There was an article in April 18th’s Globe and Mail that began by labelling Kensington Market “the site of the next big battle for gentrification” in Toronto. The central figure in that article was realtor Phil Pick, of Esbin Realty, whose “for lease” signs hang or have until recently hung in the windows of five Kensington storefronts this spring, by our last informal count. One Phil Pick property on Augusta Avenue has already been leased for some time to the owners of Good Egg, a gourmet kitchen implements store. Two more storefronts have Esbin Realty signs without Phil Pick’s nameplate attached. Of the seven total Esbin properties not yet fully occupied, three are now leased and undergoing renovation. One of them, though still unfinished, is already selling, of all things, scooters.
There are two major reasons Pick’s activities in the historic downtown neighbourhood are causing gentrification anxiety. First, there’s the unsettling prospect of so many properties being subject to the business whims of a single person. With so many storefronts under his management, Pick is in a position of immense influence over Kensington’s business community. Since, according to the Globe article, Pick is only acting as a representative of one of Kensington’s “major landlords,” a family that has owned significant property in the area for years, the mere fact of concentrated management in itself wouldn’t be unusually worrying—wouldn’t, that is, were it not for major reason number two, which is that Pick has a history of wielding his influence in a calculating way.
Pick tends to rent his clients’ properties to tenants who cater to a more urbane customer base than the small food sellers, housewares shops, and low-key hangouts that make up the neighbourhood’s commercial old-guard. He’s perhaps most notorious for trying, last year, to lure a Starbucks into a location once occupied by a small green grocer, at the corner of Nassau Street and Augusta Avenue. The incident is summarized in this entry from our 2008 Heroes and Villains feature and is treated in some depth in this article (referenced in the “villains” article) from NOW Magazine.
Gentrification is an issue that has vexed Kensington Market for decades. The earliest use of the term in relation to the neighbourhood to turn up during our (quick, dirty) research was in a Toronto Star article published in 1988, titled “The Changing Face of Kensington Market.” The writer bemoans rising property values in the Market, calls them “unmistakable signs of gentrification,” and, in an eerie foreshadowing of last year’s Starbucks drama, makes reference to the looming presence of a since-closed corporate coffee shop (a Second Cup, actually), which at the time of the article’s publication had recently opened at the corner of Kensington Avenue and Baldwin Street. The location is now occupied by an independent coffee shop called Kensingtons.
The word “gentrification” shows up in dozens more articles on Kensington Market and surrounding areas in subsequent years. The biggest spike in sheer frequency of the term’s usage occurs in mid-2004, to coincide with the controversial grand opening of Freshmart, a grocery store, which, because of its buying contract with Loblaws, incited fear of corporate intrusion into Kensington’s economy when it opened its doors on the neighbourhood’s Augusta Avenue strip. Freshmart remains open for business.
And now we have Phil Pick and his disturbingly uniform “for lease” signs (lower case ‘e’ for Esbin Reality in orange negative-space; NOW LEASING in bold black caps; Pick’s name affixed to the top or bottom on a separate piece of corrugated plastic), come to help Kensington Market carry on its proud tradition of worrying about the state of its soul. The signs might be a kind of Rorschach blot for the people who live and spend time in the neighbourhood. Some might look at them and see a brighter, cleaner future. Others might see a harbinger of the end of the Market’s proud eclecticism.
In that spirit (the spirit of the Rorschach blot), Torontoist paid a visit, on Saturday, to Bellevue Square Park, Kensington’s most fiercely eclectic public space, to talk through some of these issues with whoever would talk to us. Our aim was to gauge the perceptions of those outside the neighbourhood’s business community, for whom Kensington Market is not a business opportunity, but a treasured hangout.
Before we get into the actual events that transpired during our short, disastrous visit to the park, a little context. We had been waiting all week for nice weather so we could do these interviews. We had wanted to spend a minimum of one hour in the park, talking to as representative a sample of Kensington’s populace as we could possibly assemble on the spot.
The entire day had been beautiful—one of those spring days that makes winter seem totally unthinkable. We had loads of sunshine. It was warm enough to go out in a T-shirt. By the time we were almost ready to go to work, the park was packed with people dancing, banging drums, sitting around, and so on.
The minute—no, the exact second we set foot in the park, the greyest, most sodden, angriest looking clouds we’d seen in ages began sweeping down from the northern skies. God had reviewed our investigative agenda, and he’d said, “Nope.”
We decided to work quickly.
The first person we interviewed was a man we found painting on the grass. Eric Euler.
Torontoist: What’s your relationship to the Market?
Eric: I come here fairly often… [lists some hangouts, too quickly to write down]. It’s a big part of my lifestyle, I guess.
[We chat a little about gentrification.]
Eric: Definitely gentrification is happening in Kensington Market. [He tells us about a student-run gallery called XPACE that existed on Augusta Avenue about two years ago but was forced to close due to increased rent.]
Torontoist: Have you noticed the Esbin Realty signs that have been popping up around the Market? The Phil Pick ones?
Torontoist: And what does gentrification mean to you? Because it seems like everyone has their own personal interpretation of the term.
Eric: It’s like… if there’s a cool part of town or something, and I guess big companies want to make a profit off that. [Or] people wanting to make a profit off of other people’s lifestyles.
Then we approached a tall man with dreadlocks, holding a guitar.
Torontoist: Hi! My name is Steve Kupferman. I’m a staff writer with Torontoist dot com and I’m trying to interview people about gentrification in Kensington Market.
Dredlocked Man‘s eyes widen, and he turns to the photographer: Does he actually talk like this?
Torontoist: Uh… yes! Um…
Photographer: Have you heard of Torontoist.com? The website? He’s trying to interview people for an article.
Dredlocked Man: …
Torontoist: Would it be okay if I asked you some questions about gentrification?
Dredlocked Man: What is that?
Torontoist: Well. Ah. The Oxford English Dictionary definition is: “The process by which an area becomes middle class.”
Dredlocked Man: Middle class?
Dredlocked Man: Rich people?
Dredlocked Man amused: I don’t know anything about rich people. [Walks off.]
And that’s about when the thunderstorm began.
There’s not much we can conclude from this little experiment, though being snubbed by our dredlocked friend was sufficiently humbling to make us realize one thing: guys like Phil Pick may be the most visible agents in the transformation of neighbourhoods like Kensington Market, but they’re not the only ones. Everyone with a wallet participates in the change. The interest of “rich people” in these places is what makes it happen.
Standing in Bellevue Square Park, we’d just quoted the Oxford English Dictionary. If gentrification is indeed a battle, that’s a pretty good indication we’re fighting for the offense. Maybe you are, too.
Photos of “for lease” signs by Steve Kupferman/Torontoist.
All other photos by Nick Kozak/Torontoist.