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Dreams of the Tower: Tales of a hippie college

Mitchell Consky November 20, 2019 343


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By: Mitchell Consky

The Unknown Student saw it all. A sculpture roughly ten feet high, it sits cross legged and hunched over—either in distress or meditation—on the concrete plaza of Bloor and Huron Streets in downtown Toronto. Originally, the top of its round, smooth head faced the 18-storey high-rise that looms over it. The sculpture watched the chaos of a social experiment gone horribly wrong. Now, it looks away—as if turning its back on the nightmare of Dream Tower. 

 

I walk up to the high-rise that was once known as Rochdale College, a co-ed residence and student-run educational facility. It’s now Senator David A. Croll Apartments: affordable living as non-threatening as it looks. Its bland brutalist exterior blends with innocent old Toronto, hiding the fact that hippies, drug dealers and bikers once mulled through the marijuana-clouded halls. The building’s symmetrical windows pay no homage to the bricks once thrown at surrounding police cruisers below. Or the bras and underwear that once rained down from the rooftop terrace. Along with beer bottles. And a fridge. And people who tried to fly.

The main door is locked, leaving me in the foyer vestibule. To the left of the door is a fire alarm. In the early 1970s, the gang of bikers that stood guard with their two Doberman Pinschers—Sunshine and Shadow—would pull it to warn dealers on the upper floors about incoming ‘narcs.’ Illuminated by a yellow fluorescent glow, the inside has been renovated since its days as the largest drug haven in North America. Behind the glass, white-tile floors shine with a fresh layer of mop water. The plain beige walls are spotless, not a trace of graffiti in sight. There’s a lemon-detergent scent in the air. 

The door behind me opens with a hiss of wind. A woman walks in, 50s, lugging a trolley of groceries. She fishes through a large purse. “Do you have a key?” She has an accent—Russian, maybe.

“No… I’m just escaping the cold.”

“Ah,” she says, reaching into her large bag. “It’s horrible out there.” Definitely Russian.

“Yeah. I heard there’s another ice storm coming.”

She finds her key fob and taps the scanner. The door opens, revealing a fragment of a mural above the elevators inside. It swirls shades of gold, red and electric blue, depicting pastoral scenes of fairy tale characters and foggy, disjointed figures. The mural is one of the few pieces of Rochdale art, besides the Unknown Student, that’s been left behind. Maybe it’s merely viewed as a harmless aesthetic to the tenants who have no idea where they’re living. Or maybe it’s just an out-of-place reminder of what tripping on acid looks like.

“Do you know the history of this place?” I call to the woman, before she leaves.

She stops, holding the door, and smiles back. “It’s pretty unbelievable, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, it is… I’m a journalism student. I’ve been researching Rochdale College for the last few months. I’ve been a little obsessed. I don’t understand why nobody—”

“—My neighbour is the only Rochdalian that still lives in the building,” she says, as casually as she discussed the weather. “Would you like to talk to him?”

“Y-yes,” I stutter.

She hands me her trolley, loaded with whole wheat bread, and gestures for me to follow. And just like that, a complete stranger is welcomed inside. But for the front door of 341 Bloor Street West—where musicians, writers and anarchists freely entered and exited—this warm gesture is nothing new. Long before marijuana was legal, vegetarianism turned trendy and Toronto became a mecca for cinema, literature and theatre, Rochdale housed the pioneers of a new Canadian identity. This is where a revolutionary community was born. 

 

 

One overcast autumn day in 1963, when author Dennis Lee was 23 years old, he sat in the upstairs cloisters of University College, and was hit with a troubling revelation: the university system was a fraud.

He listened as fellow University of Toronto graduate students were self-consciously contributing to a guided discussion about Yeats and the movement of twentieth-century literature. He noted a lack of passion in the room, an unwillingness to say what hasn’t been said. He felt an absence of camaraderie with his fellow academics. “A Community of Scholars,” the welcoming brochures cooed—but where was this community? What did community really mean?

“What the university cared about, and insisted on, and gave marks for, was everything that got in the way,” Lee writes in the controversial book he also edited, The University Game, a collection of essays on the structures of formal education.

The book was published in 1968, a year of tremendous turmoil. Martin Luther King, Jr. was gunned down in Memphis. Robert Kennedy was shot dead in Los Angeles. North Korea had seized the USS Pueblo. And the Vietcong had launched the Tet Offensive, murdering thousands of troops and civilians.

But it was also a year of hopeful revolution. Anti-war protests raged throughout city streets. The civil rights movement was gaining momentum. Rock ’n’ roll was dominating airwaves. And the first tenants of Rochdale College were settling into 341 Bloor West, carrying book crates, luggage and idealistic ambitions for a revolutionary approach to education—an opportunity for a new kind of community promised by a man named Howard Adelman.

In 1958, Adelman, then a 19-year-old entrepreneur and theology student at the University of Toronto, was hired by a housing organization called the Campus Co-operative Residence. The organization, which had existed since the mid-1930s, had the objective of providing student housing with provincial and federal financial contribution. They turned to Adelman to help alleviate the student housing crises—a result of too many baby boomers moving within proximity to the university.

Eventually, Dennis Lee, the community-hungry graduate student at U of T, connected with Adelman, and the two worked together to map out an experiment in communal living and alternative education.

In 1964, Adelman discovered that the $175,000 annual property tax for housing units could be dodged if a residence operated as an educational institution. The idea turned into Rochdale College, named after a town near Manchester, England, where, in 1844, a group of 28 weavers formed a cooperative grocery store.

Through federal and provincial funding, Adelman, Lee and the Co-op collected enough capital to finance their $6-million project: an 18-storey high-rise on Huron and Bloor.

The plan was simple: use the building as a vertical village and testing lab for unstructured education. Courses and administrative matters would be completely run by students. Rochdale would push the boundaries of residential living and conventional academia. But maybe the concrete tower would peak too close to the sun.

 

Robarts Rare Books Archive

BANG! BANG! BANG!

My new friend raps aggressively on the door of the fifth-floor apartment. “Dan! There’s someone who wants to talk to you! Get out here!”

The beige door swings open. A tall man, with perfect posture for a man in his early 70s, looks at me with friendly blue eyes. “Dan King,” he says, extending an arm.

“Mitch,” I reply, shaking his hand.

“Mitch is interested in learning about Rochdale,” says King’s neighbour. 

“That so? Alright … Well, let me put some pants on first.” He’s wearing long-johns below a black turtleneck. “Give me a couple minutes.”

A few minutes later, after taking the elevator down, King—now wearing belted blue Levi’s—leads me down the second-floor hall to a small lounge area, next to where the Rochdale cafeteria served some of Toronto’s first vegetarian food. It also hosted Rochdale’s general meetings to discuss fund-raising, course ideas and what to do about the broken lock at the front door.

The afternoon sunlight filters onto a shelf of books. King plops onto a seat next to an old organ piano, leans back, and throws his legs up onto another chair. “So … What do you wanna know?”

Born in northern Ontario in 1948, Dan King arrived at Rochdale weeks after the first tenants unpacked their luggage. Eighteen and long-haired, he smoked pot occasionally and had witnessed some police brutality in New York the previous summer. He also had a new-found passion for theatre.

 “There was a lot of revolutionary theatre going on at the time,” he says. “One of the first plays I saw back then was [Peter Weiss’s] Marat Sade—which was about Jean-Paul Marat, one of the organizers of the French Revolution. The themes ran hot, not just in Rochdale, but across North America.” King drops his legs off the chair, leans forward and says in a hushed, grizzled tone: “We want the revolution now.”

In late October 1968, King’s own revolution came with renting a bed in the 12-room ashram on Rochdale’s fourth floor. He soon joined the theatre group in the building’s basement. It was called Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM). Founded by Jim Gerrard, who had studied at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts, Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) loosely translates in English to Theatre Beyond Walls. “The first production we worked on was a play on [British-born American Revolutionary] Thomas Paine,” says King. “We ran into some legal issues when it came to getting the rights, so we never actually performed it. But, hell, it was a blast.”

Two years later, the theatre group captured national notoriety for their production of Futz—a play about a farmer’s sexual love affair with his pet pig. King, who was not a part of this production, preferred not to comment on it.

TPM has since become a renowned theatre company. It actively searches for Canadian scripts is one of many examples of cultural influence that Rochdale College incubated.

“Whenever anybody would cover Rochdale,” King says, pointing to my notebook and pencil on the table, “all they’d ever want to talk about was the drugs, how much of a fuck-up the whole thing was. They never wanted to dive deeper.”

 

In Ron Mann’s 1994 documentary Dream Tower, Rochdale alumnus Paul Evitts discussed the college’s early outreach: “We started to see ourselves as a community creating alternatives to the status quo. So we became kind of an umbrella organization for other groups that were seeking radical change of some sort.”

Organizations that spawned after Rochdale’s inception, besides TPM, were Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre, House of Anansi Press, Huron Playschool Cooperative (originally Rochdale’s daycare), SCM Book Room and Toronto Free Dance Theatre. A group of Indigenous residents on the seventeenth floor even set up the Rochdale College Institute for Indian Studies (later Nishnawbee Institute) to help restore and celebrate Indigenous culture.

Another institution, which led the forces of public communication, came in the form of a garage-sized publishing house.

 

Stan Bevington cranks a lever on the Heidelberg—a 1960s German offset printing press. The complex contraption of gears, chains and stencils roars to life and starts ejecting pages onto a large rectangular dish. Well-oiled and in top condition, it can go through six miles of paper a day—which is 5,000 sheets an hour. “The sheets gotta be perfectly aligned so the wording and colours blend properly,” says Bevington.

After assessing the printed pages, Bevington, 74 and bald with a short gray beard, walks through a maze of machines in Coach House Books. The creaky, cobwebbed space, smelling of melted lead and oiled brass, is the size of an average garage, but it’s also well-storied in North American publishing lore. 

Located in a back alley (named bp Nichol Lane, after the poet) less than a hundred metres south of 341 Bloor West, icons such as Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, two of the founding Beats, spent many hours here—a place of literary inventiveness. Coach House has printed works from legends such as Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje and Barrie Phillip Nichol.

The door was left open. After walking in, Bevington agreed to give me a tour. He tells me that since its inception, the publishing house has advocated for radical social change; its first printed book encouraged American draft resisters to come to Canada. “Manual for Draft Age Immigrants to Canada,” by Mike Rosenbaum, was secretly distributed across the border in ’63 and ’64. About 60,000 draft dodgers arrived in Toronto throughout following years.

 “I had already been running Coach House for two years before I got involved with Rochdale,” said Bevington, sitting at an upstairs wooden table. “But they helped me out financially.”

Bevington was one of the hired ‘resource people.’ They were experts in certain fields or PhD students that were paid to offer unstructured courses and live on the 18th floor. The college helped finance Bevington’s press and covered his rent, and in return, he taught printing and publishing.

In 1968, with what was then a head full of long red hair, Bevington moved into an apartment on the 18th floor of Rochdale College. Besides some leaky pipes, a non-operational garbage chute, and glassless window frames, those opening months ran seamlessly.

Courses available explored everything from Utopia and Cosmology to Capitalism and Liberalism. They sought to answer question like: What is important to know? What is the best way of learning? How does academic knowledge relate to other kinds of knowing?

According to an original list of class options, students could choose to participate in philosophy discussions, cultural evolution studies, environmental advocacy, political science, chemistry (soon to become Rochdale’s most studied subject), or craft workshops in photography, pottery and mural painting. There were even harmonica lessons in room 207. Acoustic guitars, makeshift drums and belted vocals often reverberated through the crowded halls.

One class spent the first year creating a sculpture made of clay and durable plastic, with materials donated from numerous Toronto arts organizations. The result—the Unknown Student—depicted a humanoid figure, sitting arched over, with its back—or ass—facing the street: a potential statement to outsiders, a suspected ‘middle finger’ to society.

Michael Waite, a frequent visitor to Rochdale in its earliest days, was quoted in the book “Dream Tower: the life and legacy of Rochdale College” for his assessment of conversations that took place in the building. “In one room they’d be discussing Nietzsche, in the next room over they’d be talking about UFOs, in the next the war in Vietnam, and over in the next room they’d be rappin’ about changing the drug laws—just all these alternate ideas.”

Bright-eyed students congregated in numerous rooms, diving into the material of their self-orchestrated courses. It was a level of freedom many students never thought possible. But too much freedom can cause problems.

CANADA – ONTARIO – TORONTO – COLLEGES – ROCHDALE – BEFORE 1974

One night in late January 1969, after Dan King had returned to his room from theatre rehearsal, one of the new arrivals smashed open the glass case of the cigarette machine on the second floor next to the elevators. Security had been a problem since Rochdale student Paul Evitts had broken the front door lock in October—a gesture of invitation to anyone who wished to join the Rochdale community. Unfortunately, since authorities were cracking down on the hippie colony growing in neighbouring Yorkville, hundreds of baby boomers had started crashing in every Rochdale nook and cranny. Some slept in elevators. Some on the rooftop terrace. And some broke into apartments. Rochdale had turned from a college of 850 students to a run-down motel housing thousands of whoever showed up. And now, with no one accountable, the poor cigarette machine had to suffer.

After glass showered the floor, a night-long debate ensued. “We could’ve either turned the guy in to the pigs,” recalls King, referring to the police, which would’ve went against their anti-authority principles—“or we could mop it up and pretend it never happened, in which case we’d actually have to leave the building to get our smokes. Could you imagine that?”

Residents gathered in the cafeteria to discuss their options. “There was a guy who we called Larry the Lawyer—he might’ve been a law student at the university or something…” Larry the Lawyer urgently expressed the need to set a precedent for social order. He warned that if consequences weren’t made and the need to follow a social contract wasn’t enforced, all order would turn to chaos. Despite such warning, the kid was never turned in.

“That night was a pivotal moment,” King said. The worse was on its way. 

 

Above the doorway of the red-brick townhouse is an ancient Greek scroll that translates to: Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. The door is left open. 

Floorboards groan. Film memorabilia decorates the entrance hall—a mess of movie posters, creepy dolls and masks of aliens and monsters and apes. To my right, a comic book cover of The Punisher, with arms up in a leather trench coat, stares me down. Above it, there’s a long white canvas with faded orange stains—an authorized replica of the Shroud of Turin (worth up to $30,000). A large projector screen plays a black and white film in a living-room home theatre.

A cat emerges from the shadows. Walking past it, I hear movement in the yellow-lit kitchen ahead. A man wearing a flower-patterned blue polo stands at the counter next to the sink. He’s slicing cheese on a plate next to a box of whole wheat crackers. “It’ll be over soon,” he says, still looking down.

At first this terrifies me, but then he nods towards the theatre room—and I realize he’s talking about the movie. “Sorry I’m late.”

“Never say sorry,” he says, looking at me for the first time with long, grey eyebrows. “It’ll hold you less accountable for the stupid shit you do.”

Reg Hartt is a film historian and collector, recognized throughout North America for his vast assortment of motion pictures. His 40-seat Cineforum is a vessel for cinematic exploration. Over the years, it’s also hosted poetry readings, philosophy talks and storytelling. Typewriter font on printed sheets, plastered throughout the city, traditionally advertise Hartt’s events. A few days earlier, I had noticed a sign reading: What I Learned on LSD. I didn’t know I’d be the only one to attend.

 “Do you want a beer?” Hartt asks me, as I walk into the theatre room.

“Sure,” I say, noting a life-size cutout of Charlie Chaplin.

He hands me a Moosehead and takes a seat in front of me, before the projector screen, with his plate of cheese and crackers. I sit on one of the front row seats. “So you’re a student?”

I sense the cat peering at me from behind. “Yeah.”

“Sounds like a huge waste of time.”

I shrug, nervously, and pop off the beer cap. Time for another hippie tale.  

Born in New Brunswick in 1946, Hartt remembers drawing two stick figures on his classroom chalkboard when he was 7-years-old. He included breasts—two circles—for one figure, and a penis—a long oval—for the other. His teacher warmly applauded his sense of humour. A year later, 8-year-old Hartt pulled the same stunt in a new classroom with a new teacher. This time he was ruthlessly beaten with a ruler in front of his classmates. “It was good,” Hartt says, leaning in. “It taught me from a young age that teachers are full of shit.”  

Years later, 24-year-old Reg Hartt became a sort of teacher himself, the Director of Cinema Studies at Rochdale from 1970 to 1975. “I was invited to run the program by Judith Merril,” he says, referring to the Canadian science fiction author who also lived in the college.

Hartt showed three films a week in the second floor cafeteria. Admission was typically one dollar—or free, if you showed up naked.

Globe and Mail feature writer Ian Brown, who studied at U of T at the time, remembers participating in the educational experience. “I first saw Deep Throat there!” he said, referring to the 1972 American pornographic film. “A few people were naked at the front row. But I opted to keep my clothes on.”

One night in 1971, when Hartt was screening Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent (1940) in the cafeteria, the sounds of sirens blared from the street outside. Red and blue light streamed through the window. Naked and clothed viewers shot up from their seats. “Everyone calm the hell down!” 26-year-old Hartt shouted to the anxious crowd.

Drug busts had become a regular occurrence at Rochdale College. Earlier in the year, a gang of bikers were hired to guard the door. Dealers had moved onto the 18th floor—originally reserved for resource people—and installed steel doors with reinforced locks. “The higher the floor, the higher you got,” Hartt remembers. 

That night, dogs were barking. Someone pulled the fire alarm. Stomping feet bolted down halls. On upper floors, steel doors slammed shut. Locks engaged. Toilets flushed drugs. Hartt exited the cafeteria, following the crowd. And suddenly he was ten feet away from the barrel of a pointed gun.

“Some cop, who looked like it was his first day on the job, was aiming it at my head. The guy was shaking like a leaf.”

Terrified, Hartt threw his hands up, noticing the mutual horror in the cop’s eyes.

To many outsiders—especially police officers—Rochdale was no longer an idealistic experiment, but a den of iniquity. The place had been demonized. And this cop, who was aiming the gun at Reg Hartt’s head, was staring at one of the demons.

 Whenever society identifies a group as monsters, that’s exactly what they become, Hartt says. “They become the part of them that’s condemned.” The officer lowered the gun and sprinted towards the staircase. It was just another night at Rochdale College.

According to police records from Jan. 26, 1973 to May 27, 1973, one Morality Squad with Metro Police laid 974 drug charges on 794 people—in only four months. Confiscated drugs included 27,074 grams of marijuana, 8646 grams of hash, 85 grams of opium, 188 grams of MDMA, 974 tabs of LSD, 370 caps of THC and 103 caps of mescaline. This four month collection barely scratched the powdered surface.

In an article published in Sunday Sun on June 8, 1975, Thomas Cooke, the previous superintendent of 52nd Division, said: “Rochdale has become the biggest drug centre in North America ever. A cesspool, a sewer.”

But even the cesspool and sewer conditions didn’t prevent academics from living inside. New York Times bestselling author Catherine Gildiner, who was doing her MA in English at U of T, was one of many graduate students who took advantage of Rochdale’s cheap rent. Another perk was that there was a copy machine on the first floor—which was a rare resource for a time before the internet. “Sometimes there’d be a guy with no clothes on who would jump onto the machine and take a picture of his ass. I’d say, ‘stop’ because I’m putting Victorian poetry there.”

Gildiner tried to avoid the drug scene as much as possible. She also tried to avoid the dog shit. “People were too stoned to take their dogs out so there was dog crap in the hallway. People got too ripped to take care of their animals! The dogs had learned to take the elevators themselves.”

At this point, Rochdale’s original academic curriculum had given way to courses such as “How to Hydrate on LSD,” Gildiner says. 

 

In May 1973, a man jumped 17 storeys and landed on the roof of a 1972 Toyota. Philip Hunter was 24 years old and one of six deaths from jumping that year.

“They weren’t suicides,” said Gildiner, who witnessed two of these jumps. “These people believed they could fly.”

During police raids, bricks were often thrown off the rooftop terrace as ‘resistance.’ According to a 1974 Toronto Star article, a fridge was once thrown down at officers. They managed to dodge out of the way, unharmed. Furniture was burned. Riots raged. The building was vandalized.

“[By 1974] full occupancy couldn’t cover their operating costs,” said University of Toronto Archivist, Harold Averill. “The University was freaking out. They hated what Rochdale had come to represent.” To most of Toronto’s relief, the college was soon to collapse.  

The remaining tenants defaulted $450,000 on overdue mortgage payments. So the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation took possession of Rochdale, and the police dragged out residents and debris floor by floor.

 After the May 29, 1975 final evictions, the City of Toronto turned the sculpture known as the Unknown Student the other way. The change symbolized a new demand: for everyone to turn their back on the nightmare of Dream Tower. For almost half a century, Rochdale College was forgotten. 

The only Rochdalian who still lives in the building walks through the parking garage where he was first introduced to his love for performance. The former rehearsal space for a bunch of theatre kids now houses a black Honda Civic and a navy blue Toyota Corolla. “A few years after Rochdale closed, [1978] I was walking by the building and I saw some ‘For Rent’ signs,” Dan King says. “I thought I’d move in, and I’ve been living here ever since.”

Today, King is the tenant representative of the building called Senator A. Croll Apartments, and the Treasurer of Campus Co-op, the organization that launched Rochdale with Dennis Lee and Howard Adelman.

He opens the door to re-enter the building. As we walk into the elevator, I ask him about his decision to return after everything that went down.

“I guess I wasn’t here for the bad stuff,” King says, who left the college in 1970. “Plus, this is where I really grew up. I was an arrogant kid when I came here. This is where I learned to smarten up.”

The elevator doors close. “Marijuana, Indigenous [reconciliation], environmental advocacy—the hippies were right about a lot,” he says.   

After entering the main floor, we notice a woman knocking on the glass on the front entrance. “Hold on,” King says. “I know her.”

He opens up. “Hey! No drug dealers or bums allowed in!” he calls, playfully, before waving her in with an affectionate smile.

The woman walks inside, grinning shyly. She looks like she’s in her late twenties, with chapped lips and pale skin. Clutching an open beer can, she sports ripped jeans and tangled hair.

“Are you good for food?” King asks her, as he walks her to the elevator.

She pulls some garlic cloves out of her jacket pocket. “I’m going to make soup.”

“Do you want any bread?”

“I’d love some.”

“I’ll send some to your room.”

Almost half a century since the college’s demise, King has held onto an ideal that remained throughout the lifespan of Rochdale: a devotion to community. 

As problematic as Rochdale was, it was a community of creative exploration, determined idealism and unwavering camaraderie. Beyond the peace slogans, marijuana and long hair, it was a community where students pushed the boundaries and learned the consequences. And it was the school’s willingness to fail, to keep the door open, that made it so educational. 

I walk out and take one last look at the Unknown Student, the sculpture that saw it all but now looks away. After all these years of change, maybe it’s time to turn it back around.

 

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Mitchell Consky

Mitchell Consky is the print production editor at the Ryerson Review of Journalism. He is currently studying for his master of journalism. He studied English and film at Wilfrid Laurier University, where he was the features editor of the student newspaper, The Cord, and was previously an associate producer intern at CBC’s The Fifth Estate.

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