Curiously, in her latest work, a memoir entitled Reckless, singer Chrissie Hynde noted that Toronto was (at one point) the place to be; anyone considered worthy and established of character hung out in one of Canada’s most bustling, urbane cities. Indeed, Toronto’s nightlife has been on a constant turn of trends with the change in social atmosphere over the years. Today, Toronto offers a rather gentrified selection of clubs and nightly hotspots that caters to the more streamlined needs of today’s consumer. But as Denise Benson so lovingly details, Canada’s most popular city was once a jewel festering in the seedy grit of developing neighbourhoods.
Then and Now: Toronto Nightlife History documents a fascinating history of nightclubs, born out of a thirst for excitement and escape. Chronicled by decade and trends, Benson takes the reader through the history of some of Toronto’s most notable nightclubs of the past, describing the role these popular spots have had on shaping the downtown life.
Describing 40 years of nightclub activity, Then and Now takes us to Toronto’s beginnings of downtown nocturnal life. The year of disco, sexual promiscuity and burgeoning youth club culture, 1975 is outlined in the opening chapter on Club David’s, a nightspot that began as a disco-funk magnet before evolving into a punk club as times changed. The club would gain traction in the downtown sphere as a space for bored youngsters looking for some flamboyant excitement in Toronto’s developing landscape. It was also a club that could be pinpointed as the start of the city’s rising DJ culture, which Benson expands upon in many other chapters in the book.
In fact, Toronto has been home to some of the most successful DJs and their prominence is deeply explored as the book essays club culture throughout the ‘80s. Voodoo, a hot spot of the early ‘80s (which would welcome such acts like New order and Duran Duran), would gather goths, punks, new wavers and curious outsiders into an atmosphere of carefree camaraderie; the gender-bending, new frontier music and edgy fashions signalled the up-and-coming tastemakers who would take their cues from Voodoo before moving onto other Toronto spots of the ‘80s.
Benson does a remarkable job of laying out the histories and details of these club landmarks; her chapters are divided into thoroughly in-depth explanations on the nightclub histories, the significance of those clubs in the city’s landscape and the who’s who of royal club regulars. Her research is incredible; she speaks to numerous club owners who shaped Toronto’s nightlife into what it has evolved into today.
In her chapter on RPM, a club that ran for ten years beginning in 1985, she captures a brilliant moment in history that saw the inception of alternative music culture, with acts like Beastie Boys and Ramones making visits and DJs introducing crowds to early underground techno. You can dip into any section of the book and turn up a handful of nostalgia gems which capture the imagination and position a seemingly innocuous city like Toronto into a context that reframes the city as a point of musical and cultural innovation.
Benson also chronicles the circles of elitists that hung out at some of the trendier, upscale spots like the Boa Café, a venue that was located on Yorkville, an urbane district in Toronto. In a surprising and unsettling revelation of history, the club was razed with gun fire a number of times. Stories like this and other fascinating pieces of information, are seamlessly imbedded into Toronto’s historical account of urban culture.
There are a number of candid snapshots and photos (both in colour and black and white) of the nightclubs throughout and they evoke a sentiment of an era when Toronto was at its seediest; as the years go by and new developments are underway, the city begins to look more and more like the gentrified cities of any other North American region. Then and Now does an especially wonderful job of capturing a sense of excitement and danger of Toronto’s past, a past that has now grown to mythological proportions.
As the book progresses, we move into the city’s later years and see the developments in nightlife that seem suspiciously more corporate. Trading in the rough, punkishly DIY attitude and approach to starting up a business, Toronto’s transition into a far more slick planning of property development is an eye-opener on the ways in which city-dwellers interact with their environment. Certain nightspots are implicitly revealed as perhaps mere accessories to the new condos springing up all over the downtown core, suggesting that many view nightlife as a social activity that is simply a slice in the overall pie of urban living and not a curious and challenging space of self-discovery that it once was throughout the ‘70s, ‘80s and early ‘90s.
A book like this may resonate most with Torontonians who lived these experiences throughout the decades, much in the same way of those living in places like New York’s Lower East Side; both of these urban regions have been drastically re-invented, for better or for worse, by the systematic streamlining of social cultures through urban development. What Benson has done here for all readers, however, is present Toronto with a thorough and passionately informed reading that describes a modern city that currently looks nothing like it did 30 years ago. It might be just an oblique slip of urban history, but Then and Now: Toronto Nightlife History currently stands as the most definitive account of nightclub culture in one of Canada’s most celebrated and beloved cities.
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