Ask Torontoist: Dance Dance Revolutionary
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Reader Paul Hollingsworth asks:I vaguely remember there was a park or parkette dedicated to the memory of Emma Goldman related to the fact she died here. Does it still exist?
Torontoist answers:Locating a park in Toronto named in honour of Emma Goldman, one of the twentieth century’s most controversial feminist/anarchists, should have been a straightforward endeavour. A quick visit to this Parks, Forestry and Recreation website, and faster than you can whip together a blazing Molotov cocktail, there it would be, the location of Emma Goldman Park.
Not so fast.
After an extensive search, Ask Torontoist discovered an opera, a defunct punk collective, a Heritage Toronto First Impressions poster, and a towering steel, glass, and plastic monument that was never constructed, all for Emma Goldman.
But no park.
We tried Parks, Forestry and Recreation, the Toronto Archives, the office of Councillor Adam Vaughan (Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina), Heritage Toronto, the Ontario Federation of Labour, the Toronto Labour Council, writer and labour studies teacher Maureen Hynes, and Toronto historian Mike Filey. We even walked around Goldman’s old stomping grounds.
But still no park.
This got us thinking: why the heck would a Toronto park be named after Emma Goldman in the first place?
Credited with uttering the phrase, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution,” Emma Goldman was once described by top G-Man J. Edgar Hoover as the most dangerous woman in America. Born in Russia in 1869, she was booted out of a couple of countries throughout her life on account of her rabble-rousing, including the United States, after being (falsely) accused of complicity in the 1901 assassination of President McKinley.
In order to maintain a bond with her American followers, she periodically resided in Toronto, renting a room at 322 Spadina Avenue.
A fearless social activist, Red Emma—as she was known—tackled a diverse range of issues including anarchist philosophy, women’s rights, draft resistance, labour concerns, and free love.
And apparently, she really, really enjoyed dancing.
Upon her first visit to Toronto in 1928, Goldman gave a lecture at the Hygeia Hall on Elm Street, titled “The Revolt of Modern Youth.” Confiding in acquaintances that she found Toronto quite dull, she nonetheless spent the remainder of her life using this city as a safe haven and base while continuing to kick up dust around the globe.
It appears that the closest the City of Toronto has officially come to honouring Red Emma was back in late 1990’s. At that time, the Toronto Transit Commission sponsored a public art competition seeking art for the new Spadina LRT line. Artists Bernie Miller and Alan Tregebov submitted plans for a towering steel, plastic, and glass structure, called Veer.
Veer was designed intentionally to impede the view of commercial structures and advertising. A speaker’s rostrum was incorporated into the tower. A photographic reproduction of a demonstration that had occurred on Spadina Avenue in the 1960’s was at its base. Reached by email, Miller explained to Torontoist that Veer was an attempt at “making a connection between Emma the free speech activist and the continuous activist/bohemian history of Spadina.”
Veer was turned down by the panel of judges.
Emma Goldman died in Toronto in 1940 at the age of seventy. Her body lay in state at the Labour Lyceum, located at 346 Spadina Avenue. Condolences arrived from around the world. Her burial took place a few days later in Chicago.
Considering the current change in the political landscape at City Hall, it may be some time before Emma Goldman is recognized by the same city that once provided a platform enabling her to challenge injustices worldwide.
In the meantime, we can always dance.
Ask Torontoist illustration by Sasha Plotnikova/Torontoist.