Little physically remains of Rochdale College, Toronto’s great hippie experiment in free education and communal living.
The 18-storey tower where it was housed, at 341 Bloor St. W., is now a Toronto Community Housing property with little to account for its storied origins. What has survived is “The Unknown Student,” a sculpture of a cross-legged figure hugging knees to chest while quietly marking a history whose legacy continues elsewhere.
For many, Rochdale College lives in memory as Toronto’s foremost example of flower child hedonism gone awry. Bankrolled by Campus Co-Operative Residences Inc. (which only recently rid itself of Rochdale-induced debts), the complex opened in 1968. The tower was meant to fill a housing demand, all the while offering a free-wheeling social structure to contrast with the stuffy conventionalism of the outside world. When it was shuttered seven years later for defaulting on its mortgage, the building had gained notoriety as a drug distribution epicentre ridden with bike gangs and squatters.
But there are several organizations still around that were founded by Rochdale community members. Those include Coach House Press, the Hassle Free Clinic, and the Huron Playschool Cooperative (originally the Rochdale Nursery School) which, like Rochdale itself, observes 2013 as its 45th anniversary year.
According to Stuart Henderson, a pop-culture historian currently at work on an extensive chronicle of Rochdale College, the nursery school grew out of a need to establish Rochdale as a distinct society that was separate and parallel to mainstream Toronto, one that demanded health and community services to serve its population.
“I've talked to people who would go weeks at a time, months even, without going outside, because everything was in the building,” Mr. Henderson says. “And we’re talking from childcare all the way to maternity doctors. People could give birth at Rochdale.”
Within these homegrown initiatives, Rochdale’s hippie residents could avoid the condescension – and, often, complete refusal of services – offered by “straight” clinics and childcare facilities on the outside.
But the nursery school’s Rochdale incarnation would prove short-lived. Uneasy with the provision of an accredited nursery school in a high-rise of transients, the city forced Rochdale Nursery School to close in 1971. It did so, but only formally: Its teachers picked up and moved from their roomy fourth floor “Zeus” apartment into the basement of St. Thomas’s Anglican Church, half a block south on Huron Street.
Separate, but related, childminding initiatives within the commune continued. Nicki Morrison, who lived in Rochdale on-and-off throughout its existence – and whose son was the first baby to be born in Rochdale – founded the building’s Acorn childcare co-operative in room 626 in the fall of 1971.
“We were kind of a big home, in some ways, and mothers would talk to each other because we had something in common,” Ms. Morrison recalls. “The daycare just kind of evolved. Next thing you knew, we had a group of people.” Parents took turns looking after each other’s kids, locating play equipment from throughout the city and leading expeditions to a nearby green space. Meanwhile, around the corner, the newly renamed Huron Co-op Nursery School continued with an overlapping pool of attendees.
“We still have parents who probably wouldn’t mind being classified as hippies,” says Tracey Peggy, Playschool Cooperative’s current director. “We still attract the somewhat alternative crowd, partly because you have to have some flexibility to co-op.”
As was the case in the school’s inception, parental involvement is still a cornerstone of its operating model. Among other things, parents are required to come into the classroom and teach alongside staff three times a month in addition to assisting with event planning and administration.
“And when things happen in people’s lives that are not so good, the families are there to support each other,” adds Ms. Pegg, recalling the high-profile 2011 cycling death of Jenna Morrison, a Playschool parent.
Despite Rochdale’s persistent community impact, Co-operative Housing Federation of Toronto executive director Tom Clement points out that history tends to emphasize the negative elements of its brief but influential lifespan.
“When I was a young man, most people didn't realize Rochdale was a co-op,” Mr. Clement says. “We just thought it was kind of this weird place where people did a lot of drugs.” When Toronto's housing co-operative movement took hold in the mid-seventies, Rochdale marked a chapter most of its players preferred to forget.
Mr. Henderson warns against conflating Rochdale the space with Rochdale the community. “When Rochdale the building disappeared as a site for these people, these people went on,” he says. “It’s all over the city, examples of how Rochdale has left its mark and crept into the mainstream culture and influenced us positively.”Report Typo/Error
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