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MYSEUM:DISCOVER / MICRO-HISTORIES / The Rochdale Years

MICRO-HISTORIES

The Rochdale Years

Established in 1964 as a response to a lack of student housing at the University of Toronto, Rochdale College was set to be, “an educational utopia, releasing students and teachers from artificial restrictions and quantitative assessments” (David Sharpe, author of Rochdale: The Runaway College). And in its early days it was a utopia for many.


Mr Rogers holding a handpuppet and a toy streetcar with the word 'neighbourhood' written across

Rochdale opened in September of 1968. The 18-storey, 840 person residence located at 341 Bloor St. W. took its name from Rochdale, a town in England and home to the first cooperative living society.

Rochdale residents sharing a meal
(Darrel Dick, 1970)

The founding principle behind the establishment of Rochdale according to its catalogue was that, “a man learns best when he first discovers what it is that he wants to learn and how he wants to learn it.” At Rochdale there would be no structure to speak of (unless that’s what you asked for), no traditional classrooms, no traditional homework, and few traditional rules. In fact, if you wanted to obtain a Bachelor of Arts from Rochdale, you’d just need to donate $25 and answer a skill-testing question. A PhD cost a bit more at $100, with no skill-testing question.

Mr. Rogers & Mr. Dressup holding handpuppets
Woman after being evicted (Doug Griffin, 1975)

Rochdale College was a place that in its purest sense, existed to let people’s creativity emerge. And while the legacy of Rochdale includes some of its residents building vital Toronto institutions including, Theatre Passe Muraille, House of Anansi Press, and Coach House Books, it also includes a darker history that includes overdoses, suicides, and a murder.

As Rochdale aged, its problems only increased. Gentrification in Yorkville was pushing out squatters, bikers, drug dealers, and the last of its once thriving hippie community, many of whom found a home at Rochdale. With Rochdale’s open-door policy and cheap rents bringing more and more people in, negative attention from the public, press, and police increased. In one instance, police and Rochdale residents clashed in the streets and the press described the Rochdale as, “North America’s largest drug distribution warehouse.”

While these chain of events posed problems, Rochdale ultimately closed due to a mix of financial trouble and political pressure. Mortgage payments fell behind, a court order for foreclosure was issued, and on May 30, 1975 police showed up and evicted the 60 or so remaining residents.

A reminder of Rochdale College still exists by way of a statue that sits outside of 341 Bloor St. W, which is now the Senator David A. Croll apartments. Designed in 1969 by Derek Henizerling who was a Rochdale resident and U.S. draft dodger, ‘The Unknown Student’ sits in front of the building as a symbol of idealism and free expression.

A sculpture of a human figure crouching in front of a convenience store

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