New book examines the hip scene in 1960s Yorkville

Cover image of a new book by Stuart Henderson, a postdoctoral fellow at York UniversityHow is “hip” constructed? Is a culture of dissent ultimately a by-product of prevailing sociopolitical forces? Do countercultural events influence mainstream society?

Those questions and more are at the core of Making the Scene: Yorkville and Hip Toronto in the 1960s, a new book by York postdoctoral fellow Stuart Henderson published this month by the University of Toronto Press.

The book examines the history of Toronto’s countercultural mecca, 1960s Yorkville. Henderson narrates the development of the Yorkville scene from its early coffee house days when it was frequented by Neil Young and Joni Mitchell to its drug-fuelled final months.

A cultural historian Henderson is a Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada postdoctoral fellow with the Department of History in York’s Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies.

“I have always found myself drawn to that form of cultural rebellion. I admired the perhaps oversimplified idea of a peace and love movement, and I really loved the music that had been produced from within the ranks of the counterculture,” says Henderson, a self-professed neo-hippie. “So, when I was thinking about how to approach Canadian cultural history, I just aimed straight at this era [the 1960s] and the people I’d always found to be fascinating.”

Making the Scene author Stuart Henderson

Left: Stuart Henderson

The true story of the Yorkville scene, says Henderson, is about people trying to find a space in which to “perform” a hip identity and stretch the confines that they felt had been imposed on them by society, their parents and other sociopolitical pressures. “They were all looking for something real, something authentic. In their search, they uncovered some pretty amazing stuff and had some really interesting experiences,” he says. “But authenticity is elusive and certainly fleeting. It’s all about the journey, not the destination, as it turns out. A central point I want people to recognize is that Yorkville was not a ‘hippie’ place. It was a place that came to be closely associated with ‘hippies’ but people who fit that mold were never the only people hanging around there.”

In Making the Scene, Henderson takes a new look at the hip mecca and gives a voice to people not typically heard in the popular stories associated with Yorkville – women, working class youth, business owners and municipal authorities. Members of biker gangs, working class kids (who didn’t look much like “hippies”, says Henderson), media types, store owners, gallery people, artists and musicians were the Yorkville neighbourhood. “All of these people were there and few of them would count as ‘hippies’ in any conventional definition, then or now,” he says.

He explores how the Yorkville neighbourhood came to be regarded as the symbol of hip Toronto in the cultural imagination. Henderson argues that the popular association of Yorkville with the flower power generation was more accurately a close association with the widespread anxiety in the mid-1960s over the “degeneration” of the middle-class baby boomers into unproductive members of society.

The expectation of the time was that the working class and racial minorities would be rebellious and problematic, says Henderson. “The fact that these [hippies] were middle-class teenagers from the suburbs who were dropping acid and growing their hair and losing their virginity was what kept journalists and municipal authorities up at night.”

Yorkville in the 1960s, he says, was always more complicated than the Yorkville hippies.

In writing the book, which sprouted from his PhD dissertation, Henderson says there were many memorable experiences. “I got to spend some time with [writer and activist] June Callwood who was a hero of mine. She was an astoundingly committed philanthropist and activist, and she always positioned herself at the forefront of battles to protect people from a system which had forgotten them,” he says. “We spent an afternoon together a few months before she died and I was just so appreciative of her desire to participate in this project at such a late stage of her illness. I’ll never forget that when I asked her why she was willing to come talk to a stranger under these circumstances, she just said: ‘Oh, well, I trust the process. Write a good book’.”

His next project involves a cultural history of the communal residence and alternative education experiment of the era, Rochdale College on Bloor Street. “I am writing a sequel of sorts to the Yorkville book. I am working on a book on Rochdale College and what I have termed ‘hip separatism’ in the 1970s,” he says. “While Yorkville saw people performing cultural difference right there in the open,” he says, “Rochdale remained closed to outsiders and tourists and represents a certain retreat from the integrationist, even evangelical, politics of ’60s-era hip youth.”

Despite his fascination with the 1960s, Henderson says that if he could dine with anyone, dead or alive, his choice would be Canadian artist Tom Thomson. “I have some good buddies who died too young. It’d be nice to see one of them again, but how do you choose? So, I’ll be a Canadian cultural historian and say dinner over a campfire with Tom Thomson somewhere in Algonquin Park on a star-filled night. But mostly because I really like camping.”

By Jenny Pitt-Clark, YFile editor