Kensington Market: my neighbourhood, my family – my first real home.
Located in the heart of downtown Toronto bordered by College and Dundas to the north and south, to the east and west by Spadina and Bathurst, this unique enclave is a quirky, edgy, messy mish-mosh of old and new.
It’s where skinny Victorian row houses stand side-by-side with assorted shops and eateries selling everything from soup and suits to nuts and neckties – with plenty of stuff in between.
Grafitti adorn many of its walls. This feisty tangle of narrow one-way streets obeys none of the usual rules and cheerfully marches to its own drum.
It’s been a safe and welcoming haven for waves of immigrants to this city since it was the predominantly Jewish market more than a century ago.
It’s been a place for merchants to set up shop catering to every influx of newcomers: Jewish, Portuguese, Eastern European, Chinese, Vietnamese, African, Caribbean, South American – and more.
It’s been a microcosm of our multicultural urban scene. It’s unique. It’s real.
It’s a major tourist attraction. And, in spite of scuffles over the years with urban renewal, drugs, fires, the Spadina Expressway-that-never-was and constant change, one thing stays the same: Kensington Market is alive, well and definitely kicking.
But today there’s a battle going on for Kensington Market’s heart and soul. And it’s got me worried.
I was born in Montreal, then spent my formative years in London, England. My family and I returned to Canada in the mid-1960s.
After stints in Edmonton, then North Bay, I found myself in Toronto – a city I found mostly unattractive and unwelcoming. That is, until 1978 when I wandered into Kensington Market on a food-shopping spree one sunny fall afternoon.
There were chickens squawking in cages on the sidewalk outside several shops on Baldwin St. Nearby, Lottman’s and Perlmutar’s bakeries were busy selling Jewish rye bread, Danishes and bagels.
On Augusta Ave., there were two thriving Zimmerman’s, the famous “egg lady” Cipora Offman and all manner of greengrocers whose wares were displayed in colourful array in outdoor bins.
Shoppers crowded the sidewalks, many of them older women laden down with bags of food. Some were loading bushels of peppers and apples destined for home-canning or baking into cars.
Two hubs of activity were key attractions: European Quality Meat and Sausages with its low prices, famed home-made kielbasa, popular hot food counter and line-ups of meat-buyers waiting to take a number by the door. Down the street, Casa Açoreana, with its wonderful sign, “Nuts Make the World go Round,” was a focal point at the corner of Baldwin and Augusta as a source of coffee, baking ingredients, as well as grains, beans, nuts and seeds sold in bulk.
Then and there, I decided Kensington Market would be my home.
For two years, I lived in the apartment above Courage My Love on Kensington Ave.
Then, in 1980, I knocked on the door of 195 Augusta Ave. – a row house overlooking Bellevue Park – with a yen to buy. An elderly man answered the door. He wanted to sell after the death of his wife but had just taken down the “For Sale” sign. “You must be an angel from heaven,” he said sweetly.
Mr. Anton Germuska sold me the house and I lived there for 25 blissful years.
As a secular Jew without roots – my mother is a holocaust refugee from Latvia, my late father a Montrealer who grew up in the St. Urbain ghetto – I may not have known it at the time but Kensington Market had spoken to me with its warm vibe, its lively ethnic mix and its unspoken refusal to conform.
Over the years, I’ve become part of the Kensington family. As with any family, there are happy and sad times.
In summer, the wondrous patio at Portuguese restaurant Amadeu’s on the corner of Augusta at Denison has long been home to a motley crew of musicians, writers, bicycle couriers, tourists and families out for the day, all enjoying the sun, twilight, grilled sardines, pitchers of beer and Sangria along with lots of kibitzing, laughter and only the occasional fist-fight.
On World Cup soccer weekends, the place is packed and you can hear wild cheers, as well as groans, for several blocks.
When Amadeu Gonçalves, co-owner of Amadeu’s with his wife Celeste, was killed in a car accident in 2008, we all grieved that devastating loss.
Celeste, with the help of her daughter Elizabeth and son Rui, has bravely carried on. Others haven’t.
In April, 2012, European Meat closed its doors after more than 50 years. Young chef Peter Sanagan has moved into the giant location selling upscale, naturally-raised meat that’s locally sourced.
Down the street, Hooked – a small store specializing in sustainable seafood – has opened up in what was once the Jewish butcher shop Max & Son.
A couple of greengrocers are now gone. The egg lady died. And now the building housing landmark Casa Açoreana is for sale for more than $2 million. The Pavao family, who have owned and operated it for 50 years, will likely bow out.
In 2005, I had neighbour trouble and moved to the rural city of Stratford. Five years of trying to adjust to small-town life failed. I returned to the inimitable Market – my real home.
What’s next for Kensington?
For me, it’s bittersweet. I know my neighbourhood is in demand. Realtors have sniffed out big profits. It’s a tourist destination par excellence. The bar and restaurant scene is flourishing. Hipsters hang out at spots like Roach-o-Rama and Urban Herbivore. Condos and other development – including Loblaws and a couple of faceless big-box enterprises slated for the Market’s periphery – are waiting in the wings.
The dreaded word “gentrification” is looming large.
We must embrace inevitable change. But, like the area’s city councillor Adam Vaughan, I want it to be good change.
Grassroots groups calling for action are on the case: Kensington Market Action Committee, Development Watch, Friends of Kensington Market (on Facebook and Twitter), the Kensington Market Historical Society and an active Business Improvement Association. Merchants and residents are concerned.
Let’s help the small independent merchants survive. Kensington was built on hard work and the “mom-and-pop” business plan.
Let’s not forget its legacy described by Jean Cochrane, author of the excellent book “Kensington,” as “a magnet for the oppressed.”
Let’s restrict liquor licences so we don’t have another entertainment district that comes alive at night – and not in a good way..
If gentrification of a certain kind happens, let’s above all save Kensington Market’s wondrous, unique heart and soul.