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City of Love and Revolution: Vancouver in the Sixties

By Lawrence Aronsen

Review By Matt Cavers

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 174 Summer 2012  | p. 150

Lawrence Aronsen’s handsomely-illustrated City of Love and Revolution examines a period of Vancouver’s history that still resonates. The latest contribution to a growing literature on the Sixties in Canada, the book also contributes to contemporary debates about Vancouver’s history and identity. Scholars of Vancouver and the Sixties may find some of the book’s generalizations unsatisfying; nevertheless, Aronsen writes engagingly, and the book provides an entertaining introduction to a lively chapter in the city’s history.

The sensual spectacle of the counterculture era features prominently in City of Love and Revolution, but more elusive is the meaning of the city’s “extended summer of love” (10). Early on, Aronsen argues that “the 1960s in Vancouver were not unique because of the style of dress, music, or variety of drugs enjoyed by hippies, Yippies, and other youth, but because of Vancouver’s focus on environmentalism, Native rights, and neighbourhood-based political reform” (8). Despite this, Aronsen spends little time on these apparently unique happenings. Amchitka and Greenpeace receive a few pages in the last chapter; Aboriginal activism gets a short paragraph in the conclusion; and “neighbourhood-based political reform” receives little explicit discussion. Instead, the book’s textual and visual focus on the familiar trio of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll tends to undermine Aronsen’s argument that the Sixties happened uniquely in Vancouver.

Though the book is written for a popular audience, Aronsen obliges scholarly readers by providing pages of useful endnotes. However, Aronsen sometimes makes unwarranted claims, such as his statement that in pre-Sixties Vancouver, “gay males remained hidden, only indulging their impulses late at night in a West End after-hours club near English Bay” (57), or his improbably precise breakdown of Vancouver hippies into “angries,” “freaks and heads,” “cynical beats,” “hip capitalists,” and “love hippies” (16). For the most part, Aronsen’s position as a veteran of Vancouver’s Sixties enriches the text, but lapses such as these will alienate readers hoping for more detail.

Here and there Aronsen ventures beyond hippies and Yippies. His chapter on the Vancouver Free University stands out by tracing the ways through which an experimental educational institution left its mark on the city’s social landscape. But otherwise City of Love and Revolution does a better job of drawing attention the strange and wonderful aspects of Vancouver’s Sixties than it does of listening for their untold stories and later reverberations.

City of Love and Revolution: Vancouver in the Sixties by Lawrence Aronsen
Vancouver: New Star Books, 2010. ISBN 978-1-55420-048-1. 208 pp. Paper: 24.00