As Toronto continues to be electrified by gang violence, the commentary and soul-searching continues. Our city is at a loss to deal with this affliction, it's often said, because we have so little experience with the phenomenon. But I don't understand. A number of years ago a play I wrote sent me into the archives to research youth gangs in Toronto: the Beanery Boys, the Tipps Gang, the Junction Gang, the Balmy Beach Gang. Back in the late 40s there were over 50 identifiable youth gangs. Though mostly territorial, they had alliances and organized hierarchies. It was a rich and dangerous history.
The files included one of the first articles Pierre Berton ever sold, a big piece immortalizing the language of these outlaws. They had real turf wars, rumbles in Christie Pits with chains, knives and, yes, guns. Arson, protection, organized theft of cars, furniture and chocolate, extortion, liquor sales - they didn't have crack or weed, but there was lots to keep them busy.
Initiation rites involved committing a crime so stupid you got your 14-year-old name in the paper, a situation that led to the prohibition of the publication of young offenders' names. Can nobody remember this?
The Beanery Boys from College and Dovercourt were the most notorious. Their leader was hauled into a Barrie courtroom, busted for a weekend gone nuts in Wasaga Beach. I looked him up in the directory and found myself talking to his wife. She was really proud and had great stories. When I called back to talk to him, he tore a strip off me. He had done his time and straightened out his life, ran an honest business and paid taxes. Who the hell was I to hunt him down after all these years? Fair enough.
Where did these gangs come from? They emerged because a generation of young people were forgotten during the war and the triumphant return of all the overseas veterans. These were young folks who missed the peculiar validation of war and were then overlooked as society tried to forge a future for the people coming home. Then, although no amount of policing could have stopped them, they simply disappeared. Then as now, the gangs of Toronto come from a no-future ethos.
Through the years of the Mike Harris war on the poor, I lived in a cozy little house tucked away behind Parliament at Dundas. I have to admit I'm a bit surprised I was never mugged. I thought Tory policy was guaranteed to provoke a crime-of-desperation wave - but it never materialized. Not with the immediacy I had expected anyway. It's taken a while for the social insult to trickle down. Our gangs are a call for help and for imagination - a warning that if teenage hope is not on the agenda, teenage despair will be.