Of chaos and community in Kensington Market

Can we preserve a village of welcome for the unpolished in our city?

Someone asked me recently what I love most about Kensington Market. What to choose? I love everything.

I love the makeshift tilt of the buildings, the chaos of its crowded sidewalks, the awnings hanging over the sidewalks, the fruits and dry goods on display.

I love walking through the streets as the Market is waking up and the merchants are arranging their wares, and when it’s quiet in the evenings and things are closing down.

I love its tangle of old and new: the cobbler and coffee shops, the skateboard stores and tattoo parlours. I love the old Victorians on quiet side streets, the surprises of its lanes, the school, with its secret amphitheatre, the Bell building, the synagogues. And how Kensington Avenue, with its second-hand stores, feels so different from Bellevue. My through line for 20 years now traverses the many layers of Toronto’s history, from the fire hall and Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields to the Portuguese radio station, the Latino stores, the Chinese fruit stall and the reminder of the old Jewish market, the Kiever Synagogue.

The neighbourhood takes you through the whole spectrum of urban life: immigrants making a new life, old Toronto enjoying new foods, the ever-replenishing young hangers-on in the park, and all the vulnerable people along the way.

You couldn’t invent Kensington’s odd and porous mix. You couldn’t engineer it. Wherever you walk, you owe a debt to those who came before you. Its vitality and eclecticism is a gift – what people brought here, changed and fought for.

Kensington Market is a kind of miracle due to its resistance to big planning and city interference. From the fight against the Spadina Expressway in the 70s and more recent corporate encroachment to the battles over live chickens and the community school, its activist spirit lives on.

More and more, though, people who love the Market feel like their hearts are being put through a cheese grater.

One of the constants about Kensington is change its layers are signposts to those different chapters. But the Market is changing in ways both visible and invisible that threaten its viability.

The threat is real. I worry about the wholesale buying up of blocks and what it means for the future. About renters being pushed out. About fires destroying older buildings and fruit stalls being turned into bars. And about skyrocketing commercial rents claiming small businesses and houses being torn down to build boxy mansions.

I worry a lot about the ever-fancier and ever-bigger restaurants attracted by the “cool” factor and the “characters” here. 

But how long before those characters, our neighbours in low-income and supportive housing, those who use social services or just find community in the park, are pushed out to please an upscale clientele?

Many will say this is still Kensington Market – independent but with a little spit and polish.

But can we preserve a tiny place, a village of welcome, for the unpolished in our city?

It’s frustrating that the city seems to have so little regard for its history, that it lets developers privatize the sky, walling in its best pedestrian experience with high-rises.

A perfect storm is happening: retirements, city policies disguised as market forces, changes in shopping habits.

We fight the speculators, push the city to act to protect the Market, but who are we to begrudge hardworking store owners when they sell their businesses to retire?

We have to imagine something new – low-rise rental housing instead of parking lots, roof gardens, new starts for new immigrants, new ideas. 

If we’re successful and if we can preserve some of its scale, the Market may look a little different but will carry its spirit of openness, independence, chaos and community into the future. 

If we can save a spot for the vulnerable and those just starting to make their way, Kensington Market will live on.

When I feel dispirited, I remember what long-time Kensington resident Dave Pinkus told me once: “When I was kid, there was livestock running around. This place will be different for your children, but it’ll still be the best shtetl of all.”

Dominique Russell is chair of Friends of Kensington Market and the author of Kensington, I Remember (Russell Creek Press). 

Get more from this week’s cover package here.

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