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2007 01 09
Imagining Toronto | Reading The Underside of Toronto

Edited by noted York University sociologist William Edward Mann (now emeritus), The Underside of Toronto (McClelland & Stewart, 1970) anthologizes, circa 1970, the city's more derelict or daring neighbourhoods ("Yorkville Subculture", "Rochdale: The Ultimate Freedom"), its sexual practices ("Sex at York University", "Crisis at the Victory Burlesk") and vices ("Toronto's Pornography: Disease or Symptom"), and some of its emerging immigrant and cultural classes ("Blacks in Toronto", "Student Radicals", "The Gay World"). In doing so, the anthology marks a seismic shift not only in the character of Toronto itself in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but in the way the city was viewed and judged by its residents and researchers of the period. Nearly forty years later, The Underside of Toronto is a perplexing and telling read, not so much for the quality or continued relevance of its analysis, but because it is a useful document of the city's fears and desires in an era of change not unlike our own.

As Mann writes in the introduction,
This new Toronto of 1970 is withal a much more vital and dynamic place. It boasts its Bohemia (in Yorkville), its poets and artists, and its clever satirists. It is fast acquiring touches of European sophistication; attractive bars, coffee houses, and foreign restaurants are blossoming, and there are even sidewalk cafes in the summer. Downtown newsstands are overflowing with foreign language papers and magazines, many of the former published locally. In the ethnic areas, stores sell exotic imported foods, and druggists advertise their wares in half a dozen languages. Old "Hogtown" Toronto now advertises avant-garde plays, ragtime bands, Italian song festivals, pizza carnivals, motoramas, pop festivals, stripperamas, and numerous attic and cellar clubs where one can listen to poetry, jazz, and folk music until later into the night.
He adds, "In short, Toronto has begun to mirror every sophisticated metropolis in the world as a centre of many facets". This latter comment is telling in itself, especially given how closely it mirrors our contemporary assertions that Toronto is (or is on the verge of becoming) a "world class" city. Some preoccupations, it seems, do not fade away easily. Perhaps Toronto hasn't changed very much after all.

And perhaps it hasn't. Martin O'Malley's essay, "Blacks in Toronto" explores the subtle racism practiced in Toronto and uses strikingly familiar examples, such as apartments and jobs suddenly "already filled" when applicants show up in person. Merrijoy Kelner's "Changes in Toronto's Elite Structure" underscores the continued insularity of 'old boys' networks, even when they begin to include women and minorities, because (as Kelner points out), "Once they have become members of "the club," they are not likely to break the rules." William Johnson's "The Gay World" describes a gay culture that appears only slightly less integrated into city life than today's version. On the whole, the thing about Toronto that seems to have changed most since 1970 is the way Torontonians respond to the particular 'subcultures' documented in The Underside of Toronto, perceiving them not as subcultures but merely as variants along the city's cultural continuum.

But the idea that Toronto is filled with subcultures, some merely exotic and others potentially dangerous, appears not to have changed. While reading The Underside of Toronto, I kept wondering what a new anthology using the same title would contain. Most likely it would include an article appraising the security threat posed by radicals among Toronto's growing Muslim and Tamil populations alongside an essay exploring the neighbourhood proselytizing of Jehovah's Witnesses. Perhaps one of Toronto's newly legal sex clubs would be evaluated as a threat to morality or local real estate values. The anthology would almost certainly include an ethnographic study of homeless or rooming house life, a geographic inventory of marijuana grow houses, and a drive-by collage of the city's ethnic gangs.

But another group that stands out to me as most likely to be included in a new anthology of Toronto's subcultural or deviant social character would be Toronto's middle-class suburban population, whose values and lifestyles are already singled out as responsible for (or symptomatic of) so many of the city's woes: its pollution and traffic congestion, its band of unrepentant conservativism, and the proliferation of big box retail outlets bordering the city like a ring of sores. The inclusion of this last group would suggest that an interesting inversion has occurred in what we consider subcultural in this city. At a time when Toronto's diversity is celebrated so widely, and in a context where 'subculture' is defined against the culture considered dominant, perhaps the city still requires some 'Other' to define itself against.


In conjunction with the Imagining Toronto project, Amy Lavender Harris writes about new, classic, and evocative Toronto literature every Tuesday.

[The doorway image was created by Dan Iggers and is used under the aegis of a Creative Commons license.]
[email this story] Posted by Amy Lavender Harris on 01/09 at 01:14 PM

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