgia or disappointment. We might find in histories of the 1960s a suggestion of their lasting importance, but it is vaguely stated, a feeling that despite the dashed hopes for substantial change, not all was lost. This is what happens when Marxists write histories of liberal revolution. They find evidence of what might have been, of lost opportunities, the chance for radicalization that could have happened but did not quite.

This is especially disappointing because in Canada, in a way that is profoundly different from the United States, the 1960s did matter. We went into the decade a prosperous, illiberal country, ruled by a political elite whose main goal, aside from getting elected, was to keep the peace and to maintain order, especially the highest form of Canadian order, national unity. Arguably, Canada did not emerge from the era until Trudeau left the scene. By this point Canada had become a much less obsequious, more demanding, more tumultuous country of rights-bearing and rights–demanding citizens of what was—finally after 1982—an independent nation. There was, famously, absolutely no agreement on what this nation was, on where its geographical, or even moral, centre of gravity lay. But one thing was certain. Canada was not as it had been.

The story of Yorkville, that ill-fated urban village of 1960s bohemian promise and demise in Toronto, provides a nice example of the larger changes that Canada underwent in these years.

Stuart Henderson’s Making the Scene: Yorkville and Hip Toronto in the 1960s is an enthusiastic account of the era and the area. Henderson takes on the task of telling the story of Yorkville, of explaining why the scene mattered, of untangling the controversies, dispelling the myths and ultimately making sense of what happened in this Toronto neighbourhood in the 1960s.

The material is compelling. Yorkville was one of the first parts of Toronto to crawl out from under the carpet of post-war conformity, consumerism and, well, boredom. At a time when what it meant to be white in Canada might or might not, depending on whom you asked, include such “ethnics” as Ukrainians, Italians or Jews, Yorkville embraced difference en masse. Drawing inspiration from the Beat movement in the United States, Yorkville emerged as a place where people could go to seek what was seen as a more authentic alternative to mainstream culture. Coffee shops began to spring up, providing venues for a burgeoning folk music scene. The area already boasted upscale boutique shops and art galleries. These continued to exist, but they did so in uneasy relation with the growing number of spaces devoted to a decidedly more down-market, youth- and teen-oriented counterculture taking shape around them. Drugs entered the scene, slowly at first, but ultimately in greater amounts and varieties. Marijuana allowed those who wanted to just hang out and take in the action the chance to “be,” to exist, to absorb all that was around them in slow, entrancing, although sometimes paranoia-inducing, motion.

As news spread about the emerging scene, others came to watch. Henderson sees this as especially important. Yorkville was always about performance. People went to Yorkville to perform a hip identity. As any contemporary academic would, he loads the book with a range of theoretical citations earnestly explaining what he means by this kind of performance. For non-academic readers this will likely come across as superfluous. The performative nature of the culture is clear. How could Yorkville not be about performance, especially as more and more Torontonians started driving their cars up and down the streets to gawk at the teens looking back at them? Amid all of the theory, Henderson cites a line from Don DeLillo about what tourists do when they go on vacation with their cameras: “we’re not here to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one.” It is a great, intuitive line. And it gets to the heart of what quickly happened in Yorkville. The idea of Yorkville spread and many came to be a part of it and to watch it. They already knew what it was before they arrived, and their visit once there, however complicated, did not necessarily change what they already thought they knew.

As the decade progressed, views of Yorkville became polarized. Many in the mainstream media, at Toronto City Hall and in the provincial legislature held up Yorkville as a symbol of dangerous social upheaval. To these commentators, Yorkville was a foreign menace, a place of criminality, immorality and, by the end of the decade, disease. Henderson does a good job, though, of showing the emerging cracks in this mainstream edifice. We get wonderful portraits of those who saw things differently. There is the young Michael Valpy at The Globe and Mail valiantly trying to add sanity to the media coverage of Yorkville. We find the much beloved journalist June Callwood, whose own son got caught up in Yorkville troubles. She set up Digger House, a bottom-up social service to help those troubled youths who found themselves out of their depth in Yorkville. There is the doctor Bill Clement, at his Queen Street Mental Health Unit who, unlike most in the medical profession who wanted nothing to do with the strung-out “villagers,” decided to treat the problem of bad LSD trips medically. Clement developed a method of treating those on “bummers” with Valium, bringing them down softly so that they could go home in the morning, no worse for wear.

The scene itself was complex and Henderson reminds us of this. Although the media frequently equated Yorkville with hippies, this group was only a portion of those who congregated in Yorkville as part of a great, if elusive, cultural refusal. There were also the bikers who roared their bikes up and down Yorkville Avenue and Cumberland Street. The area was home to scores of “greasers,” working class and often immigrant Canadian youth. And, of course, there were the weekenders, temporary villagers, there for a night or a weekend of sexual freedom, musical enjoyment or just gawking tourism.

Yorkville showed that there were those who were looking for something other than a suburban home, a stable job and the latest model Chevrolet. Conservative religious commentators had been bemoaning consumerism and materialism throughout the 1950s, but Yorkvillites took this anti-materialist message and gave it a radical, spiritual spin. This is not what the morally serious Catholic priests and United Church ministers had been after when they extolled parishioners to live with spiritual purpose; but Yorkville is what they got. One of the great lines in the book is the comment from the Reverend James Smith, who ran a controversial Christian drop-in centre in the village. “It seemed,” he lamented, “like the Hippy’s desire was to be an honourary [sic] member of every religion except Christianity.”

That the radical experimentation in personal lifestyle could end badly was clear. And by the end of the decade, Yorkville became a symbol of countercultural downfall. “Rise and fall” is the stereotypical narrative arc intrinsic to histories of the era (especially American histories). In the United States, the accounts focus on assassination, the movement from civil rights to Black Power, and the increasingly tumultuous social protest against the Vietnam War. What had seemed simple became too complex. In the Yorkville version, an early, authentic optimism showed promise only to lose out, after 1967’s summer of love, to violence, drug addiction and pessimism.

Henderson tries to hold out against this pessimistic account of the decade, but even he acknowledges that the story of Yorkville too neatly fits into this characterization. He rightly points out how the hepatitis scare at the end of the decade was mostly a media hype, but in the midst of public fear, facts did not matter. Disease was not the only problem. There was the growing violence, or at least reporting of violence, in the area. Drug addiction abounded, especially as users turned to harder drugs such as speed and heroin. Most importantly, the demographics of the area changed, and many of those who knew Yorkville noted the difference. By the end of the decade, Yorkville had become such a symbol of opting out that troubled teens congregated there from around the country. These kids were not like June Callwood’s son, those with a desire to live differently but with the resources to go home if things got rough. They came from poor, troubled families. They were not escaping from material affluence; they had already slipped through the cracks. Yorkville was a victim of its own success. Bohemia always works better for the middle class.

By the end of the decade, then, places like Rochdale College and back-to-the-land communes seemed to offer a better alternative for the truly committed hip youth. These were new, and possibly safer, experiments in living otherwise. The decision to redevelop Yorkville was a post-mortem announcement of death. With fences up and drills blaring, hanging out on the strip was not so cool anymore. The experiment had ended, seemingly a failure.

The story is, though, just a little too pat. In some ways, it was predetermined by the author’s choice of Yorkville itself. If we only focus on this one place, then there is a truth to the story of rise and fall that is hard to deny. Henderson seems to get this, and in his brief conclusion, he offers an alternative. The village may have gone, he says, but “the reality of the early 1970s and beyond is that the number of young people performing at ‘hippie,’ espousing anti-establishment visions and opinions, taking mind drugs and practising a version of free love, clamouring for tickets to the next big rock festival, was swelling.” Yorkville remained as an example, a symbol, of the kinds of identities and ideas that were becoming increasingly mainstream, transforming Canadian society in their wake.

Indeed, this is what so upsets conservatives about the 1960s. Yorkville is gone, but the ideas remain.

All of this might be academic except for one important fact: so much of the transformation in values that has made Canada a more tolerant, progressive and, frankly, interesting place in which to live, can still be undone. For many conservative commentators, it ought to be undone. And with Stephen Harper’s Conservatives now having won a majority government, the conservative view of the 1960s will gain more and more traction in the corridors of Canadian political power. In some ways, the real legacy of the 1960s is what happened after, when those who performed their hip identity in Yorkville went on to reshape Canadian society writ large, including everything from social work to the professoriate to the legal profession. Those individuals and the ideals they espoused fill up human rights groups, women’s groups, international aid agencies, universities and all kinds of other groups that take as their mission a progressive and generally secular “improving”’ of Canadian society. Given what we know about the conservative view of the legacy of the 1960s, there is no reason to be optimistic that governments will continue to offer even modest support for these helpful fixers.

The 1960s did not end by 1970. The era is with us still, but we take most of it for granted. Conservatives realize this. Will the rest of us realize it before it is too late?