Thursday, May 19, 2016

off the grid: ghost city 15 duncan street

This installment of my "Ghost City" column for The Grid was originally published on October 2, 2012.

Google street view of 15 Duncan, May 2015.
A new sign recently appeared above the front door of 15 Duncan Street. After over 30 years bearing the nameplate Pope & Company, the entranceway now welcomes clients to Northern Lights Direct. While a direct response advertising agency fits with the building’s recent history as a dignified-looking office building, the experimental artists and punks who hung out there during the 1970s would have satirized its work in a second.

Built in 1903, 15 Duncan was among several buildings in the neighbourhood designed by the architect William Rufus Gregg‘s firm. Its siblings include the Telfer Paper Box building across the street and the Eclipse White Wear Building at King and John. For over half a century, the premises were occupied by Canada Printing Ink, who produced ink and other supplies for the printing industry.

Ink continued to play a major role when animation producer Al Guest moved in around 1967. Among the projects occupying Guest at that time was the low-budget, perennially rerun space saga Rocket Robin Hood. A Star profile of the show in 1967 claimed that Guest ran the “third largest animated cartoon factory in North America.” Guest discussed the limitations he placed on producing the kitschy cult classic: no blood and no hormone stirring. “At first glance Maid Marion may look rather fetching,” Guest noted, “but notice there’s never any cleavage. Even lines in men’s crotches are out.”

Sex and violence were welcomed when the Centre for Experimental Art and Communication (CEAC) moved in during the mid-’70s. The publicly-funded, artist-run organization courted controversy during its short life as a venue for experimental, often politically charged fine art, film, music, and theatre. Funding grants were cut in 1978 following media outcry when an issue of its magazine Strike appeared to support Italy’s Red Brigade revolutionaries, and the organization soon folded amid claims of being “banned in Canada.”

Toronto Star, May 20, 1977.
One endeavour CEAC provided space for was a concert series whose press releases promised “the best of Toronto’s underground rock movement in addition to some of the leading groups from the New York scene and elsewhere.” On Friday and Saturday nights from May to August 1977, the basement was transformed into the spartan, sweaty concrete bunker known as Crash ‘n’ Burn. Run by the Diodes and their manager Ralph Alfonso, the venue was an important catalyst for Toronto’s emerging punk scene. Shows were chaotic. ”You just never knew what was going to happen next,” observed The Ugly drummer Tony Vincent. “All of a sudden you’re talking to somebody then a fight breaks out; someone’s throwing shit at the band; one of the guys in the band is attacking someone in the audience…it was fun, but it was kind of scary at the same time.”

As word about Crash ‘n’ Burn spread, it attracted people more into fighting than music. Alfonso once found a man kicking a hole in the front door and asked him why he did it. “Gee, I thought this was a punk club,” the man responded. “Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do?”

During its last two weeks of operation, complaints about drunkenness and vandalism piled up. One of the building’s other main tenants was the Liberal Party of Canada, and they promptly complained to CEAC. After a show featuring the Dead Boys on August 6, 1977, Crash ‘n’ Burn passed into the realm of myth and legend. It was replaced by the Funnel experimental film theatre, which moved on after CEAC folded.

Within two years of Crash ‘n’ Burn’s demise, the only mayhem occurring at 15 Duncan was financial. The building was purchased in 1979 by Joseph Pope, whose brokerage firm, Pope & Company, specialized in unlisted, obscure stocks. When he renovated the building, along with a nearby former factory he purchased at 156 Pearl Street, Pope asked architects to transform both buildings into “dignified, comfortable buildings with an old world charm that would be a credit to the financial district of any major city of the world.” Looking at the building today, with its comforting brick appearance, it’s clear the renovators carried out Pope’s wishes.

Additional material from Treat Me Like Dirt: An Oral History of Punk in Toronto and Beyond 1977-1981 by by Liz Worth (Toronto: Bongo Beat, 2009), and the October 14, 1967, January 19, 1985, and May 22, 1993 editions of the Toronto Star.

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