Vice & Virtue

Sexy is not the word you’d usually use to describe a show on moral reform and regulation, but the library’s Vice & Virtue exhibit is a real looker. Warm red walls, fabulous black-and-white photos and some zippy charts show just how far we’ll go to keep pleasure at bay. Prohibition, censorship and some really virulent homophobia – when it comes to policing the id, we’ve done it all. There’s only one small cabinet and a chart devoted to gay history, but it’s a cool little show, and the central image – blown up at the entrance – is alone worth the price of admission. A wonderfully dark and gloomy shot of Yonge Street looking north from below College Street circa 1914, it shows Toronto in an earlier low-rise era, the streets clogged with streetcars, pedestrians and even the occasional horse-drawn cart. There’s a pre-prohibition liquor store in the foreground – hard to conceive in this LCBO era – and the tower of an old fire hall in the left rear background. What the exhibition won’t tell you is that the tower once marked the site of one of Toronto’s most famous homo hotspots. For generations of Torontonians, the St. Charles Tavern was the gay bar. Gay men gathered in the huge, U-shaped space and on Halloween, homophobes arrived to pelt the drag queens with eggs. The bar went gay in the mid-1960s and remained so until its demise in 1987. The small TD Gallery always has some interesting shows but this is one of the best, especially if you’re partial to Toronto history. It runs until April 30, 2017.


Fran Frowns on Faulkner

Fun interview with the always witty Fran Lebowitz in the New York Times. Highlights: She reads at every meal, owns 10,000 books and avoids Kindles. She likes Henry Green and Wyndham Lewis but not Faulkner. If she can be this witty in conversation, why isn’t she producing more essays? Martin Scorsese’s 2010 documentary about her, Public Speaking, provided some answers but not enough.

Cool Chronology

Part two of Don McLeod’s magisterial account of early Canadian gay lib is out and available on-line. It’s a chronology with sources rather than a straightforward history and so maybe not something you’re likely to read straight through, but it’s an absolutely invaluable source for the still wildly uncharted territory of Canadian gay history and even the most casual browse is likely to provoke a couple of bouts of “Oh, I remember that,” or better yet, “I didn’t know that.” Want to know when Anita Bryant visited Toronto, the feds allowed gay immigration or the police raided the Body Politic? Here’s where you’ll find it.

Part one, Lesbian and Gay Liberation in Canada: A Selected Annotated Chronology, 1964-1975, came out in 1996 and was initially available in paper. Part two, covering the years 1976–1981, is about three times the size and only available on-line. (I hear it would have been too expensive to print.) Online is of course easier to search than paper, but I hope somebody will eventually issue it in paper-bound format. Something this valuable deserves to be made permanent.

Intimate Images

When it comes to gay history, the period before the 1960s is a photographic black hole. Most gay archives are lucky to have a few images. San Francisco’s G.L.B.T. Historical Society, on the other hand, has actual home movies, some dating from the 1940s. Alastair Gee writes about it for the on-line New Yorker and the mag helpfully supplies some clips. Nice to see that the tell-tale gay gestures haven’t changed a bit.

Tough As Nails

Five Toronto artists explore glamour as a tool for resistance in a new art show, Tough As Nails: Transgressive Queer Glamour. Work by Maddie Alexander, Kim Ninkuru, Beck Gilmer Osborne, Danny Welsh and Shellie Zhang. April 5 to 23, 2016, YTB Gallery, 563 Dundas St E., Suite 201, Toronto.

Tower Threatens to Trample Church Street

Not content with demolishing Yonge Street, Toronto developers are closing in on Church Street as well. One developer has already secured permission for a 37-storey tower at Church and Carlton. Now another developer wants to put up an even taller building just a block north, on the parking lot east of Maple Leaf Gardens.

The proposed condo, at the corner of Church and Wood, would soar 45 storeys from the midst of an urban landscape dominated by 19th century stores, a 1930s hockey arena and 1950s mid-rises. Even by the cookie-cutter standards of Toronto developers, this seems a tad out of place.

The heart of the gay bar strip is housed just two blocks north in a cluster of two- or three-storey, mostly 19th century buildings. Woody’s, the business that launched the strip way back in 1989, occupies part of a five-unit, three-storey complex that dates from 1893.

Across the street from the proposed development is a playground, a three-storey school, some mid-rise co-ops and the bulky but relative stumpy Maple Leaf Gardens.

The first public consultation was held Dec. 8, 2015 in a rather beige room at the Courtyard Marriott. The city failed to give proper notice of the meeting but 70-odd people still showed up. Most of them talked about problems related to shadows, traffic, congestion, gentrification and garbage disposal, but of course the central issue is size. The building is simply too big for the neighbourhood.

Existing zoning limits the site to 10 storeys and a recent amendment to the city’s official plan suggests 15 to 25 storeys, but that doesn’t seem to bother the property owners. They’re already appealing the amendment to the Ontario Municipal Board.

Worse than the plan’s size, though, is its sheer numbing blandness. The developer has tried to tart up the tower with what it calls “honeycomb” balconies, but the overall design is the biggest cliché in contemporary Toronto architecture: the podium and tower. No word on what to expect at ground level, where retail/commercial spaces are proposed for both Church and Wood Streets, but anyone who knows Toronto condos knows what to expect here: a bank and a drug store.

If this development gains approval we’ll see two to three years of noise and construction followed by a daunting tower that will evaporate what little remains of Church Street’s creaky but still authentic charm. If you want to see where this might lead, check out Charles Street East, where near constant condo construction has turned a once charming street of friendly low-rises into an alienating parade of glass boxes patrolled by security guards.

Nobody doubts the site should be developed. The parking lot that currently occupies the land adds nothing to the neighbourhood. But whatever the developers dream up it, it should be no more than 10 stories with solid provision for an interesting mix of retail and even – in an ideal world – a park.

A second public meeting is scheduled for Tue. Feb. 9, 2016 at the Courtyard Marriott Hotel, 475 Yonge St. at Wood. For further information, contact Councillor Wong-Tam or the city planner in charge, Mark Chlon.

Finding Nifty Stuff in Unexpected Places

Serendipity is a kind of creative observation, says Pagan Kennedy, author of a forthcoming book called Inventology: How We Dream Up Things That Change The World. You find something you don’t know you’re looking for by paying close attention to the world and remaining alert to surprise. The journalistic term for this is “gathering string” – “the first stage of reporting, when you’re looking for something that you can’t yet name. … ‘string’ is the stuff that accumulates in a journalist’s pocket. It’s the note you jot down in your car after the interview, the knickknack you notice on someone’s shelf, or the anomaly that jumps out at you in Appendix B of an otherwise boring research study.”

Book Deals

I bought a real book in a real store the other day without researching prices online beforehand and felt wildly self-indulgent. Surely Amazon could better the store’s 30% discount? Not so, it seems. The on-line giant was only offering 25% off on that particular title. Once you could count on Amazon for discounts on hardcovers and trade paperbacks of about 37% and 25% respectively. Not anymore. You can still get great deals, but it’s certainly not guaranteed. A random survey of hardcovers I’m interested in suggests discounts range from 50% to 11%. Slowly but surely online prices seem to be rising, which must give comfort to independent booksellers struggling with thin margins.

Only the Rich Can Afford Silence

Jonathan Franzen has a nice bit on the internet and class in the New York Times Book Review. While the rich can find the peace and quiet necessary for creation and reflection in upscale sanctuaries like airport business lounges, the rest of us have to put up with flashing screens and advertisements. “Our digital technologies aren’t politically neutral,” writes Franzen. “The young person who cannot or will not be alone, converse with family, go out with friends, attend a lecture or perform a job without monitoring her smartphone is an emblem of our economy’s leechlike attachment to our very bodies.” His reflections come in a review of Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age.

As if to prove his point Toronto’s Central YMCA has just installed TVs on almost all of the treadmills and cross-trainers in the main conditioning room. It’s now almost impossible to do cardio without watching a screen or watching someone else watch a screen.