When We Walked a Magic Street: Remembering Toronto’s Summer of Love

Mike Crisolago | August 15th, 2017
Summer of Love

A young hippie entertains onlookers with a dance during the Love-In at Toronto's Queen's Park. (Photo: Jeff Goode/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Fifty years ago this year, Toronto hippies revelled in the Summer of Love. From the music to the clashes with cops, we look back on the summer of 1967 through the eyes of the people who lived it.

Cathy Young surveyed the crowd of about 5,000 floral-painted hippies, curious onlookers and the odd rock star—including members of Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead—splayed across Toronto’s Queen’s Park and knew exactly what song to play: Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Cod’ine.”

At 16, it was the only tune she felt confident enough to perform at the city’s first Love-In, held during the Victoria Day long weekend in 1967—an event in which even Leonard Cohen trekked up from New York to sing a few tunes, a flower tucked purposefully behind his ear.

Young prepared to take the stage as the announcement boomed over the loud speaker:

“Ladies and gentlemen, now we have a surprise guest artist…”

The teenager clutched her guitar. It was time.

“… Warner Bros. recording artist …”

Strange. She didn’t have a Warner Bros. recording deal.

“Buffy Sainte-Marie!”

Without warning the Native Canadian singer entered to a chorus of cheers, prompting Young to alert event co-organizer Brian “Blues” Chapman of her plan to play the same Sainte-Marie tune.

“Blues looked at me and he said, ‘You can always chicken out,'” Young, 66, remembers. So the undeterred teen, who eventually nabbed a Juno in 1974 for Most Promising Female Vocalist of the Year and a nomination for 1975’s Female Artist of the Year, marched out onto the stage to follow Buffy Sainte-Marie’s performance—with a cover of Buffy Sainte-Marie. “What are you going to be afraid of after that?” she laughs today, recalling the afternoon, 50 years ago, that proved a watershed moment for both Young and Toronto itself, ushering in the defining cultural movement of a generation.

“That was the first sort of public flowering of hippie culture in Toronto,” says Nicholas Jennings, author of the seminal Canadian music history tome Before the Gold Rush. “There was this cultural or generational gap between the hippies and the so-called straight Toronto culture … so the hippies really wanted to show the rest of Toronto that ‘Hey, we’re just like anybody else.'”

“I made these ponchos and we painted flowers on our faces and flowers on our knees and part of it was just running into people you knew and dancing,” Linda R. Goldman, then 16 and attending with a friend, recalls. “We went to school after the Love-In with our knees still painted. It was fun though. It was fun being different.”

Next: How it all began…

The seeds of the Summer of Love were planted in January 1967 in San Francisco at the first Human Be-In, where hippies keen on love, peace and the prospect of a higher consciousness—not to mention the psychedelic drugs used to attain it—flocked to join counterculture leaders like Timothy Leary and rockers like The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane in a longhaired, tie-dyed, free-loving crusade. By July, the city’s Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood served as the pot-hazed nucleus of the hippie flowering, nurturing the music, fashions, drugs and attitudes that defined the movement.

At the same time, about 3,700 km north east of San Francisco, Toronto’s modest Yorkville neighbourhood, fresh off its own cultural metamorphosis, became something of a “Haight-Ashbury North,” an alternative oasis of Victorian homes, coffee shops, restaurants, and live music.

“It was the bands, the people that you met,” Goldman says. “Somebody I know came up with a great line—’When we walked a magic street.’ And I love that.”

A quaint Victorian neighbourhood just north of Bloor Street, the shift in Yorkville’s cultural landscape began, along with the rest of the city, in the early 1960s. Canadian poet and former Yorkville resident Karen Mulhallen, 75, remembers that an influx of American ex-pats helped Hogtown shed its reputation as a bore town. “I think it was all a kind of loosening up after the 50s, the Korean War and that kind of stuff. Toronto of course, benefited greatly from the Vietnam War because of all the wonderful people that moved here and they stayed for a long time. They transformed the city,” she recalls. “They had to make a living and some of them had come out Haight-Ashbury which generated all that energy. The shift was dramatic.”

Around the same time, Jennings notes, European entrepreneurs imported a café culture to Yorkville, serving cheap java with a key ingredient— live music. Joni Mitchell, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Neil Young, Gordon Lightfoot, Ian & Sylvia and countless others all cut their teeth in Yorkville coffee houses in the early 1960s while future fashion mavens like Marilyn Brooks set up shop. Authors and artists also piled in—a happening, Jennings says, that “shook Toronto of old to the core.”

“There’s a Joni Mitchell song called ‘Night in the City’ about how ‘music comes spilling out into the street’ and that’s literally what was happening,” he adds. “The bands were all playing on the main floors of these Victorian houses in the clubs like the Night Owl or Chez Monique or El Patio.”

By the summer of 1967, as the rest of Canada marked the nation’s centenary through Montreal’s Expo or decried the visit of French president Charles de Gaulle, who provoked separatist tensions and international ire by declaring, “Vive le Québec libre,” the hippies of Yorkville, like their flower brothers and sisters in Haight-Ashbury, rejoiced in music, pot and free love. Goldman hitchhiked from her home near Bathrust and Sheppard in the city’s north end to join in the revelry while Young, who lived and worked in the neighbourhood, stayed up one night with friends to paint flowers all over the pavement on Yorkville’s Scollard Street. “There was a movement,” she says. “It resonated with our souls. We could be more than just nine to five, get the picket fence, have the kids, have the car, go to work, be enslaved.”

In late July, The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane once again transplanted themselves from the west coast to Toronto, playing a free concert for an estimated 50,000 fans in front of City Hall using Yorkville staple Luke and the Apostles as their opening act. The bands followed up with a week of shows at the former O’Keefe Centre.

“It was kind of a golden summer. It was the height of everything that we believed in,” recalls David DePoe, then a 23-year-old activist and community leader whose group, the Diggers, organized Yorkville’s Village Council. DePoe and company cooked meals and arranged shelter and social services for kids in the area, including troubled youth who’d arrive from across Canada. They set up networks to distribute condoms, birth control and medical aid for sexually transmitted diseases and warned against hard drugs. Others came from outside the neighbourhood to help, including noted author and activist June Callwood, as well as future star lawyers Clayton Ruby and Paul Copeland—law students at the time—who taught hippies their legal rights in the face of police harassment. “We all believed in peace and love and understanding,” DePoe says. “We were alienated from the straight world and wanted to live by different, alternate or counterculture values.”

Eventually, media reports of pot-smoking hippies with painted faces and colourful clothes attracted another type of visitor—gawkers. The drive-by ogling of the Yorkville hippies as freak show acts, with accompanying traffic congestion and exhaust fumes, led to a showdown with the straight world in August 1967, when DePoe led multiple non-violent Sit-Ins, including in city councillors’ own chairs at City Hall. When the city dismissed their effort to make the neighbourhood a pedestrian-only locale, the hippies took their Sit-In to Yorkville’s streets.

DePoe explains that the goal of blocking neighbourhood traffic was to get people out of their cars and create a dialogue. Instead, the city called in the police.

“The night of the closing the street my friend Linda and I actually sat down on Yorkville. Then all of a sudden there was a paddy wagon and police were pulling kids into it,” Goldman remembers. “We just said ‘Let’s get out of here’ and we did. It’s funny at 16 to have that kind of maturity, because we loved the whole thing but we didn’t want to go to jail for it.”

“The Ontario Film Board has some footage of David DePoe holding my hand [at the Sit-In],” Young adds. “I’ve got my little Sgt. Pepper jacket on and then we sat down and as soon as the cops came, I ran. Pops was an old guy who had one of those popcorn carts and he used to have all kinds of toys and candies and he used to hang out with us. He was about 80 back then and they took him to jail. I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, look how they’re dragging him’ so I took off.”

In hindsight, DePoe points to the naïvety of those involved in the cause when considering the grander plan the city had for the neighbourhood. “We believed in peace, love and understanding. We didn’t understand the political and economic forces that were behind it. We didn’t understand that developers have a huge amount of power and that they had an interest in buying up this area.”

Though the crowd was broken that night, the spirit of Yorkville’s Summer of Love continued through the winter and into 1968. “It didn’t really end,” Goldman says. “The bands just kept playing in the bars … and then the next thing was the spring of 68. Then that summer things got a little more psychedelic. That summer was fantastic as well.” Biker gangs and the harder drugs they brought with them, however, chipped away at the carefree hippie veneer and a media-hyped Hepatitis scare slowly scared many of the regular revelers away. By 1969, even local hippies packed their caftans and left.

Next: Today’s Yorkville…

In the 50 years since the hippies abdicated their counterculture kingdom, gentrification and luxury investment has taken the neighbourhood from high times to high fashion. Today’s Yorkville gawkers eye expensive boutiques and Hollywood A-listers sampling the eats at one of the area’s many elite restaurants. Million dollar suites at the Four Seasons and Hazelton Hotel stand where hippies once slept on used mattresses while the patios and laneways are manicured to perfection—little consolation to those who once called it home.

“I look between the cracks,” Young says, referencing the pavement where she painted flowers in the middle of the night. “I’m looking to see if there’s chips of paint there and I don’t see anything.”

Young does note, though, that a Walk of Fame to honour the people and events from the neighbourhood’s hippie heyday in in the works, via the Yorkville Village Alumni Association. And beyond those few blocks, the spirit of the era lives on in the fabric of the society it transformed.

“It’s a huge list of people that were very engaged with art, with life, with our culture and Canadian nationalism, the feeling that we as a culture were distinct,” Mulhallen says. “It really was a period in which the country got its identity.”

“My take on this is that a lot of people came out of there with those values,” says DePoe, who believes the era’s social movements helped pave the way for the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. “The people I know now still hold to those values … I mean wars are awful and everybody needs to be treated with dignity and respect and we’re now like the elders in these things. And some people went back into, as we called it at the time, the ‘straight world.’ I became a teacher but I don’t think I ever lost my values.”

Jennings, meanwhile, called the 1967 hippies “the bellwethers signaling a changing of the guard.

“These were all issues that they were raising, whether it be the Vietnam War or the benefits of marijuana … they were seeing things that others weren’t yet.”

And then, of course, there’s the music. The soul of 1960s Yorkville, the music created and fostered by such an unprecedented gathering of artists shaped our cultural consciousness and remains a testament to the spirit that imbued the time.

“It’s easy to just reduce it to the handful, the four or five big, big names: Joni, Leonard, Neil, Gordon Lightfoot and Ian & Sylvia. But you could also add to that Buffy Saint-Marie, who wrote her most famous protest song ‘Universal Soldier’ at The Purple Onion. And you have to include later singer-songwriters who have also put Canada on the world map in terms of music, people like Bruce Cockburn and Murray McLauchlan and bands like Lighthouse and Blood, Sweat & Tears and Steppenwolf. It goes on and on and on,” Jennings says. “It was extraordinary to have that concentration of cultural activity in just a couple of city blocks. It’s very rare. I don’t know that it’ll ever happen again. It was the first wave of Canadian songwriting and I think that’s the lasting legacy of Yorkville.”