Vignettes from the History of Co-op
(excerpts from Rita Baladad: Just the Facts: a Brief Survey of Campus Co-op History, Authorâ€™s publication: Toronto, 1994)
Toyohiko Kagawa, Japanese Co-operator, spoke at a Student Christian conference in Indianapolis during the Christmas holidays in 1935. Four University of Toronto theology students Donald Mclean, Art Dayfoot, Archie Manson and Alex Sim were so moved by his speech that upon returning to Toronto they formed a discussion group to debate the possibility of operating a co-operative. Riding on the tails of a depression, the men decided that a housing co-operative would be the most pragmatic venture to undertake.
In October 1936, finally able to gather the minimum number of people to open a cooperative, the men established the first Campus Co-op House that they called Rochdale, at 63 St. George Street, accommodating 12 men, many of the farm youths with a United Church affiliation. The principal of Victoria College used the first floor for offices and the top two floors were vacant. The Co-op men occupied the top two floors, eleven rooms, including a kitchen and a storeroom, rent-free, paying maintenance fees only.
During the first few days of operation no one knew just what was to be done, or who was to do it. Few of the students had experience in cooking, with the result that such elementary difficulties developed as potatoes boiling dry and sinks overflowing...To solve this problem, the men elected four managers House, Business, Kitchen and Social to delegate responsibility. As soon as this was done, things began to move smoothly. A few months later, one of the members had his girlfriend over for dinner one night. She commented upon the superb cleanliness of the whole house, and said further, that the meal was better than she got at home!
Because of the Depression and the early war years, demand for inexpensive housing spurred Co-op into its first major expansion period. In the depressed economic climate and the strained environment of the early war years, the near- evangelical enthusiasm of the first members allowed Co-op to grow to five houses and 101 members. In 1942, Co-op opened its doors to women with the rental of Webb House at 242 Huron. The difficulty of finding houses to rent and Co-op's desire to more fully control its own destiny led to several house purchases. The nuisance of finding and keeping leases was exchanged for the burden of financing and maintaining the houses for future generations of Co-opers.
Before the Co-op had purchased an automated washer, each house had a toilet-like basin with a plunger. To do the laundry, they placed the clothes into the basin-bowl and plunged away. An automated washer during this time was quite novel.
Initially, the Co-op hired only two persons: a full-time cook and a janitor. All the rest of the work was done by members. There was a missed duty fine: a member who did their job inadequately or not at all was fined 75 cents an hour and the person who worked overtime was paid 50 cents an hour. Upon joining the Co-op, each member made a 15.00 loan for each year s/he resided here. These loans were returned five years after they were made.
Almost every single night, there would be a party, we'd roll up the rug, make coffee, and a few people would go in the other room to play bridge. You could have lots of fun and entertainment and boys there were seventy-two members, seventeen girls and lots of dates if we wanted them.
In those early days, Co-op had its supply of â€œraids,â€ the most notable being the Kagawa-Tompkins House â€œwar.â€ Finding themselves invaded by the beauties of Tompkins, some stalwarts from Kagawa House ran over to the attackersâ€™ House, tore the sheets from their beds and took them to Kagawa. In the meantime, many of the girls had been thrown into the bathtub, and in retaliation, the girls seized all (but one hidden pound) of Kagawa coffee.
The one thing that limited the frequent eruption of pea-shooting or bun-throwing contest in the dining hall was the thought that someone was going to have to clean it up, but it was pretty rowdy. There were also a lot of cross-gender accusations about relative neatness, manners in the bathroom, etc. The house kitchen was always an unholy mess, but the beer fridge was well organized and functioned very efficiently. The TV was in the basement; for a while, a rare moment of collegial inactivity was the weekly Sunday night (11pm) showings of old WC Fields films.
During the late 1950's and early 1960's, Co-op grew quickly in response to the lure of inexpensive government mortgage loans, the entrepreneurial hustle of a small group of Co-opers and the expanding enrolment of U of T. Membership tripled to more than 300 students and the number of houses grew to 30, of which 20 were owned. The driving force behind this expansion was Howard Adelman, a former General Manager and later a Consultant/Business Manager. He spearheaded efforts to build a Co-operative high rise residence.
This residence, Rochdale College was built on the corner of Bloor and Huron, next to Yorkville, Toronto's bohemian cultural centre, and the breeding grounds for some of Canada's most noted musical talents, including Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Gordon Lightfoot. At that time, Yorkville was also known as the Canadian capital of the hippie movement. Opened in 1968, Rochdale College was an experiment in student-run alternative education and Co-operative living. 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: it could not cover its financing and lost control over its members when the hippies, removed from Yorkville by the police, sought refuge within its walls. It was closed in 1975. Co-op ended up having to absorb a considerable financial loss.
At one time, Co-op had a very broad social conscience. In 1945 and 46 Co-op protested the Canadian government's deportation of Japanese Canadians. Members supported refugee students to live in Co-op after the Second World War and again, after the unsuccessful Hungarian revolt of 1956. They subsidized the travel costs of medical workers prepared to assist in less developed countries. In 1961, when a Co-oper was jailed for the summer after being arrested for riding a Mississippi freedom bus, Co-op compensated him for his foregone summer earnings.
During the early seventies, the Co-op suffered from flagging co-operation, inadequate maintenance and general omnipresent apathy: the basis of this was attributed to the recurrent â€œI syndromeâ€ as opposed to the â€œwe syndromeâ€ that should prevail in a co-operative. The gradual change from doubles to singles in the eighties mirrored a waxing lifestyle trend of independence, solitude, privacy, and apathy. It was a good place to live in and well liked by people who lived in it. People needed to be made more aware when they first applied and first moved in what Co-op meant: it took only a few spoilers to turn off a lot of people.
Forty plus years of student traffic had eventually resulted in Co-op wide wear and tear and general disrepair. Throughout the 1980s and the 1990s, concentration on maintenance issues set the trend. Spending steadily increased and a new full-time Maintenance Property Co-ordinator was hired in 1982. The federal government agreed to subsidize 50% of the rehabilitation costs. Co-op was gradually regaining its identity and improving its image. The early 1990s was also a time for extensive and expensive work performed to bring the Houses up to new fire code regulations.
Today, Co-op offers not only affordable student housing at a prime location, but more importantly lessons in Co-operative living. It helps students, most of them the first time away from home, to grow up, to take control and master the many new tasks they are facing: transferable life skills, such as getting along with people from all corners of the world, with a diversity of ages, maturity levels, cultural backgrounds, interests, life-styles, living standards, expectations, need for privacy and need for socializing.
Co-op teaches mutual acceptance, tolerance, patience, empathy, compassion, the ability to compromise and live together harmoniously. There is a new enthusiasm for self-governance in the houses where members choose a specific theme, connected to a preferred life style shared by all the residents of the house. The members of the house interview new applicants and decide collectively who gets to live there. We already have a well-established theme house focused on vegan cooking and political activism. There is also a house devoted to Graduates.
As we prepare to celebrate our 80th anniversary in 2016, we are looking forward to an exciting and active future.