Photo by Shaun Merritt
That’s all folks! As Torontoist’s March Madness wraps up, it’s clear that Kensington Market reigns supreme (final tally: Kensington Market, 296 votes; Toronto Islands, 191 votes). Having defeated such Toronto icons as Jane Jacobs, Yonge Street, the 501 Queen streetcar, the Toronto islands, and David Miller’s hair, we should ask ourselves what makes this part of the city so special.
Kensington is cosmopolitan
Photo of Baldwin Street from the National Archives of Canada.
Kensington represents a microcosm of what Toronto, and to a lesser extent the rest of Canada, promotes itself as being: a multicultural community that is accepting and tolerant of newcomers from across the country and around the globe. Kensington has traditionally seen successive waves of ethno cultural communities arrive at different intervals throughout the 20th century to eventually become an eclectic mix of people who celebrate, or at the very least tolerate, each others culture and heritage. As one of Kensington’s oldest merchants recalls:
We didn’t have time to judge other peoples and cultures. When we arrived we worked day and night just to survive, like everybody else here. The other merchants and residents might have had prejudices about each other but that was ignored – and forgotten. We had to tolerate and respect each other – we were all in the same boat.
Kensington embodies culture
Photo of the Festival of Lights by Rockpaperpixels.
Kensington is a community bursting with cultural significance and relevance. This is in part due to the markets inclusiveness – its ability to embrace new cultures without replacing its past, but also by the continuing presence of cultural and arts organizations like the Toronto Jewish Folk Choir, the Portuguese Canadian club, St. Christopher House, St. Stephen’s Community House, and hosts of the annual Festival of Lights, Red Pepper Spectacle Arts.
Kensington is political
Kensington has often been willing to take on outsiders to preserve its cultures, traditions, and its homes. Battles with Toronto’s health department go back to the 1920s, when the predominantly residential area first adopted its commercial potential. In the 1930s Jewish merchants would occasionally fend of attacks by anti-Semitic gangs. This culminated in a 1933 protest in which 15,000 Jews and supporters marched up Spadina Avenue in a show of force against racism and intolerance. Since 1962 the Kensington Businessmen’s Association fought city hall on a number of issues including parking, sidewalk canopies, and the decision by city hall to ban live farm animals within city limits.
After being labeled a “substandard neighbourhood” in 1967, a group known as the Kensington Area Rate Payers Association came together to stop the expropriation of land in the market under the city’s urban renewal plan. The encroaching Spadina Expressway, and plans for expanding the Toronto Western Hospital, the University of Toronto, and George Brown College, left the merchants and residents of Kensington in “a state of shock and confusion”. Ed Clarke, one of the heads of the United Negro Improvement Association was quoted in the Toronto Star as saying
The (city) officials are thinking again about buildings, not people. This (Kensington) is the last true cosmopolitan principality in this city, a place where many people from many lands have homes together.
After a litany of tough negotiations with the community, city officials and the organizations who wanted to tear up many of the houses in the market, backed down. Most of the drastic changes proposed for the neighbourhood were either abandoned or scaled down dramatically.
Kensington is unique
Despite continual change, Kensington has maintained an enigmatic feel that cannot be matched anywhere else in Toronto. It is young and old, rich and poor, conservative and progressive. It is a part of Canada that looks anything but. It is also the only intensive retail area in the city that is not located on an arterial street – an important characteristic that has shaped its identity.
In November 2006, Kensington Market was officially recognized by the federal government for its national historic significance to Canada. Whatever Kensington means to you, it will always be a tremendously important part of Toronto’s history and landscape.
Photo of Pedestrian Sundays courtesy of Pedestrian Sundays Kensington.