The Book

Imagining Toronto book cover

Imagining Toronto (Mansfield Press, fall 2010) is available at most bookstores and online through Mansfield Press, Amazon or Chapters.

Imagining Toronto was shortlisted for the 2010 Gabrielle Roy Prize in Canadian literary criticism and won the Award of Merit, the highest honour given to a book at the 2011 Heritage Toronto Awards.

Upcoming Events

25-26 February 2012: "Going Native: Reclaiming Aboriginal Identity in Toronto Literature," “Landscapes of Difference, Espaces de Difference, Raume der Differenz” conference (Session: The Politcs of Place: Urban Sites of Contestation), Canadian Studies Association in German-speaking countries (GKS). Grainau, Germany.

Thursday 15 March 2012: Guest lecture, "The Imagined City," ARC 120, Contemporary Architecture. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, University of Toronto; Isabel Bader Theatre, 9:45-11:00 am.

Wednesday 4 April 2012: "Representing Toronto: Mapping the Role of the Artist in the Contemporary City. Panel discussion. Presented by Koffler Gallery in partnership with Diaspora Dialogues. 80 Spadina Ave., Suite 503; 7:00 pm.

Sunday 22 April 2012: Reading from Acts of Salvage at the Draft Reading Series. Details TBA.

Thursday 3 May 2012: "Literary Bodies." Panel discussion as part of Bodies in the City, a symposium of the Jackman Humanities Institute at the University of Toronto.

Thursday 17 May 2012: "Imagining Toronto the Wild" at the Toronto Botanical Garden. Inaugural lecture of the TBG's new HortiCULTURE salon series.

Recent Events

Tuesday 18 October 2011, 7:00-8:30 pm: Will the Real Cabbagetown Please Stand Up?: Regent Park, St. Jamestown and Cabbagetown in the Literary Imagination. Parliament Branch (269 Gerrard St. E.)

Saturday 1 October 2011, 2:00-3:30 pm: The Masseys and the Masses: Social and Spatial Ascendency in Rosedale and Forest Hill. Forest Hill Branch (700 Eglinton Ave. W.)

Tuesday 27 September 2011, 7:00-8:30 pm: From Streetcar Suburb to Multicultural Community: Riverdale in the Literary Imagination. Riverdale Branch, Toronto Public Library (370 Broadview Ave.)

Click here for past events.

From Hip to Chic: Imagining Yorkville, 1960 to the Present

This evening, as Part 2 of the Imagined City series of talks I am doing this spring for the Toronto Public Library, I will discuss literary representations of Yorkville. The title suggests I’ll be focusing on Yorkville from 1960s to the present, but in fact I’ll discuss representations of Yorkville back to its inception as a village annexed by the City of Toronto in 1883.

The thrust of my talk will be that there is not one Yorkville but rather three of them that should interest us. The first, a run-down, working-class district; the second, Yorkville’s half-decade in the 1960s as Toronto’s Haight-Ashbury, and finally, the high-end shopping district contemporary Torontonians are familiar with.

The talk will be held tonight, Tuesday 19 April 2011, from 6:30-8:00 pm at the Yorkville Branch (22 Yorkville Avenue) of the Toronto Public Library. Here’s a link to the TPL’s description.

A brief overview:

Contemporary Yorkville, a gentrified district of expensive boutiques and luxury condominiums whose spiritual epicentre is the intersection of Bloor Street and Avenue Road, owes the bulk of its literary reputation to a brief bohemian period that lasted less than a decade but has inspired at least two generations of writers eager to pay homage to the memory of a neighbourhood once known as Toronto’s very own Haight- Ashbury.

Incorporated in 1853 and annexed by the City of Toronto in 1883, Yorkville grew from a crossroads into a prosperous suburb before its fortunes declined in the years following World War I. Before Yorkville became a bohemian centre, it was a working-class neighbourhood of narrow streets lined with rundown row houses.

Despite this backdrop of not-so-picturesque poverty, by mid-century Yorkville was a neighbourhood in flux as its southerly streets, zoned increasingly for commercial use, began to house galleries and shops frequented by wealthy doyennes drifting north from Toronto’s Mink Mile. In the late 1950s and early ’60s the city’s beatnik subculture established a beachhead amid Yorkville’s growing cluster of coffee houses as nearby Gerrard Village—Toronto’s original bohemian district—began to be overrun by hospital expansions and commercial redevelopment. After the mid-1960s a shift in the cultural Zeitgeist made Yorkville a gathering place for aspiring musicians and social activists as well as disaffected young people attracted to its tune-in, drop-out vibe.

By the late 1960s city planners, politicians and the general public expressed considerable concern that the Yorkville ‘scene’ had gotten out of hand. The “festering sore” city politicians had decried now needed to be lanced. In 1969, having quietly assembled entire blocks of Yorkville real estate, a commercial consortium announced plans to redevelop parts of the district into a hotel, parking garage and high-rise residential complex. Despite local opposition, the plans met quickly with municipal approval, and by 1970 Yorkville was over.

Critics of gentrified Yorkville have claimed that the district’s rapid transformation in the early 1970s was the result of a calculated, coordinated effort between municipal politicians, public health officials, city planners and a police force determined to reclaim Yorkville’s streets for the use of Toronto’s more respectable citizenry. Upon closer examination, however, it becomes apparent that the neighbourhood’s rows of quaint town houses, proximity to downtown and village-like character—the very qualities that brought beatniks, bootleggers, hippies and hangers-on to Yorkville—also attracted real estate speculators eager to cash in on Yorkville’s cultural cachet and commercial promise. In one sense this sounds like a standard narrative of gentrification: artists and other representatives of the urban avant-garde “discover” and transform a promising but rundown neighbourhood before being displaced in turn by more affluent purchasers in a rapidly appreciating real estate market.

But even in its Bohemian heyday, “the Village” harboured the seeds of its own transformation, one in which artists, poets and privileged urbanites were active participants. In the early 1960s ,Yorkville already housed a number of high-end boutiques and art galleries, and by the latter part of the decade these were sufficiently well established that a 1968 City planning report described the neighbourhood as “an enclave of interior decorators’ and couturiers’ shops […] sidewalk cafes, coffee houses, art dealers’ galleries, fine housewares shops, boutiques and gourmet restaurants.” If the City’s spin might be interpreted as political wish fulfilment, literary representations of Yorkville reflect a district where high culture held its own alongside the long-haired, lowbrow hippie scene, in part because it preceded it by several years.

By the late 1970s, Yorkville’s transformation into the now-familiar high-end shopping district was complete.

Literary works I’ll discuss this evening include David Helwig’s story “Something For Olivia’s Scrapbook, I Guess” published in The Streets of Summer (Oberon, 1969), Juan Butler’s Cabbagetown Diary (Peter Martin & Associates, 1970), Dorris Heffron’s A Nice Fire and some Moonpennies (Macmillan of Canada, 1971), John Reid’s The faithless Mirror (Darkwood Press, 1974), Don Lyon’s Yorkville Diaries (Elephant Press, 1984), Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye (McClelland & Stewart, 1988), F.G. Paci’s Sex and Character (Oberon, 1993), Paul Duval’s memoir Berryman Street Boy: Growing Up in Yorkville (Von Lotz, 2000< Anne Denoon’s Back Flip (Porcupine’s Quill, 2002) and Sarah Dearing’s Courage My Love (Stoddart, 2002).

Slides for tonight’s talk are available here:

From Hip to Chic Yorkville Talk Slides Toronto Public Library Yorkville Branch 19 April 2011

And a link to which I’ll also make reference:

The Toronto Star’s Neighbourhoods Map

The material from tonight’s talk is drawn largely from the “Yorkville” section of the Imagining Toronto book. All material, quotations from literary works aside, is copyright Amy Lavender Harris, 2010 and 2011 and may not be used without securing written permission in advance.

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