The building that used to house Rochdale College, on Bloor Street in Toronto
|Location||Toronto, Ontario, Canada|
Opened in 1968, Rochdale College was an experiment in student-run alternative education and co-operative living in Toronto, Canada. It provided space for 840 residents in a co-operative living space. It was also a free university where students and teachers would live together and share knowledge. The project ultimately failed when it could not cover its financing and neighbours complained that it had become a haven for drugs and crime. It was closed in 1975.
Rochdale was the largest co-op residence in North America. Rochdale occupied an 18-storey student residence at Bloor St. and Huron St. in downtown Toronto. It was situated on the edges of the University of Toronto campus, near to Yorkville, Toronto's hippie haven in the 1960s and early 1970s.
The college took its name from Rochdale, a town in north-west England, where the world's first cooperative society was established in 1844. The Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers is usually considered the first successful co-operative enterprise, used as a model for modern co-ops, following the 'Rochdale Principles'. A group of 28 weavers and other artisans set up the society to open their own store selling food items they could not otherwise afford. Within ten years there were over 1,000 co-operative societies in the United Kingdom.
The college's modern architecture was uniquely designed for communal living. Some areas were divided into independently-operated communal units of about a dozen bedrooms (called ashrams), each with its own collective washroom, kitchen and dining room. Each unit was responsible for collecting rent and maintaining its own housekeeping. Other areas consisted of bachelor, one-bedroom, and two-bedroom apartments. On the first and second floor were common areas used for socialization, education, and commercial purposes. The roof was accessible from the 17th floor and was used for sunbathing. Clothing was optional.
Rochdale began as a response to a growing need for student housing at the University of Toronto, and a nineteen-year-old entrepreneur and philosophy student, Howard Adelman, was hired by the Campus Co-operative to meet the housing demand in 1958. With Adelman's advice, Campus Co-op began to acquire more properties, and formed Co-operative College Residences Inc., a non-profit off-shoot of Campus Co-op. After obtaining federal mortgages at well below the market rate, Campus Co-op incorporated Rochdale College in 1964.
It was by accident rather than design that Rochdale became the imposing building that it did. Campus Co-op preferred to have the building be built to two times coverage, which would have resulted in a relatively easily managed building whose floor area would be only twice the size of the lot. However, due to Rochdale's location on a busy arterial road, the site was zoned at seven times coverage. This meant an unanticipated jump to 840 residents, a fact that was originally greeted with great enthusiasm, due to the expansionist attitudes of the founders. Zoning regulations also stipulated that the site was to be an apartment-hotel, which meant that only half the floor space could be used for apartments with self-contained kitchens. This disadvantage was not fully appreciated due to faith in a communal system, in which residents would be expected to effectively share the space available to them.
Campus Co-op, the parent corporation of Rochdale College, was uncomfortable with education taking a central role at Rochdale, a position held strongly by Rochdale's intellectual leaders such as Dennis Lee. A decision was made to separate from Campus Co-op. Further emphasis was placed on education when Adelman noted that the college's $175,000 property tax could be avoided if they had a functioning educational program. In Adelman's words, if –we run an education program for $75,000, we'll come out $100,000 ahead.–
Despite the fact that many Rochdale founders viewed its education program as a form of tax avoidance, those who were dedicated to Rochdale as an educational institution did not let that deter them from pursuing what they viewed as a more noble purpose. Dennis Lee, the creative talent of the operation, notes plans like the tax avoidance scheme were, "primarily in the thinking of people like Howard who were involved in the planning, they did a good job of keeping their cards fairly close to their chest. It was not something that was being passed around generally, [...] it would have made other people completely furious to hear it at the time." Yet it would be inaccurate to conclude that Adelman, the organizational talent of the operation, did not share its educational goals. With Lee, Adelman edited a collection of articles published in 1968 that constituted a manifesto of sorts for "free university" education, calling for liberation from inhibiting educational institutions. Adelman's contribution was a particularly scathing indictment of the modern university as an institution that stifles innovation and serves only the establishment.
Even before its construction, there was a tension in Rochdale between fiscal responsibility and idealism. Mietkiewicz writes, –[p]erhaps because of their idealistic preoccupations, few of Rochdale's academic leaders were fully aware that much of Campus Co-op's enthusiasm for education had stemmed from its vision of the program as a sort of tax dodge.–
The originally intended tenants for Rochdale were screened. Screenings were handled by residents of the Rochdale Houses, a precursor –dry-run– to Rochdale conducted at Campus Co-op owned houses, and they chose people who were by and large going to be associated with the University of Toronto.. However, a construction strike in 1967 that delayed the opening of Rochdale by half a year changed Rochdale's population from what was supposed to be a carefully selected one to a completely random one. The screened applicants, most of whom had commitments to the university, could not wait for Rochdale to be completed and many found new accommodations. When the college was slowly completed floor by floor, a practical decision was made to make the building available to –people who walked in right off the street.– As the small group of founders later realized: –[w]e were sealing the fate of the Rochdale that most of us had wanted to experiment with. And since there were very few rules about how the place would be run, we were in effect handing the building over to people very unlike ourselves.–
In the late sixties, universities were centres of political idealism and experimentation. Rochdale College was established as an alternative to what were considered traditional paternalistic and non-democratic governing bodies within university education. Conversely, Rochdale's government policy was decided at open meetings in which all members of the co-operative could attend, participate in debate, and engage in consensus decision making.
It was the largest of more than 300 tuition-free universities in North America, and offered no structured courses, curriculum, exams, degrees, or traditional teaching faculty. From humble beginnings in seminars on phenomenology and a Recorder Consort that performed with the London (Ontario) Symphony Orchestra, it became a hot bed of free thought and radical idealism.
Rochdale College never used traditional professors or structured classes. Posting notices on bulletin boards and in a student newsletter, groups of students coalesced around an interest, and "resource people" were found with various academic and non-academic backgrounds, who led informal discussion groups on a wide variety of subjects. Resource persons of note included an Anglican priest who was a city Alderman, author Dennis Lee and Futurian Judith Merril, who founded Rochdale's library.
Rochdale participants were involved with various cultural institutions in Toronto such as Coach House Press, Theatre Passe Muraille, The Toronto Free Dance Theatre, This Magazine is About Schools (now This Magazine), the Spaced-out Library (now the Merril Collection of the Toronto Public Library) and House of Anansi Press.
Students had complete freedom to develop their own learning process, much of which emerged from the shared community experience. The college included theatres for drama and film, and a ceramics studio. Students decided school policy and made their own evaluations.
It was typical of the free universities not to award degrees and the University of Toronto did not offer degrees through Rochdale College. Indicative of the playful humour of the times, anyone could purchase a B.A. by donating $25 to the college and answering a simple skill-testing question. An M.A. cost $50, with the applicant choosing the question. A Ph.D. cost $100, no questions asked.
The Rochdale application also described its "non-degree": "We are also offering Non-Degrees at comparable rates. A Non-B.A. is $25.00. Course duration is your choice; requirements are simple, we ask that you say something. A Non-M.A. is $50.00 for which we require you to say something logical. A Non-Ph.D. is $100.00; you will be required to say something useful." Nobody at Rochdale ever took these degrees seriously, and the fees (if any were collected) were treated as voluntary donations.
Rochdale ran its own radio station called CRUD, with an unusual assortment of music, talk, and static. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission tried to shut the station down a number of times, but the dedication of its staff kept it on the air.
Rochdale was originally a refuge for idealists. Ultimately, its cooperative idealism was its downfall. Dedicated to consensus decision making and granting a vote to everyone who lived (or claimed to live) in the building, Rochdale's governing body was unable to reach agreement to expel those who failed to pay their rents or otherwise live up to its ideals. Unable to pay its mortgage to the Canadian government, Rochdale drifted towards insolvency. As nearby Yorkville became gentrified during the late 1960s, much of Toronto's counterculture moved into Rochdale. This included homeless squatters and bikers who dealt hard drugs, along with a substantial number of undercover officers from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
According to the CBC Archives, by 1971 Rochdale had become known as "'North America's largest drug distribution warehouse.' Hash, pot, and LSD are in large supply. The Rochdale security force includes members of biker gangs".
CBC Archives also describe how "[d]ue to problems with cops and bikers, the governing council set up a paid security force to be on 24-hour alert. Ironically, some of these security people were bikers themselves. As had happened in Yorkville, an unofficial alliance with the Vagabonds outlaw motorcycle club developed." Rochdale's educational focus and student population declined as the drug business increased.
After increased clashes with police, and unable to pay its mortgage, political pressure forced financial foreclosure by the government, and Rochdale closed in 1975. A number of residents refused to leave. On May 30 the last residents were carried from the building by police. The doors to the college had to be welded shut to keep them out.
The 18-storey tower that once housed Rochdale at 341 Bloor Street is now known as the Senator David A. Croll Apartments. Completed in 1968, it is the sister building to the Tartu student residence a short distance west across Bloor street. Designed by the architects Elmar Tampld and John Wells (who had earlier constructed the Charles Street Apartments at Bay Street and Bloor Street).
As homage to its Rochdale days, the tower features the large and intriguing Unknown Student sculpture out front.
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