by carl wilson


Searching for the elusive 'third-place' hangout

The Globe & Mail
Thursday, February 12, 2004

Culture nerds of every stripe have their personal Meccas. They may make their pilgrimages to art palaces such as the Louvre, the Guggenheim Bilbao and the Grand Ole Opry; or to biographical hot spots such as Graceland or the Père Lachaise cemetery, the posthumous pied-à-terre of Chopin, Jim Morrison, Edith Piaf, Molière and Proust.

But my own list is of the legendary hangouts, where conversations happened and movements began. I remember the nerve buzz of walking the first time into San Francisco's City Lights bookshop, or New York's Whitehorse Tavern, CBGB's and Knitting Factory, or the Prague pub where novelist and political prankster Jaroslav Hasek held court. I also still feel the chill I caught one night in a half-heated, overpriced room at the Chelsea Hotel. But if our devotions didn't make suckers of us sometimes, what would they be worth?

These buildings are charmed because they conjure up neither private lives nor finished products, but the passage between, culture in process -- ideas getting hammered out, or just getting hammered. It's not merely that so-and-so was here, but that if they hadn't been, crucial collaborations, arguments and fist fights may never have occurred.

They're places that matter because they are the kind of places U.S. sociologist Ray Oldenburg famously called "the third place," a zone that is neither work nor home, where connections are developed day by day. Oldenburg argues these spaces are indispensable -- relieving pressure on work and family life and rounding out our public selves -- and that they too often are dispensed with in contemporary North America. His "great good places" might be cafés, taverns, piazzas or barber shops. But they can be arts hubs too.


In Canada, such centres seldom seem to last long before they are torn down, converted to condominiums or Burger Kings. But this week marks several significant shifts in the third-place geography of Toronto's musical life.

Toronto's Music Gallery, for instance, has gathered local makers and devotees of experimental music since 1976. But it's had to do it from a changing set of locales: It lost its last, best home in 2000, when the owners of its Richmond Street digs in the theatre district chose to sell out to the coming condo glut. After roaming the city as the "guerrilla gallery" for a while, logistics eventually saw the MG cast in its lot with St. George the Martyr Church on John Street. A creative but awkward deal slots in concerts whenever the chapel isn't in use by the congregation. The old church has great sound -- at least for the acoustic-music third of the programming -- but it lacks all the hangout appeal that used to make the MG distinct.

As artistic director Jim Montgomery says, it's tough on the artists, whose plans (for rehearsals, stagings, extended runs) are limited by the restricted access. It's tough on the MG, which used to pay the bills by renting out itsspace. And tough on audiences, who get the feeling they have to come in, listen, then get out.

Attracting customers for contemporary composition, "out" jazz and other outlandish audio is never easy, and harder now than in 1976, when fewer other media competed with live music for attention, and adventurous weirdness may have been a bit more in vogue. Plus, some of the most radical musical action now is on the fringe of dance music, and an antique church doesn't suit techno-glitch shows sonically or socially.

So, despite healthy, overdue steps to expand outreach in co-operation with other city new-music outfits, attendance has dropped. "And the fallout," says Montgomery, "is that the arts councils aren't very happy with us." Even as it prepared to move to another venue -- yet to be announced, but one with 24/7 access and a liquor licence -- grant cuts threw the MG into turmoil. Three out of four staff members have been laid off from late November until March 1. Already half what it was in the Richmond St. days, some programming has been cancelled. "You have something that is already marginal and under-represented, and now you're exposing it even less, which is obviously not the right direction," says Montgomery.

This Sunday at 8 p.m., the MG holds a fundraiser at St. George-the-Martyr with Halifax-born Janice Jackson, a soprano with a formidable international reputation, and Montgomery's own Canadian Electronic Ensemble -- the world's longest-standing live electro-acoustic group. What's at stake is survival. "We feel we're running about as fast as we can," he says, "but it's going to be a race."

Tonight, the MG also hosts the opening of the Wavelength 200 festival -- a fourth-anniversary, four-night, four-bands-a-night celebration of the series that lines 'em up around the block each Sunday, the gravitational centre of the local indie-music universe. (WL200 then moves to Dovercourt House, Rockit and series home Sneaky Dee's -- see

Is Wavelength a "third place"? Virtually, but not one you can drop by on your way home from work -- it only pops in and out of existence for a few hours every Sunday night. There's been chatter in the past year about whether such energies could be turned to an artist-run music venue, perhaps on the model of the original Music Gallery -- but rents are higher and volunteer time seemingly more scarce today.

Perhaps the established-but-aging and burgeoning-but-unstable institutions ought to pool their efforts? After all, one of the senior agents of the Wavelength conspiracy, Jonathan Bunce (a.k.a. Jonny Dovercourt), is already Music Gallery publicist and host of the MG's community-radio show.

Another Wavelength veteran, host Duncan MacDonell (a.k.a. Doc Pickles), is on the programming staff at the new Drake Hotel at 1150 Queen St. W., whose long-delayed opening arrives this weekend. Third-place aspirations are central to entrepreneur Jeff Stober's enormous "art hotel" project. In fact, it self-consciously emulates the historic art hangouts I've mentioned. The complex includes a hotel, a café, a bar, a restaurant and, in the basement, a spacious nightclub, the Drake Underground. Depending how it's run, it could become a landmark. (Full disclosure: I am curating a monthly series of cross-genre experiments there called Tin Tin Tin, starting Wednesday; for obvious reasons, that's the last you'll hear of it here.)

Oldenburg's criteria for a third place include that it be in an accessible location, have a base of regulars, yet be welcoming to strangers, and be reasonably inexpensive -- which may be the sticking point: In the 2004 economy, can the Drake do all Stober hopes, yet also set cheap enough ticket and drink prices that seldom-flush gangs of artists, musicians, writers and directors -- not just their agents and publicists -- can afford to appoint it their home away from home?

If the Drake can add that one up, in a decade or two Toronto may have new pilgrims coming, to drink in the aura of whatever turns out to have happened there.

News | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, February 12 at 04:18 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)


Zoilus by Carl Wilson