Quill and Quire

Canada's magazine of book news and reviews

Making the Scene: Yorkville and Hip Toronto in the 1960s

by Stuart Henderson

The Yorkville area of downtown Toronto was its own village in the 19th century, but got amalgamated into the city as the metropolis expanded northward. It remained a low-rent and low-rise area until discovered by folksingers and hippies in the 1960s. This spread alarm among Toronto’s absurd politicians, hysterical journalists, and Keystone morality police. But property developers soon pacified the area by turning it into an extension of the high-end Bloor Street West shopping district, thereby forcing out the unruly bohemians.

Stuart Henderson’s reworked doctoral dissertation ambitiously juggles the social, political, economic, and demographic aspects of his subject, while deliberately downplaying the musical careers formed in Yorkville’s famous coffee houses (most of which, as shown by the book’s useful maps, were actually located on Avenue Road, not Yorkville Avenue). Henderson also makes the important link between Yorkville and the smaller bohemian “village” that existed on Gerrard Street a decade earlier. In so doing, he reminds readers of the importance of Gerrard Village’s Bohemian Embassy coffee house (where Margaret Atwood gave her first reading). Perhaps most important of all, Henderson examines Yorkville’s significant role in the evolution of gay and lesbian culture of the time.

The problem is that the author’s prose is unequal to these tasks. His scholarly diction would be fine if he didn’t keep trying to leaven it with the tone of tabloid journalism. For example, he writes of how, in the eyes of the authorities and the press, imaginary but “ever-present threats of hippie sex fiends and biker gangs preying on poor, out-of-pocket girls emphasized an atmosphere of pervasive sexual violence and moral depravity.”