It won’t necessarily save it from being carved up into condos – and there won’t be cobblestone streets and gas lamps either – but Kensington Market will receive the highest historical honour this Sunday when it’s officially designated a national historic site.
Sure, it will just get a plaque and a mere dot on Parks Canada’s map of places to visit on your vacation, but think of it as another moral argument against those developers poised to diminish Kensington’s polyglot glory.
“Tolerance and integration have been vital to the development of this cosmopolitan community” reads the inscription on the bronze to be installed Sunday (May 25) at 4 pm in Bellevue Square Park, followed by a parade.
And it’s true. From punk rockers fleeing the mindless boredom of suburbia and Jews from Eastern Europe fleeing oppression after World War I to survivors of the Nazi camps of World War II, Hungarian merchants whose life’s work was snatched by communism, Portuguese escaping fascism and Latinos the dictators of Central America, the Market has always been a refuge.
“Kensington was a safe zone,” says Sam Lunansky, who was 12 when his family moved to Kensington in the 1930s. His mother, after selling fruit from her front lawn, established the Augusta Fruit Market at the corner of Nassau and Augusta.
For a young Jewish boy from Poland, Toronto seemed menacing. He recalls the 1933 Christie Pits riot where “the Spadina boys really taught those fascists a lesson.”
But the city’s racism went beyond that famous incident. “Who ate garlic?!” chastised his Anglo teacher at Lord Lansdowne Public School. Anglo-?Saxon stores sold no “ethnic foods,” and there was widespread disdain for those whose command of the English language wasn’t up to snuff.
Not so in Kensington Market. Food was fresh, just like back home. People bartered using emphatic sounds and gestures – Yiddish, Polish, Ukrainian, Hungarian and Italian all mixed with smatterings of English.
“Times were tough. There was no money, but we ate well,” grins Lunansky.
Tom Mihalik (Tom’s Place, 190 Baldwin) agrees. “We had the best of everything: Hungarian butchers, Polish bakers. Daiter’s Creamery had the best cream cheese anywhere.”
In his eyes it’s 1958 and he’s a boy running through the Market to fetch a snack for his dad, who’s minding the family’s used furniture and clothing shop.
The plaque explains that newcomers were “attracted by the relative affordability of the area.” But did they really come for cheap rent? Zoltan Zimmerman, in 1951, found $8 a month too much. He spent his first summer sleeping in the delivery truck of the fruit market where he worked. Two years later, Zimmerman, now one of the biggest property owners in the area, opened Zimmerman Bros. Grocery with his cousin, and then Zimmerman’s Discount (210 Augusta), which he still runs with his son.
Rent was cheap in many parts of Toronto, but people were drawn to Kensington because it offered something more. Max Fisher came because his brother told him it had the best Hungarian sausage around. Perhaps the taste of home drew many. (Imagine choosing the location of your residence based on the availability of fresh local food.)
Perhaps what it really offered was freedom – to be your own boss, to survive on your cunning, to improvise a store out of the front of your home. Zoning bylaws? Commercial? Residential? Not an issue.
Business in Kensington thrived or failed on the strength of personal relationships. Joe Amaro was 15 in 1968 when he started working with Sam Lunansky at Augusta Fruit. “There’s an onion farmer Sam has had dinner with every week for the last 60 years.”
Though it is a zone of competitive business, Kensington was built on a balance of personal resourcefulness and generosity. Octogenarian David Pinkus, who’s lived in the same house on Nassau since he was three, tells how the neighbourhood kids were the recycling program.
“We’d scour the back lanes collecting bushel baskets and empty bottles, returning them for pennies. Nobody had an allowance in those days.”
Lunansky’s father had a side business bundling newspapers to sell as wrappers to the fishmongers.
Today, Victor Pavao sells bulk candies, coffee, nuts and spices from Casa Acoreana (235 Baldwin) with his brother Ossie. In the late 1950s they lived above P.K. Poultry on Baldwin. Their mother worked all day plucking chickens by hand. In summer, she’d get extra work picking worms on golf courses at night.
“Benny and Cheyanne (the owners of the poultry shop) would leave pennies in the till so we could buy doughnuts on Sundays,” Pavao remembers.
Perhaps Kensington was no different from your average Old World village. Kids made up games in the streets; merchants competed for customers; neighbours’ sons and daughters fell in love and got married; businesses were passed down through generations.
What makes this area so special is that it happened in a city with a reputation for coldness and anonymity, where people politely follow the rules, where time is money and money is king.
Kensington Market’s designation as a historic site may not stop the influx of chain stores or condo towers, but it will, hopefully, remind us of the spirit of independence and ingenuity that helped this neighbourhood thrive, the dream that drew so many oppressed people and the sense of freedom and camaraderie that made it home regardless of language, culture or financial status.