Kensington Market: a timeline

From its early days as a Jewish Market through to present-day bohemian food haven


1815 Through a mistake in his father’s will, George Taylor Denison inherits almost all of his family’s fortune and constructs Belle Vue estate on what is present-day Kensington.

1820s Construction of Spadina Avenue begins.

1850s + 60s Cornerstone for St. Stephen’s Church is laid, and the Denison estate is gradually subdivided and sold for homes to British and Irish immigrants.

1880s A building boom follows the introduction of streetcars. Demographics in the area begin to change from mostly well-to-do professionals to a mix of professionals, labourers and tradesmen. 

Early 1900s A period of rapid change begins with an influx of eastern European Jewish immigrants from the Ward (near City Hall), the less well-off among them settling west of Spadina.

1907 Bell Canada establishes its central office at Bellevue and Oxford.

1913 Tensions between Jews and Christians boil over: the Canadian Jewish News reports five Orthodox Jewish men chasing a converted Christian preacher out of the neighbourhood.

1927 Jewish congregations grow, and a streetscape once defined by Victorian homes acquires Jewish symbols with the completion of the Kiever Synagogue, followed three years later by the Anshei Minsk Synagogue.

1930s + 40s Stores open in the ground floors of homes, and the area becomes known as the “Jewish Market.” Shops close on Friday evenings and reopen after the Sabbath ends on Saturday. The Labor Lyceum on Spadina, a centre for trade unionism, holds a memorial service for Russian-born anarchist and feminist Emma Goldman, who came to Canada in 1927 and moved into a flat on Spadina after being stripped of her U.S. citizenship. 

1950s + 60s The postwar wave of migration to Canada sees Portuguese immigrants from the Azores become the Market’s predominant ethnic group. Ukrainians, Hungarians, Italians and Afro-Canadians add to the ever-changing mix.

1967 Development pressures begin, and the city initiates a study of the Market. The Kensington Area Resident’s Association is formed following a meeting attended by more than 300 people.

1969 The Kensington Urban Renewal Project proposed by city council with the support of the province and the federal government is shelved as a result of community opposition. A coalition of students, academics and politicians forms the Stop Spadina, Save Our City Coordinating Committee to oppose the Spadina Expressway. The province drops plans for the project in 1971. 

1970s-1980s Culture shift: “Toronto’s Vienna within Los Angeles” takes root as bohemian merchants and young professionals establish businesses and galleries. King Of Kensington, the CBC-TV sitcom, airs 90 episodes between 1975 and 1980. Asians become the dominant ethnic group as Chinatown expands westward. 

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1984 Kensington serves as the backdrop for scenes in the comedy film Police Academy

1987 The first annual Festival Of Lights, a community celebration of the winter solstice, takes place.

2001 A statue of Al Waxman, who played the King of Kensington, is erected in Bellevue Square Park.

2002 Presto, the Nike-sponsored art gallery/showroom/club, closes after a few months in the face of a community revolt.

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Jeanette Forsythe

2004 The inaugural Pedestrian Sunday, a celebration of “community, culture and ecology,” takes over the Market.

2006 Kensington is declared a National Historic Site of Canada for its representation of Canada’s ethnic mosaic. A plaque installed in Bellevue Park marks the important occasion. The Kensington Market garden car takes up its spot on Augusta. 

2008 Fear and loathing: the sudden closure of J & J Fruit Market by Toronto Public Health leaves a vacancy at Nassau and Augusta, sparking a rumour that Starbucks is moving in.

2011 A much-loved hangout – four benches at Nassau near Bellevue – mysteriously disappears, quickly causing a community backlash.

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Kensington’s inaugural Pedestrian Sundays

2012 Globe-trotting gourmand Anthony Bourdain does Kensington and gives a thumbs-up to Agave y Aguacate and Poutini’s. The Tragically Hip play a series of surprise performances at Supermarket bar/restaurant.

2013 Local Councillor Adam Vaughan moves a motion to study a limit on bars and restaurants in the Market amid rumours Walmart is planning a move there. Recommendations have yet to be tabled as the city awaits the results of another study to declare Kensington a Heritage Conservation District.

2015 Toronto-based artist collective One Fire Movement releases a video shot in Kensington (One Day – A Song For Peace) in support of Amnesty International’s One Day Starts Now positive change campaign.

2016 Thomas Lavers cannery announces plans to shut down. Jeff McMurrich, the founder of indie label Idée Fixe, packs up his beloved recording studio after a seven-year run. Friends of Kensington initiates a proposal, with the help of the city, to set up a land trust in an effort to preserve local businesses.

2017 Question marks about what the future of Kensington looks like. Much will depend on the Heritage Conservation plan expected next year. 

Sources: City of Toronto, Kensington Market Historical Society, NOW Magazine archives.

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