It began as a focus for the freefloating idealism and naïveté of the 1960s, a university residence where scholars could live and learn together, Toronto’s Woodstock with walls. But Rochdale College swiftly became known as Biker City and Druggie Heaven. A decade after the 18-storey Bloor Street college closed, it is the residents’ indulgence in drugs, free love and pitched battles with police that is most widely remembered. No records detail the later careers of Rochdale alumni, but many who now lead conventional lives say that the experience was a positive one. Declared Thomas Schofield, 36, who spent one year in Rochdale and is now a business lawyer in Buffalo, N.Y.: “It was pretty crazy. But I remember Rochdale as vibrant, attractive and alive.”
The Rochdale experiment began in response to the growing demand in the 1960s for cheap student housing. The board of one long-established Toronto student group, Campus Co-Operative Residence Inc., decided to fill the increasing demand by buying a high-rise building. The group obtained 90 per cent
of its $5,700,000 cost from Ottawa’s Central Mortgage and Housing Corp. (CMHC). Then it found that by turning the residence into an alternative education institution—complete with courses —it would gain tax breaks too. In 1968 Rochdale opened as a nonaccredited college, its status recognized by Revenue
A decade later, it is the residents' preference for drugs, free love and battles with the police that are remembered
Canada but not by universities. Tapping into grants from Ottawa’s Company of Young Canadians program, it also hired “resource persons,” including future poet Dennis Lee.
The presence of Lee and other cultural lurhinaries-to-be made a lasting impression on Schofield. He also recalled watching improvisational theatre in the
halls organized by Jim Garrard, who later helped found Toronto’s experimental Theatre Passe Muraille. Now, Schofield sometimes entertains his two young children with readings from Lee’s poems for children; but he says the youngsters are skeptical of their conventional father’s claim that long ago he enjoyed lengthy talks with the man who wrote Alligator Pie.
Another nostalgic alumnus is Ian Morrison, now a professor of mathematics at Columbia University in New York. He declared, “Few were corrupted by Rochdale.” But its idealism was also its undoing: Morrison recalled the “obsessive concern” of the college’s governing council for participatory democracy and individual freedom, including protecting the rights of the bikers who sold hard drugs in the halls. By the early 1970s the experiment had degenerated into little more than a dirty, vandalized dormitory. Few of the 600 or more occupants paid their rent. After defaulting on mortgage payments to the CMHC, Rochdale went into receivership in 1975.
Despite its spectacular failure, many alumni regret its passing. Indeed, Schofield says that its sense of community helped him to become a responsible citizen—and a loving father.
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