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What can Toronto learn from its nightlife history?

We spoke to Denise Benson, author of the new Toronto nighlife history anthology Then & Now, about how communities gather and mobilize in club spaces and how they can be supported.

- Jul 23, 2015

Then & Now started four years ago as a quick-click nostalgia series on the website of the now-defunct Toronto city weekly The Grid. But what began as a 500 word "hey, remember this club?" profile piece quickly ballooned into a series of vast, thorough, impeccably researched mini-histories that not only covered music history, shifting neighbourhoods, subcultures, politics and real estate, but also formed a cultural history of Toronto itself.

It helps that its author is Denise Benson, who is not just a walking encyclopedia of Toronto's nightlife scene but also an active participant in it as both a writer and DJ. As Then & Now launches tonight in Toronto in long overdue book form via Three O'Clock Press - a series of 48 of Toronto's most influential clubs of the last 50 or so years - a history of this stature is not only welcome, it almost seems inevitable.

There's a reason there's a sudden interest in Toronto's cultural history. As we've spent the last few decades proclaiming ourselves a "world class city," people outside of it have actually started paying attention. But, as always, we're conflicted. As the city tries to market Toronto internationally on the basis of its music scene, increasing gentrification and red tape has pulled it in two directions: either watered down for mass consumption, or pushed further underground. There's more pride than ever in what we've grown, but less space to continue to grow it.

With that in mind, we called up Denise Benson to talk about what we can learn from the 48 clubs she profiled, which spaces are pushing us forward, and where the music community can go from here.

denise benson

Then & Now started as a column in The Grid, but even before that magazine folded it seemed like it was outgrowing it. These pieces are all so ambitious and thorough and well-researched, it seems like these would have taken a ton of time for a bi-weekly online hit. They really seemed to hit a nerve. What made them balloon like they did?

Clubs are about more than just drinking, partying, meeting people and so on. They're social places, where communities come together. They're a city’s living breathing history.

Denise Benson
When [The Grid's online editor] Stuart Berman initially approached to me with the idea, I was a bit hesitant. I was like “hm, you know I tend to look more forward than back.” The idea was definitely much more like a quick hit: let’s look at some of the most popular clubs that have been in the city, do one interview, run a couple of photos of what it looked like then and what the building looks like now, and get people talking. And people really did talk. People felt connected to it, because, let’s face it, the places we go out to we lose ourselves in, we dance at, meet people at - people carry those memories for a lifetime.

And me too, I felt a very personal connection to the stuff. Because to me clubs are about community. They are more than just drinking, partying, listening, meeting people and so on. They're social places, where communities come together. There is a long history of bars and clubs being the places the community would gather to get active about issues and protest on the streets. Especially as a queer person, that’s the place I come from with clubs. It's a fascination for that community. It is at the heart of the stories, and I think Toronto has a lot of those stories. To me that's at the root of Then & Now and so it made sense to want to tell more and more.

In the last five years or so, there have been a number of new books that cover that era - the '70s, '80s, '90s - of Toronto cultural history. There's Perfect Youth, Treat Me Like Dirt, Trouble In The Camera Club, which are all about Toronto's punk history. There's Army of Lovers, which is about Will Munro and the queer/rock/art scene that formed around him.Why do you think there’s a renewed interest all of a sudden?

I think there’s a few reasons for that. When you look to all the people who have been writing these books - Sam Sutherland or Don Pyle or Sarah Liss - they are people who have been and are still are involved in scenes. It’s not an outsider’s perspective; it’s very much like a contributor’s perspective, and a passionate perspective.

But I also think, one thing that has shifted is that there’s a pride in Toronto -  it’s not that it’s never not been here, it's ebbed and flowed, but the consistent level of pride has really raised. That’s been across the board. Whether that’s the indie rock scene, or hip-hop, or electronic music and so on, there’s so much happening in the city and we’re proud to talk about our own. In the past people were hesitant or didn’t think people would care. I think the more that we are each adding our own voices and perspective, the more interested we are in connecting the dots. I certainly hope it’s a trend that we see developing and continuing.

As you said, clubs are about more than just drinking and dancing. They're often community hubs and they're intimately connected to social issues of the day. So, while these are about specific clubs in Toronto's history, in a way it's also a cultural history of Toronto as a whole. 

Absolutely and that’s exactly the intent of the project. Clubs are microcosms of communities and cultural movements. Some people may see clubs as just the drugs, the drinking, the this, the that. It's true, that’s one aspect and it certainly doesn’t belittle or take away what clubs can contribute to a city. But it's more than that. Having the chapters in a sequential order, you really get a sense of the history that was woven here. So this book is way more than individual clubs and what made them cool or interesting. It’s about a city’s living breathing history.

Let's say you were doing the same project 20 years from now. Do you see any newer clubs that would make up that cultural history?

Well, Wrongbar certainly would have. I wrote about Footwork, and Coda had opened around the time when I wrote that piece, so Coda is a current club that I’d point to. I mean, I'm fascinated by those guys. Joel and Steph even before Footwork were doing parties at 99 Sudbury, and that’s its own whole history. So 99 Sudbury could definitely warrant a piece too. A little bit of the history of Sunnyside would be super interesting, particularly it’s relation to parties and musical events. On a smaller scale in size but no less a community space, Henhouse. That's just closed.

The venues that are interesting, no matter the era, are the venues where people, music, culture, community - those are the elements that are put first. There are some clubs that have stood out for putting thought into good sound, but not as many as should be the case. But when you look at the clubs that stand out, they know what they want and why and generally they reflect an underground approach. Not, you know, "we’re cool and underground," but what people are passionate about. The places I am less interested in are the places that are more super high cover charge that are about the money and creating this notion of being exclusive. That whole VIP thing I couldn’t care less about.

As much as this is a book about Toronto's cultural history, it's also a book about gentrification and the condo boom. Looking back, do you think Toronto has lost a part of it's club scene?

A few thoughts on that. Literally even from the very first piece the notion was, from the "then" and the "now," of course you can’t escape the fact that the "now" is often about condos and development. So absolutely from the start it was about gentrification, it was about what the buildings had become and what that tells us about the city. I think that’s one of the reasons why we’re seeing these histories. As the population has grown, the interest in the city has grown. Toronto’s obviously far more established internationally in terms of politics, music, culture, etc. But it also has to look at where those things come from, who participates, and how those hubs are created and supported.

When all the buildings have been built and we have all the people here and the density is here, there’s going to be more people creating, more people going out to venues. The question is: where will they go?

Denise Benson
One of the most difficult things about Toronto right now is the question of where do you, where can you, open new spaces? We have lost a lot of what used to be our playgrounds. People tell stories in the Twilight Zone chapter about telling people trying to find it to go stand at the corner of University and Richmond and listen for the bass. Well, no longer, right? One thing I learned that was really interesting to me when I interviewed Michael, one of the owners of Voodoo, which had been at Yonge and St. Joseph, he said that part of the reason it shut down was because he was getting some flack from Jack Layton, who was the councillor of the area. Even at that point, and that club closed in ‘85, the reason it got shut down was because the area was much more residential and there were actually plans at that point to start developing apartments - what we now call condos.

So when you look through the book, this rise of the condo, it’s been going on for decades. It’s been so intense. You know this from living here. You can’t go anywhere without... even where I am up at Davenport, it’s just construction everywhere. And, you know, there’s positives and negatives. From a club perspective there’s buildings being bought up, shut down and then transformed. We’re losing venues. There’s not a lot of options for opening particularly mid to larger size venues. And obviously you have to put a lot of attention into soundproofing and so on. That’s one thing about Toronto: the way the city has been built, most areas are residential or they are a bit of a mix. It’s not like there’s a region you go to for nightlife. That’s originally how the Entertainment District had been imagined, and obviously that imploded. So that’s the downside.

The upside is that when all the buildings have been built and we have all the people here and the density is here, there’s going to be more people creating, more people going out to venues. The question is: where will they go?

It's also interesting to look at how politicians are starting to look at the music scene. As far as the Toronto Music City initiative goes, it seems like they're trying to a) cultivate it and b) market it. But you have to have the music to support in the first place, right. And for that you need venues? 

You do. You also have to know that Kanye West is not Canadian. Okay, people get informed, people learn things. That was a bit cynical. However, you know, if it’s a true initiative...

Listen, there’s enough people involved in 4479 and Music Canada and so on that really do want to make good things happen, but I don’t think we can say enough that also means that the city has to, parallel to that, look at what noise by-laws mean and not just slap moratoriums and make it impossible to get liquor licenses, to actually work with people to help develop solutions. Because otherwise we’re never going to be this so-called world class whatever whatever. And we already are on so many levels. But if they want to talk from a purely business perspective, well then you need places for people to actually go experience the music - live music, DJs, whatever the case - spend their dollars, pump it back into the music being produced and created here. We need that and we’re increasingly losing that.

In a way it seems like the city is with one hand making it hard for the culture to flourish and on the other hand trying to profit from it.

Well, we also live in a city that allows all these developers to build buildings and then isn’t keeping up with the infrastructure. It’s not unrelated.

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