Making the Scene: Yorkville and Hip Toronto in the 1960s
(University of Toronto Press)
US: May 2011
Between 2007 and 2009, I lived in Toronto, Canada, and being relatively new to the city (though I was born there and lived my first four years of my life there), I took advantage of heritage walks around various neighbourhoods put on by various organizations – which was a great way to discover new areas and connect with the sprawling metropolis that I found myself living in.
One of those walks, which occurred on a summer’s Sunday morning, was in the neighbourhood of Yorkville – which was renowned in the ‘60s as being Canada’s version of New York’s Greenwich Village or San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. (Essentially, “hippie central”.) The walk was led by Toronto cultural author and journalist Nicholas Jennings, and he showed the gathered throng of about 30 people all of the old haunts and places where coffee shops used to be where Canadian performers such as Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and Gordon Lightfoot cut their teeth professionally. He told some great tales, such as of the Penny Farthing coffee house, which was so sexually liberated that female waitresses served its clientele wearing bikini tops and mini-skirts, and even briefly employed the services of a male chef who cooked in the nude – which makes you wonder what regional health inspectors must have felt about that!
In all regards you had to use your imagination, as all of those folksy coffee shops and clubs had long since been torn down and replaced by high-end restaurants, boutiques and condos. Every now and then the group would stop – including at the street corner where Young pulled up in a Hearse and obliged his buddies to hop in and go to America with him, where he finally made it as a performer – and Jennings would whip out old photographs of the era and disperse them amongst the crowd, and play rare music of the era on a tiny loudspeaker hooked up to his iPod. At the end of the tour, we were all led to Jennings’ conveniently parked car, where he opened the trunk and obliged everyone to buy remaindered copies of his long out of print book on the Yorkville music scene, Before the Gold Rush, which, until now, was pretty much the defining book on an area that had, more or less, ceased to exist in its most famous incarnation.
So along has come Stuart Henderson’s Making the Scene: Yorkville and Hip Toronto in the 1960s, which is a very different beast than Before the Gold Rush. While Jennings was writing more or less in part from his own experiences – being part of the very Yorkville scene of the ‘60s – Henderson, whom I should note is a Features editor here at PopMatters, was born in 1977, well after the so-called hippies have come and gone from the tiny area of only a few city blocks in downtown Toronto. While Before the Gold Rush was about the music that was in fashion at the time (mostly folk) and the club and coffee house scene that surrounded it, Making the Scene is about the actual people and scenesters whom populated the area during its decade-long stint as Canada’s hip bohemia. And while Before the Gold Rush is a populist book meant to make Toronto residents of the era all misty-eyed at what’s gone, Making the Scene, published by an academic press, is more of a scholarly exercise that is a clinical look not only at the tiny Village of Yorkville itself, but paints broad strokes as to what the very nature of “hip” really is – a move that both comes out the book’s Ph.D. dissertation origins and the fact that either the author or publisher appeared to be cognizant enough to realize that a book about Yorkville probably otherwise wouldn’t sell copies much beyond Toronto’s boundaries, or wouldn’t be taken seriously by a university audience.
What Making the Scene sets out to do is tell the stories of the various social groups that would call Yorkville home during the days of flower power and the Summer of Love. While much of the book examines the role of hippies (read: white, male, heterosexuals from suburban origins) on the scene, it also looks at the role other marginalized groups played in the center’s construction: greasers (the sons and daughters of immigrant families), bikers and the so-called weekenders or teenyboppers that acted as “tourists” in the area. What the book does exceptionally well, however, is chart the rise and fall of Yorkville as a persona in and of itself, making what would be dubbed the Village as vital of a character or personality itself as the people whom populated it.
In fact, this book astutely charts the transformative effect of Yorkville as a community, revealing it be a place that was greatly changed over the course of a few scant years. In the ‘50s, the area was a bit of a no-man’s land of cheap row houses that attracted both an artistic clientele that would go on to open high-end boutiques in the area, and a displaced immigrant working class, which brought the concept of the coffee house to the region. While Yorkville would eventually be home to literally a couple dozen of these coffee houses by the mid-‘60s, when they started to crop up they became home to quiet, intimate folk performances and to a youth market looking for somewhere to hang out. (The legal drinking age in Toronto at the time was 21; it is now 19.)
The community – bracketed by high-art haute couture fashion outlets and cheap hangouts – would eventually become home to what would be known as hippies, looking for a place of their own outside of the suburbs of their upbringing. The spectre of recreational drugs, such as pot, along with some small-scale “rioting”, would lead to police involvement in the scene by 1964, which in turn led to a media frenzy by both local and national papers looking for whatever sensational angle they could find in Yorkville. This would attract what would be known as “weekenders” or teenyboppers looking for a place to happen – and a place to score free love and cheap drugs.
Of interesting note is that the place would be so happening on weekend nights that traffic would be bumper to bumper in the area as would-be tourists to the area gawked and rubbernecked at the sight of the long-haired residents of the region. However, the scene would quickly fall apart as violence and harder drugs – such as speed and LSD – began to take hold, and the area became a magnet for disaffected youth from all regions of Canada, thinking that Yorkville was still a Utopia of some sort, looking to escape abusive home situations . By 1970 it was all over, as city council would agree to the rezoning of the area for commercial development, and the clubs and coffee houses found themselves in front of the wrecking ball.
Making the Scene also gets its hands dirty by charting the unlikely roles that overlooked characters played in the construction of the Village. Of particular note is the role of the Church and affiliated organizations that acted as missionaries that tried to reach out to the hippie youth of the generation – and had somewhat limited success in doing so. The role of women plays a significant role in this book’s formation, as well. While Henderson notes that this was a time of free love and sexual liberation, many young women more or less fell prey to the so-called enlightened male hippies of the era, who used them as cheap, one-night stands usually with the offer of drugs. Even worse, some young women would fall into the clutches of bikers frequenting the region, who would generally proceed to dope up and then gang rape them. And if you got pregnant? You were no longer part of the clique’s inner circle.
While this might make it seem that women were marginalized in the Yorkville scene – which they probably were, to a greater or lesser degree – the book quietly underscores the work of the late journalist June Callwood to provide shelter for homeless youth in the late ‘60s as well as the work of a former army doctor named Anne Keyl, who provided her services to youth who needed someone to guide them down from a bad drug trip or cure them of venereal disease. Making the Scene’s power lies in telling the stories of these unsung heroes, whom had previously been virtually ignored in any sort of historical examination of the period.
Granted, the book is geared towards a more academic audience, which might make it a tough read for those more interested in the sociological make-up of the community of Yorkville (you can almost play a drinking game with Making the Scene: take a sip any time Henderson breaks out the word “heuristic”) and the casual reader might be able to skip over the heady first chapter that serves to deconstruct the nature of hipness or cool without missing much of a beat. Plus, there are threads that are dropped and aren’t really picked up again: what about the gay and lesbian community that was attracted to Yorkville in the late ‘50s, when it was still primarily an artistic centre? The book also makes a point that, in 1965, Yorkville was not a Mecca for youth from the United States fleeing to Canada to avoid the draft and the conflict in Vietnam, but seems to later acknowledge that draft dodgers were in fact there.
Still, Making the Scene, for all of its academic aspirations, is a crackling good read, especially when Henderson moves out of the way to provide commentary or a framework and simply lets the residents tell their own stories (Henderson conducted a couple dozen interviews for the book) or recounts the mounting pressure on Yorkville from secondary sources – newspapers and unpublished reports – of the era. Henderson brings a historian’s eye for detail to the proceedings and also a socio-anthropologist’s penchant for primary research, making Making the Scene a compelling and stimulating read.
The book serves as a preserver of heritage, considering that the Yorkville of today looks absolutely nothing like the Village of the ‘60s. That, perhaps, is Making the Scene’s greatest strength: offering a detached, non-sentimental and objective account of one of Canada’s most lively countercultures and the impact that resonates to this day, despite the fact that the only coffee house you might find near the area today would be a Starbucks. And even though Henderson’s observations about what constitutes hip culture might be heady, it’s an appropriate examination as one comes to realize through the reading of this book that Yorkville was, in many ways, an act: a place to perform (not only as a musician, but as an individual searching for identity and an authentic experience) and a place to see or be seen. Yorkville, then, is a metaphor for any hip community in the world today, a place that made and remade itself over a turbulent decade of radical change. That, and the take-away of the historical and cultural importance of this little strip of downtown Toronto, is the conduit for some essential reading – no matter if you were there during Yorkville’s heyday or not.