For the love of Kensington
The weird, wonderful market at the heart of the city withstood every threat of redevelopment. Then Loblaws and Walmart came knocking, trendy artisanal shops unleashed a wave of gentrification, and now no one can agree on what should be preserved. Portrait of a neighbourhood identity crisis
In the spring of 2012, with my best friend in hospital recovering from cancer surgery and my wife pregnant with our first child, I decided to join the Consciousness Explorers Club in Kensington Market. Founded by Jeff Warren, a journalist and meditation teacher, the club is dedicated to what he calls “playful spiritual exploration.” One aspect of this was an occasional sweaty dance party at Handlebar on Augusta, but the club also held weekly gatherings and more formal meditation classes in the living room of Warren’s Wales Avenue Victorian. A couple of dozen people routinely showed up, a ragtag group of doctors, writers, students, scientists and one youngish mother who sometimes hit the Hot Box pot café around the corner to get a buzz on before class. The novelist Barbara Gowdy, the playwright David Young and the filmmaker Ron Mann were among the regulars. In a room decorated with a large tapestry depicting a tiger, the floor a colourful sea of cushions, Warren led the group in a 40-minute guided meditation. After a tea break, he’d initiate a conversation around a theme—one week might be about notions of community, another week, the consciousness of animals. He called these conversations, which could be both enlightening and tedious, “collective wonderment.”
I had never meditated before in my life, and it took me several weeks to find a comfortable posture (three cushions helped). There was a lot of “sharing,” too, which I reflexively balked at but which became kind of liberating after I finally realized that there was nowhere to hide. And, to my surprise, that I didn’t want to hide. The discussions often got intimate—one guy talked a lot about his anxieties and drug addiction. At one point, I teared up as I meditated on an image of my unborn baby taking a bath. In its most sublime moments, it felt like seeing a shrink—if both you and the shrink were high on ecstasy. In other words, it was all quintessentially Kensington.
Rabbi and founder of the Jewish organization Makom
During one of the most stressful, difficult times of my life, the club served as a refuge. And as spring progressed, and soft breezes carried into the house the smells and sounds of Bellevue Square Park—pot smoke, bongos, children yelling, a smattering of different languages—I was also frequently reminded what a refuge the market as a whole can be. Walking into Kensington is like entering a weird countercultural time warp—a seemingly constant commingling of punks, neo-hippies, earth mamas, Rastas, ravers and other freethinkers, but also young families darting into greengrocers and fish mongers before dinner, ramshackle patios filling up with happy-hour drinkers, artists carrying canvases on their bike racks. The ebullient, multi-ethnic crowds confirm the stereotype of the market as an oasis of possibility and inclusiveness. It was the only part of the city where something like the Consciousness Explorers Club could exist.
These days, some people worry that the market’s peculiar beauty is on the verge of extinction. There are too many bars and restaurants now, too many trendy shops. The creeping gentrification and concomitant rise in real estate values, many argue, are stripping the market of its eccentric character and driving out the less affluent people who live there. But has that really happened? People have been saying the market’s dead for years, yet it’s still pretty much the only place in Toronto where you can fly your freak flag as high as you like.
The market has almost always been defined by its imperilment. Since its creation in the early 1900s, when it was called the Jewish Market, Kensington has been constantly bedevilled by development, transformed by shifting—and sometimes conflicting—waves of immigrants, contorted by fashion. Its famous enemies have included, but are not limited to, the proposed Spadina Expressway; the municipal, provincial and federal governments’ so-called Urban Renewal program in the late ’60s that aimed to clean up the neighbourhood; and the expansionary plans of Toronto Western Hospital, U of T, George Brown and the Toronto Board of Education. All of them wanted at some point or another to build new buildings and threatened to expropriate Kensingtonians’ homes to do so.
Kensington resident and owner of the cookware store Good Egg
None of those plans succeeded at breaking Kensington. Big corporations haven’t even been able to get a toehold: Nike, Second Cup and Starbucks all tried and were all driven out. In the last couple of years, that anti-corporate sentiment has reached a fever pitch with the prospect of an invasion of big-box stores. In 2011, Tribute Communities announced that they were going to build a 15-storey condo at the corner of College and Spadina. Rumours about Loblaws opening in the condo were enough to spawn a new activist organization: Friends of Kensington Market (or FoKM, appropriately pronounced “fuck ’em”) argued the grocery store would decimate the neighbourhood’s independent grocers and its essential character. Then a more fearsome villain emerged: commercial developer RioCan announced plans to build a new mall on the old Kromer Radio site between the market and Little Italy, with a 95,000-square-foot Walmart as an anchor tenant. The city’s Official Plan doesn’t permit malls of such a size to be built in residential neighbourhoods, however, and after the OMB rejected the proposal, RioCan applied to have the area rezoned. With the support of councillors Adam Vaughan and Mike Layton, FoKM mobilized again and convinced 93,000 people to sign an online petition that the organization sent to city staff (sample signatory sentiment: “Kensington Market is a major artery connected to the heart of Toronto. Walmart is a virus, a cancer.”)
The proposal also inspired protest art, a Kensington specialty. Jordan Tannahill and William Ellis, the co-founders of Videofag, a storefront cinema and experimental theatre, mounted a provocative two-day show called “Kensington Market Walmart Pop Up.” It was a sly reimagining of the retailer’s generic products as conceptual art that was designed to highlight how multinationals try to innocuously insert themselves into gentrifying neighbourhoods. “Ironically, we’ve never received any prejudiced or intimidating comments about our Videofag sign,” Tannahill says. “Yet when we converted it into a fake Walmart sign, we became concerned people might throw a brick through our window.” Dozens of people didn’t get it, some angry enough to try to tear down the sign, but luckily there were no brick-throwers among them. “Every successive generation of residents gets flak from the rest of Toronto for being NIMBY,” Tannahill says, “but there’s a long track record of successful advocacy that has kept the market vibrant. It’s a question of who we want our neighbours to be, what we want our core to look like.”
Kensington resident, writer and founder of the protest group Friends of Kensington Market
The debate around the big-box stores managed to unify the market; nearly every local shop, new and old, put up a poster objecting to them, and shining a spotlight on the difference between Kensington and Walmart helped clarify what exactly Kensington is. FoKM won—RioCan blinked and revised its proposal, with the largest retail unit in the new plan only half what was originally proposed, eliminating the space that Walmart required. FoKM couldn’t stop the grocery store, however. A slick new 20,000-square-foot Loblaws specializing in organic produce and prepared foods will open in 2016. It’s impossible to say how small Kensington grocers will fare with the competition, but I suspect they’ll do all right. Those who shop in the market now do so largely out of choice—it’s not as if it’s difficult to find a Loblaws, or a Sobeys, or even a Walmart very far from Kensington. There’s a sentimental attachment for a lot of those shoppers. Also, as the market has cleaned itself up, it’s become a more appealing destination for the kinds of people who might have previously preferred to shop at a polished supermarket chain.
The battle over the market reinforced just how rich a symbol it is in the city’s imagination. The palimpsest narrative of Kensington—of striving newcomers eking out a living before moving elsewhere in the city and up in the world—is one of the favourite stories Toronto likes to tell itself about itself. As our downtown streets become both more dense and, to a great degree, more homogeneous—bank, Starbucks, Shoppers, bank—Kensington is one of the last pockets that doesn’t look and feel like the rest of the city. It’s one of the only remaining theatres where you can fight the increasing corporate monoculture of the city—and still, often, win.
For some market guardians, what now menaces Kensington most is the familiar kudzu of gentrification, which is more insidious than the invasion of a big-box Walmart. They see it in Jimmy’s Coffee, the King West mini-chain, displacing the Hot Box pot café; in the Kensington Brewing Company, founded by former Burger Bar owner Brock Shepherd, currently under construction in the old Electric Theatre location (the theatre’s hideous space alien mural is still evident behind the hoarding); in the arrival of April Bloomfield, the superstar British chef, who’s a partner in the new Blackbird Baking Company; in Sanagan’s Meat Locker, the fresh-and-local butcher that replaced the cheaper, old-school European Meats. It’s in Phil Pick, the much-loathed real estate agent many blame for driving market rents up and mom-and-pop shops out, and whose nickname will forever be Phil Prick. It’s in the penthouse condo on Nassau going for $659,000. It’s in the changing complexion of both the merchants and their customers: hipper, more affluent and arguably less ethnically diverse. It’s in the swelling number of trendy bars.
Agent at Esbin Realty
Gentrification can easily kill a neighbourhood’s unique spirit. For just one depressing example, look at how Queen West around John has become a bland, overpriced extension of the Eaton Centre. (The recent closure of Peter Pan restaurant, one of the last remnants of the old Queen West, has punctuated that story.) But gentrification is an inadequate word for the specific convulsions of commerce and class that characterize Kensington. Thanks to a peculiar geography (it’s the only substantial shopping district not located on an arterial road), the tenacity of its resident associations, its uncommon economic diversity and micromanaging politicians, the market’s metamorphosis has proceeded in a way that’s more nuanced than the one-size-fits-all, doom-and-gloom gentrification narrative we’re so frequently fed. Despite the spike in home prices all across the core, the market still contains affordable housing, including several Toronto Community Housing townhouses along Wales and Casimir, supportive housing at St. Stephen’s Community House and a large apartment building on Leonard Avenue, which has expanded to 77 units that cater to the recently homeless. The market remains home to a large Chinese population and a magnet for newcomers of all stripes. Gentrification has created a more diverse market—there are fewer greengrocers, maybe, but among them are shops that sell organic and sustainable products, and different ethnic foods.
The stores selling overpriced jars of pickles or expensive cuts of hormone-free lamb bring in a new clientele who also spend their money in the old-school mom-and-pop shops that continue to dominate Kensington. Cecilia Espinoza, a sunny, middle-aged Salvadoran, has been running the Latin American Emporium, a small grocery store and takeout restaurant, since she moved to Kensington 25 years ago. “When I first came,” she says, “there were a lot of Latin Americans living and shopping here. But they’ve moved away, and in the last five years, there have been more Canadians. That’s also a good thing.” Those “Canadians”—by which she means, of course, white, or at least ethnically indeterminate, shoppers—tend to travel and be more interested in exploring different foods. “New shops like Sanagan’s,” she adds, “bring in more of them.”
These new shops and shopkeepers, even if they largely appeal to an affluent, exclusive clientele, are at least helping to ensure the future of Kensington as a food market. Unlike, say, London’s Camden Market, Kensington hasn’t become a tourist trap, nor has it calcified into a kind of boho theme park. The market still doesn’t feel cool in the way other neighbourhoods, just as they’re being “discovered,” feel cool, like the Junction did, or East Bayfront might in a couple of years. It’s both too familiar and too janky, an old sweater that smells like patchouli no matter how much you wash it.
For all the talk of Kensington Market as the heart and soul of Toronto, the irony is that it is so unlike the rest of the city. If Toronto is a city of neighbourhoods, as the cliché goes, then Kensington is a kind of proudly self-sufficient and strenuously independent mini-city within the city. Stubborn Kensington won’t be easily eradicated.