Posted in: All In the Neighborhood

Letter from Kensington

By | September 26, 2016


After moving to Canada, my family settled in an apartment on the corner of Oxford and Spadina, where Kensington Market meets Toronto’s Chinatown. The place was falling apart, yet there was something beautiful about the century-old red brick becoming our home. Creaky passageways that would give the fire department nightmares led to three other immigrant families. We were the last few to enjoy the building’s broken charm together. The windows through which I used to watch people come and go below have since been boarded up, the building acquired by a developer. Over a decade later, when I bring friends to Kensington, I am exploring as much as they are.

Change is the rule in Kensington. In the 19th century, the British Denison family’s estate was subdivided into small lots for British laborers—the beginnings of the Market. In the early 20th century, the rise of anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe led to an influx of Jewish immigrants. Peddlers with pushcarts entered the scene and soon first floors of houses converted into makeshift shops. The area became known as “The Jewish Market.” After WWII, most Jews migrated to wealthier neighborhoods and successive waves of immigrant groups ebbed and flowed.

I met long-time Kensington resident Dominique Russell downtown, where towering offices and uniform Bay Street suits seem distant from the decidedly human feel of the Market’s Victorian row houses. Co-founder of the Friends of Kensington Market group, Russell helps unite community members over the place they love and wish to protect. While the Market is not immune to gentrification, the process moves differently here.

Famed urban planning reformer Jane Jacobs—who called Kensington home for part of her life—helps us understand why traditional gentrification narratives cannot explain the case of Kensington. Known best for her critique of urban planning in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs rejected orthodox top-down approaches and advocated for local involvement in neighborhood change. She believed that so long as a neighborhood’s existing value was recognized, gentrification, to a certain extent, could be healthy. The case of Kensington breathes life into Jacobs’ philosophy. The Kensington community’s intentionality has enabled the regeneration, rather than the replacement, of the Market’s spirit.

Russell calls the Market “porous,” describing it as “a place where people who don’t have a place elsewhere can find a place.” Kensington has been a haven for immigrants from the Caribbean, Eastern Europe, and East Asia; for young Americans fleeing the draft during the Vietnam War; for those escaping troubled homelands in Somalia, Sudan, Iran. Add to the mix artists and students from nearby schools, and you have the cultural mosaic so often embedded in the Canadian identity.

Despite its history of welcoming change, the Market’s newest wave of residents brings concerns about its future. Regarding immigration waves, Russell says that “there are traces of all those groups there. But right now, it’s wealthier, white people. They’re leaving their mark.” While this “mark” has fundamentally changed other neighborhoods, its impact on Kensington has been different.

A Changing Market

Though the Market may be “porous,” certain changes face resistance from the community. As challengers of corporate encroachment, Friends of Kensington Market garnered the support of tens of thousands in petitions against a Canadian franchise supermarket and Walmart entering the neighborhood. While speaking with an architect about his Toronto office’s current projects, I asked about Kensington. He instinctively replied, “There are some places we don’t touch.”

More influential than corporate schemes in shaping Kensington’s development is the neighborhood’s reputation as a hipster destination. From hippies in the ’60s and the ’80s punk movement to anarchist collectives in the ’90s, Kensington has always welcomed the young and the subversive. They still flock here, now drawn by the café and foodie culture, the thrift shops, the promise of a #KensingtonMarket Instagram photo. The increasing demand for such businesses has increased rent, making it more difficult for non-conforming businesses to make a living.

As KT Ng washes dishes from lunch, she tells me that she opened Oxford Fruit in 1991. She points outside the window: “All four corners used to be fruit stands. One by one, they disappeared.” In place of those fruit stands are a gelato bar, a juice press, and the foundation of a new restaurant. KT cites increased rent and wages as challenges to keeping her business open, in addition to big grocery stores opening near Kensington. But it is okay, she says, they are still getting by.

To compensate for increased costs, more businesses have upscaled. It follows that some residents—especially those in public housing—cannot afford to shop in their own neighborhood. “It is less and less a place to start,” Russell tells me. For many people who grew up in Kensington, it was a place you left when you became more successful. Now, the successful are drawn to what has become one of Toronto’s trendiest neighborhoods. Russell, however, believes that, “It’s going to be hard to make a Yorkville out of Kensington Market.” Yorkville was once a bohemian hub in Toronto. Planners and politicians deemed it a problem area and enabled large-scale commercial redevelopment. In less than two years, Yorkville transformed into a high-end shopping district, catering to those sporting Prada and Gucci.

Relics like the Latin American Perola Supermarket have survived by finding niches. As I talk to the manager Hector Lopez, a man wearing a Canada Goose parka walks into Perola, nods to Hector, and heads to the chest freezer. Hector explains to me this man is a regular, a restaurant owner who comes here to purchase frozen cassava. Many of the ethnic supermarkets have specialized to serve such clientele. Hector tells me that the “Big Boss” opened this supermarket after immigrating to Canada from Mexico in 1964. When I ask Hector if he will be around next year, he chuckles and replies, “For fifty years more!”

While some old-timers have had to adapt to new clientele, others are still going strong on the backs of loyal customers. The friendly king of fish himself, Louis Gouveia from Portugal, opened Sea Kings in 1957. A customer tells me that many West Indians shop here because “the fish is fresh.” He turns back to Joe, who hands him his bag of what must be ten fish and says, “Forty.” “Come on, Joe, that’s too much.” Observing their playful exchange, I sense a camaraderie familiar to the Market. Joe takes out a few and cuts him a deal. When I ask Louis about how business is going, he says that there used to be 17 fishmongers, but now there are only three.

Many newcomers to Kensington are responding to demand for socially and health conscious products. Hooked, one of the three fishmongers, was opened by two chefs and sells seafood from sustainable fish farms and Great Lakes fisheries. The supervisor tells me that they hope to “create more informed demand to change the industry.” To a customer asking for Arctic char, he replies, “Sorry, we are sold out. But there is a flight coming in tonight.”

Love Thy Neighbor

Many Kensington activists like Russell see diversity as a community asset that needs to be protected. According to Russell, at a recent Friends of Kensington Market meeting, gentrification was the biggest issue: “the danger that we are losing this beautiful mix of ages, ethnicities and income—that’s very important to everyone.” This recognition is crucial to gentrification benefiting rather than detracting from Kensington, but it is only a starting point. With such a diverse population, questions of inclusivity are bound to emerge.

When Barbara Rahder first came to Toronto in the ’70s, she frequented Kensington as a University of Toronto student, the main campus only minutes away. “They used to have cages stacked of ducks and chickens and rabbits … You could pick out a live rabbit and the butcher would prepare it for you,” Rahder tells me. “It was stinky and smelly and wonderful.” Now a professor at York University, Barbara studies issues of equity and diversity in urban public spaces. In working on a critique of the creative city, Rahder and her student, Heather McLean, were surprised to discover opposition to Kensington’s Pedestrian Sundays.

In 2002, local activists lobbied for car-free street festivals, replacing car honking with samba music in hopes of celebrating and building community. These Pedestrian Sundays have taken place every summer since and are largely viewed as a successful regeneration strategy that draws thousands to the Market each Sunday. Rahder and McLean’s research, however, shows that while bars and foodie destinations benefit from increased foot traffic, retail and produce stores, which rely on truck deliveries and car-driving customers, do not fare as well. People come for the party, not for the groceries. This initiative reinforced the market as an increasingly popular destination for the young and the middle-class, alienating low-income residents and old-time merchants.

This unintentional exclusion also exists in Kensington community groups. Russell says that while Friends of Kensington Market is “diverse in that there are renters, homeowners, people that have been there a long time, newcomers, students,” the group is “very white.” With the goal of connecting with their Chinese neighbors—who are the largest ethnic group in Kensington—Friends of Kensington Market has run meetings in Mandarin and Cantonese, and ensures that there is translation available at city planning meetings.

Though there is no simple solution to exclusion, this community recognizes that it is an important problem to address. “Necessarily, the people who are going to be able to speak out tend to be people who are more secure, who have more time, more confidence,” says Russell. Many immigrants lack stability and time as they try to make ends meet, and language barriers further decrease likelihood of contributing to public dialogue. Those who speak are the ones heard by media and politicians. These voices become the voice of the community, as city planners and politicians often do not have the resources to seek out unvoiced opinions.

Forward Thinking

Intent on carrying the eclectic and welcoming ethos of Kensington forwards, residents and merchants alike feel ownership of the Market. “What was here before?” and “What do we want to preserve?” are two questions that have influenced business transitions. Russell tells me that “The people who own property are not rushing to exploit the land value.” Instead, changes tend to be made with the best interests of the Market in mind.

The building where Hooked now operates used to be home to Sanagan’s Meat Locker, a locally-sourced boutique meat shop that opened in 2009 to replace the historic Max and Son butcher shop. When another butcher announced its closure in 2014 after over 50 years in the Market, Russell recalls how “everyone held their breath,” only to be relieved when Sanagan’s moved down the street into the bigger location. “They could have rented it to anyone, but they rented it to another business owner who’s been successful and gave them room to grow.”

In conversation with shoppers about why they frequent Kensington, I hear about the “openness” of the neighborhood, that there is “not too much judging,” that there are people from “all walks of life.” Kensington attracts both the wealthy and the marginalized. According to Russell, it is “a place where you can’t pretend that everything is fabulous, because the people you’re going to meet, not all of them are having a fabulous time.” From homeless services and court support for youth to senior groups and newcomer initiatives, the programs offered by Kensington’s St. Stephen’s Community House reveal a diversity of circumstances. “It’s not just who you want to meet, but who you’re going to meet.”

On a recent trip to the Market, I walked into the newly opened Grk Ygrt dessert bar. Jesse, the owner, tells me that Tim Horton’s was also vying for this space and would have been able to pay more. The landlord, however, saw his lot as more fitting for the indie small business feel. When asked about why he chose Kensington, Jesse tells me that this is his first business, and that Kensington is a good place to take risks and try new things.

Whether on the business front or in terms of community building, there is no doubt that this neighborhood will keep trying new things. Always evolving, yet steadfast in spirit, Kensington is the fruit of intention. Recognizing existing value, the community welcomes change that colors the Market anew without washing away the old.


Image Source: Ilya Yakubovich/Flickr

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