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Sex, drugs and Durham Street: The turbulent 1960s land in downtown Sudbury

Bruce Bell delivers the third part of his three-part series on downtown Sudbury in the hippy era, complete with outlaw bikers, the city’s ‘cool’ youth hostel and the days when Elgin Street was sinister

Illegal drugs were so commonplace in Sudbury in the late 1960s that if you knew where to look you could get what you wanted. Back then I never went beyond one slim joint, but I knew people who were doing LSD, MDA and a few who were doing hardcore heroin.

There was someone I knew in high school who was shooting heroin and she told me she could handle it as she only did a little bit each time. One day, she wasn't there anymore and I never saw her again. 

Biker gangs controlled the drug trade in Sudbury with hashish coming in from Montreal being the most popular. There were two rival bike gangs in Sudbury: the White Lightning and Satan's Choice (later to be aligned with the Outlaws).

At 16, I was absolutely fascinated with biker gangs and it amazes me to this day considering my association with these hardened bikers that I live to tell my tale.

Hangin' with the bikers

On a Saturday afternoon most of the White Lightning biker gang hung out in the Richmond Room at Kresge's and later in the day moved into the Manhattan Restaurant on Cedar Street.

So there I was hangin' with one of the most dangerous, corrupt, and illegal gangs in the history of Canada and loving every minute of it.

However, my associations with this criminal enterprise never got beyond sitting next to them in the Richmond Room awkwardly mumbling a few words and the occasional hello on the street, but I felt like a bad-ass nonetheless.

One gang member, Billy Boy, was always very nice to me asking me about what I wanted to do when I left school.

He was the ultimate bad boy and with his good looks was very popular with the ladies. Tragically, Billy was shot to death in a parking lot by a rival gang. His demise was part of an ongoing biker war that ultimately saw more gang members being gunned down on the streets of Sudbury in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

Perilous or not, Durham Street on a Friday night was hopping, with hundreds of teenagers descending upon Sudbury's main drag.

The Inferno and the Hostel

The most happening place during this time was the Inferno Club on Medina Lane, housed in my absolute favourite structure in Sudbury, the Northern Ontario Building, also home to Reg Wilkinson Men's Wear.

The Inferno Club is where my brother, John, and his band the Inferno Five + 1 played on weekends.

The club was upstairs through a side door where a 100 or so people would be packed in.

John told me recently as wild and fun as it was, it was also a death trap and thank heaven a fire never broke out at the Inferno (oh the irony).

Although I wasn't old enough to enter the Inferno, I had all of Durham Street to entertain me.

Every now and then on a Friday night when I saw a wandering lost teen who looked like he or she was just newly arrived, I would introduce myself and then direct our visitors to a very interesting and fascinating part of Sudbury's hippie hitchhiking culture.

The hot spot I directed people to was a grubby little former warehouse tucked away behind the courthouse on Elm street.

This was the Hostel, a city run hostel that was the first of its kind in Sudbury, catering specifically to the many youth who were hitching across Canada in those days.

I went there a few times and I remember seeing mattresses flung across the floor and a canteen set up at the back.

Bare to the bones and very communal with guys and girls all sleeping rough together on the same floor.

Shocking I'm sure for some of Sudbury's older residents, but this was the 'it' place to be seen.

Hoppin' hippy joints

At this time, two other discotheques were competing for the youth market, the Hub on Durham and the Joint on Elm in a warehouse that ultimately was destroyed when the City Centre was built.

Another hot spot in the summer of 1969 was at the former Fairway Golf Club near the Flour Mill.

The club and golf course was closed the year before, and construction on the new Ryan Heights neighbourhood was about to begin, so for that summer the old club house was turned into a three-floor disco.

I remember it well as it was the first time I ever saw Lava Lamp images projected on the walls and ceilings with multicoloured psychedelic globs, an iconic 1960s hallmark.

I loved Friday nights in Sudbury because the stores stayed opened until 9 p.m. My favourite store back then, as I’ve said before, was Wolfe's Bookstore at the apex of Elgin and Durham.

My high school friend Miriam was Wolfe's daughter and she would work Friday nights on the bookstore’s second floor, and that's where I always headed.

Miriam usually showed me the latest books that just came in and once in while we would glance through the more 'adult' books, mostly medical journals that would come in.

Wolfe's was an iconic bookstore not just for its incredible selection, but also for its location.

Upstairs from Wolfe's was an artists’ loft and I remember going to a few wild parties there.

There was a rattan chair hanging from the ceiling in the alcove of the loft overlooking the intersection of Elgin and Durham that hung there for years, in other words a rattan chair equals hippies equals subculture equals fun times.

I grew up in a time when the terms ‘free love’ and ‘sexual promiscuity’ were thrown about with little or no thought given to consequence.

In the summer of 1969, I got invited to a biker orgy at the White Lightning clubhouse. I was thrilled to be invited until someone told me what goes on at a biker orgy and consequently I became traumatized at the thought and never went.

When Elgin was 'sinister'

Downtown Sudbury began or ended depending on which way you entered the downtown core at Wolfe's Bookstore for beyond Wolfe's was the Elgin Street strip.

Back in the 1960s, the little strip of Elgin Street between Durham and Sudbury Arena was known as the ‘scary zone’. The same strip is known today as ‘the Shoppes of Upper Elgin’, but back then it was a sinister part of town.

Sometimes when heading out to Sudbury Arena I'd find myself on that part of Elgin among the beer-soaked taverns, second-hand stores, pawn shops and lost souls as if left over from the Great Depression. 

It was like taking a walk through a John Steinbeck novel.

I remember pinching our family’s vacuum cleaner and pawning it for $2, then retrieving it a few days later before anyone knew. I also remember doing this with my mom's electric hair curling set, silverware and my dad's toolset.

I was always swift enough to get things back before anyone knew.

In hindsight as guilty as I feel now, I wish now I spent more time there in Sudbury's own Skid Row, for behind those faces I saw on the street were incredible stories of survival and endurance.

While most of the downtown of my youth is gone now, I still have a profound love for my birthplace that has never waned over the years.

If it wasn't for my strict, but loving, parents and my favourite high school English teacher, Mrs. O'Malley, who introduced me to the joys of theatre, I don't know how I would have ended up.

My dad worked for INCO out at Creighton for almost 40 years, so that today his son can sit in front of a computer in Toronto and wax poetic about a teenage hood that is now lost among parked cars and vanished buildings.

Like most people my age, I can remember the tiniest detail from 50 years ago, but can't remember why I came into the kitchen just now.

The rebirth of Sudbury’s landscape is breathtaking, and for that I'm grateful, but oh how I long for my Friday night walks along Durham Street on a summer’s eve.

See Bruce Bell live

I'll be appearing live on stage at the Sudbury Theatre Centre on Saturday, Sept. 11 where I will be telling my stories of my memories of growing up in Sudbury in the 1960s. There will be two shows, one at 2:30 p.m. and another at 7:30 p.m. No reservations as this is a 'first come, first seated' free event with a pay-what-you-can donation. Hope to see you there! Sponsored by Sudbury.com. For more info feel free to email directly bruce.bell2@sympatico.ca.

Bruce Bell is a former Sudburian, now living in Toronto. He shared his memories of Christmas in downtown Sudbury back in the 1960s and 1970s back in December 2020. You can read that story here. In January, he reminisced about SS Kresge’s, which you can read here, while in February, Bell took a stroll through the old Sudbury Woolworth's location. In March, he took us on a tour through the old Zellers store and last month he led us on a wander through the old Nickel Range Hotel. In May, Bell brought readers on a wander through the historic Borgia Street neighbourhood. In June, Bell walked us down Durham Street on a Friday night in the late 1960s. In July, he took us back onto Durham just as the hippy invasion began.