Nassau Street is home to the laid back and wonderfully disorganized Ideal Coffee Café, a casual locale with a low key décor of vinyl booths and mismatched coffee mugs. A large coffee roaster sits in the middle of the cafe surrounded by giant burlap bags of fairly traded coffee beans.
“You know what I love about Kensington Market,” my friend says casually sipping his coffee, “It doesn’t give me any corporate logos unless it’s printed on the side of my long necked glass bottle of Coca Cola imported from Mexico.”
This area west of Spadina, called Kensington Market is a unique community of narrow streets and alleys, some of which are lined with colourfully painted Victorian houses. The bustling lanes of the market consist of a variety of food stores selling an eclectic mix of meats, fish and produce. The area is also home to funky dimly lit boutiques selling a wide variety of cheap and used clothing, as well as a number of discount and surplus stores.
On busy days, the market is every bit as chaotic as street markets around the world: with a cacophony of sounds and smells and a culturally diverse crowd. People are attracted not only to the good prices but also to the rich multicultural mix that exists in the market, obvious in the shops packed with goods imported from Europe, the Caribbean, the Middle East, South America and Asia.
Kensington Market has a rich history. The first settlers to the area came from the British Isles. Their legacy remains today with the English names they chose for the tightly packed streets that make up the market. In the early 1900’s the British relocated to affluent areas of Toronto, and the market began to attract more diverse immigrants to its community.
By the 1920’s, 80 percent of Toronto’s Jewish community had settled in and around Kensington Market, worshipping at over 30 local synagogues. Merchants sold a variety of goods from hand-pushed carts bolted down in front of their homes. The economy began to prosper and their business began to spill out onto the lawns, onto their porches, and even into the main floor of many of their houses. The “Jewish Market” was born.
By the 1930s the carts were gone and the goods moved into the front room of the family home and became the first store fronts of the market. Soon the area became a thriving marketplace with kosher meat processing plants and chicken slaughterhouses added to the mix.
After World War II, the original Jewish population began moving to wealthier suburban areas in Toronto and Ukrainians, Hungarians, Italians, and Portuguese began to move into the neighbourhood to make a new life for themselves.
By the 1960s the Portuguese were the market’s largest immigrant community. They added their own colour to the eclectic mix of cultures in the market by influencing the types of goods sold and expanding commerce onto Augusta Street.
In the 1970’s, Toronto Mayor David Crombie, who was strongly opposed to the massive urban restructuring plans that were popular at the time, crushed plans to tear down the densely packed small houses and replace them with large apartment style housing projects.
Today the neighbourhood is a noted tourist attraction as well as a centre for Toronto’s cultural life as many artists and writers live in the area. Land prices in the area have rose drastically, but despite its increased appeal to professionals, Kensington Market still remains a predominantly working class, immigrant community.
The fact that the market is pedestrian friendly also adds to its charm. The narrow streets and the density of pedestrians and cyclists discourage drive-thru traffic. On weekends and peak shopping hours, it is actually much faster to cycle or even walk through the market than to drive. In 2004, residents and businesses organized a series of Pedestrian Sundays where parts of Augusta St., Baldwin St. and Kensington Ave. are closed to motorized traffic and the market is transformed into a street festival. There is free live music, dancing, street theatre and games all along the closed streets.
The market continues to evolve by attracting people from all around the globe. Every wave of immigrants has changed the city in its own way,” says Toronto Mayor David Miller. “Toronto’s success is neighbourhood-based. The face of the streets is the face of the world.
Nowhere is that more prevalent than in Toronto’s unique Kensington Market.