Recuperating the City

  • Lawrence Aronsen (Author)
    City of Love and Revolution: Vancouver in the Sixties. New Star Books
  • Amy Lavender Harris (Author)
    Imagining Toronto. Mansfield Press
Reviewed by Maia Joseph

If we have witnessed what might be tentatively called an “urban turn” in the recent discourse on Canadian literature, Amy Lavender Harris is certainly a vital voice in the emerging conversation. With a background in geography, urban planning, and labour relations, Harris is also a passionate and indefatigably curious reader, collector, and teacher of Toronto-based literature. She first started researching Toronto literary texts when she was asked to create a course on the topic for York University’s Department of Geography; thinking that she would discover only a few dozen texts, she soon began to amass an extensive library of books. The surprising abundance and diversity of literary production in Toronto, both historical and contemporary, led her to develop an impressive (and ever-expanding) online inventory of Toronto literature and, eventually, a book, Imagining Toronto.

In Imagining Toronto, Harris sets herself the task of recuperating the literature of a city that—despite the presence of a lively community of writers, a healthy publishing culture, and a widespread love of reading— often fails to recognize and celebrate its rich tradition of locally-based writing. The goal of recuperation seems to drive Harris’s tendency to privilege, in the book, extensive quotation and brief discussion of multiple texts over sustained close reading and critical analysis. Her geographical interest in place is evident in her decision to organize her readings topographically: in the first half of Imagining Toronto, she explores literary representations of the natural and built landscape, from Toronto’s lakefront, ravines, and islands to its streets, downtown towers, and neighbourhoods. Brought together in this way, Harris proposes, the texts create a meaning-laden map of the city. In the second half of the book, she uses thematic associations to link her discussions of texts, focusing on multiculturalism, sex and relationships, social class, and the suburban experience. Over the course of Imagining Toronto, Harris develops an engaging, polyphonic literary portrait of the city.

Imagining Toronto and its companion website are important resources for future scholarship on the literature of Toronto. However, some literary scholars may be disappointed with Harris’s thematic approach, which is out of step with current literary criticism. Also concerning is her tendency to treat literary texts as transparent windows onto the city; Harris does not devote much attention to the aesthetic dimension of literature, nor does she seem to see critical engagement with the text as a foundational dimension of reading and analysis. But the recuperative impulse is an important one, especially in the face of, as Harris puts it, the “compulsion of cities to consume themselves, to demolish and [rebuild] . . . in an unceasing quest for civic greatness that sometimes seems indistinguishable from cultural nihilism.” In this sense, Imagining Toronto is a valuable contribution to the effort to bring the cultural resources of the past forward into an uncertain future.

Lawrence Aronsen’s City of Love and Revolution: Vancouver in the Sixties, for its part, is not an explicitly recuperative project; however, as the first book-length history of the Sixties counterculture in Vancouver its publication is timely, with the Occupy movement inspiring renewed interest in grassroots activism and what sociologist Kristin Lawler describes as “counterculturally oriented spaces”—spaces “where people (uselessly and inefficiently) converse, enjoy one another’s company, make their voices heard, eat food, play and listen to music, connect, engage in the experimental practice of radical democracy, and generally contribute nothing whatsoever to the production of profit.”

In City of Love and Revolution, Aronsen explores earlier examples of such spaces and forms of activism in Vancouver, in a study that spans from 1963 (the year of John F. Kennedy’s assassination) to 1975 (the end of the Vietnam War). Aronsen foregrounds the continuity of the Vancouver scene with the broader 196s countercultural movement, but he also notes the ways in which the movement manifested in Vancouver in distinctive ways. Over the course of the book, he offers locally specific discussions of the rise and decline of hippie culture, the free university movement, the sexual revolution, experimentation with drugs, psychedelic rock music, Yippie (Youth International Party) activism, and the anti-war and environmental movements.

City of Love and Revolution is an informative and highly readable introduction to the 1960s Vancouver counterculture, but it is not without its elisions. Surprisingly, the city’s vibrant and innovative literary and visual arts scene is largely overlooked in the book. A comprehensive history of the arts scene during this period has yet to be written, but the web archive Ruins in Process: Vancouver Art in the Sixties serves as a wonderful introduction to the artworks and artist communities of the era. Readers may also wish to turn to other sources for more rigorous critical analysis of particular aspects and outcomes of the Vancouver countercultural movement. David Ley’s The New Middle Class and the Remaking of the Central City, for instance, offers an in-depth discussion of the relationship between the counterculture and gentrification, while the new collection Stan Douglas: Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971 (which features essays responding to Douglas’s public artwork about the 1971 Gastown Riot) provides a range of perspectives on the social tensions of the period and their legacy.

Still, City of Love and Revolution is a fine overview of an important period of social change in Vancouver. As such, it is required reading for those interested in transforming the city through countercultural practices and radical activism today.

This review “Recuperating the City” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 214 (Autumn 2012): 162-63.

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