When someone is looking to capture the essence of an area, they frequently use the term ‘personality’ as a catch-all to describe the unique and charismatic quirks of a space. Personality can evolve through numerous influencers, from individual storefronts and captivating locals to historic architecture and idealistic green spaces. The combination of these components can create a space that is indescribable, yet enthralling. The idea perpetuates itself, attracting like-minded people who thrive on the environment and support the spaces that embody it.
‘Personality’ is often used to describe the slew of independent shops on Queen Street, or the vibrant, welcoming atmosphere of Church and Wellesley. This concept of personality is what drives tourism, encourages local pride, and makes living in a city truly worthwhile.
Toronto is evolving into one of the most economically prosperous cities in North America. With this comes formulaic developments and low-risk architecture erected wherever a plot of land can be zoned. In this concrete jungle, however, one space still stands as an embodiment of personality: Kensington Market.
It’s only in Kensington that a Jamaican-Italian fusion restaurant can co-exist with a sailor-style tattoo parlour and an off-the-wall kids’ toy store. From cheap eats to Victorian-style architecture and prosperous parks, it’s the ideal space to happily waste away a Sunday. Kensington Market has, for many years, been the personification of anti-corporate sentiment and a pioneer for preserving local integrity.
But recently, new developments and chains have begun to enter the market, bringing with them a subtler type of gentrification, one that the market has explicitly fought for years.
History of the market
Originating in the 1870s, Kensington Market has long been a space occupied by various cultural groups. British and Irish immigrants were the first to monopolize Kensington, giving the area its distinctly British name. By the 1900s, Jewish immigrants had quickly filled the space and begun selling goods in front of their homes. This casual, entrepreneurial environment is what gave the area its distinctive ‘market’ quality. Following World War II, the Jewish community moved to wealthier areas, opening the doors for other European immigrants to move in. Portuguese immigrants established some of the most solid roots of any European community, but they also moved into more wealthy areas around the 1970s. Following this, South Asian immigrants began opening shops in Kensington, which marked the advent of its eclectic design today.
As its popularity continued increasing, countless efforts were made to change the space in one way or another. Companies such as Walmart and Starbucks attempted to open in the market but were strongly and successfully resisted by the city councillor and community groups. Today, the market is designated as a Canadian national historic site.
It’s difficult to classify Kensington’s changes in the past few years as gentrification in the traditional sense. Often, gentrification is signaled by rising rents or corporate invasion and confirmed upon the opening of a Whole Foods. But what Kensington has gone through in the past few years has been far more nuanced. Local chains have opened shiny new shops, new condos have quietly been assembled, and the sidewalks seem perhaps mildly cleaner.
But what does this mean? The market is far from destroyed. In fact, it remains the pinnacle of personality in the city. Despite the implied law of ‘independent shops only,’ the opening of anything outside of that does not inherently ruin the character of the space. These stores are far from incompatible and, in fact, are often complementary. Regardless, with this law in mind, the appearance of a Jimmy’s Coffee begins to feel more than mildly disingenuous. To imply that corporations aren’t welcome, yet embracing a well-funded chain, presents residents with a unique dilemma that they were neither prepared for nor aware of. Is the opening of these stores adverse to the market’s culture?
The market’s shops are often highly specialized in their product, and, as such, can avoid inducing competition, instead enhancing each other’s performance. It is because of this specialized nature and wide variety that Kensington has rightfully sustained its ‘market’ distinction. Shoppers recognize the value in going to multiple stores to get the best of what the market has to offer, instead of going to the traditional one-stop-shop. Simply because one store is newer or better funded than the other does not change the nature of the area.
What Kensington has done so effectively is preserve its integrity by fending off national chains, while simultaneously recognizing inevitable gentrification and demanding that new stores adapt to the established environment. Any new store that can reinforce the market’s style and widen the diverse range of options should be welcomed openly.
In an interview with Toronto Life, Aaron Levy raised the concern that “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.” This is the ultimate concern of a community that has been increasingly difficult to protect. He went on to argue, “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.”
Beyond the storefronts and quirky atmosphere, Kensington is home to many individuals who have been battling to keep their homes, but are faced with insurmountable rent increases from fierce landlords. The universally accepted disadvantage of gentrification is that residents are priced out of their homes. The displacement of locals is a tragic consequence of an environment that is infused with hipster bread and lavish poke bowls. But who is to blame for this? Some point to the city for neglecting the need for affordable housing, while others look to the landlords who ruthlessly capitalize on their appreciating asset.
William Strange, a University of Toronto Professor of Urban Economics, outlines the true uncertainty of city planning. Although the burden and blame is imposed on the city for an area’s eventual form, Strange explains how “it’s really hard to engineer neighbourhoods. Neighbourhoods happen. The coolest ones happen because people make little individual decisions that make them interesting.” Ultimately, the city has far too little power to dictate what landlords will do with their spaces.
Meanwhile, those same landlords are simply replying to a supply restriction in housing. Similarly, in retail spaces, they are often capitalizing on a highly-valuable property. Strange emphasizes that one of the primary issues that the city faces is a dissonance between the universal acceptance of a lack of housing supply and the diversion of possible developments elsewhere. A prime example of this is Kensington Market itself. Currently, the city restricts developments in the area to around four storeys, while the community adamantly refuses new builds altogether. For this, Strange proposes “not a ban on development, but instead encouraging development that allows diverse ranges of income to inhabit a neighbourhood.” Simply put, he suggests generating more affordable housing in the area. Although the market should attempt to preserve its identity as much as possible, new development may not bring all the unraveling that is predicted.
Strange goes on to explain that, “the people who want to live in a place like Kensington, as it is right now, these are people who don’t want pristine sidewalks, trees, and no people out at night. These are people who are buying into it because they like Kensington-ness. It would not surprise me if the presence of those [new] folks would strengthen rather than weaken inherent Kensington-ness.” This is important to emphasize because anyone buying into a newly built condo in the area could just as easily live along King Street. Instead, they choose to embrace the market for its character and want to support it rather than disrupt it.
Although the development of Kensington might appear detrimental, its 150 years of perpetual flux should indicate that continuous change is inevitable. The market will evolve, but change is not always negative.
Tourists and locals alike come to Kensington to escape the drudgery of the financial district or the monotony of corporatized Yonge Street. It’s a pocket of dynamic urban space, ripe for vibrant storefronts and eccentric individuals; it’s one of few places in the city that you want to get lost in and find yourself four hours later, stomach full and hands crowded with vintage finds. This identity and individuality should be collectively upheld and prioritized above the interests of the next big business.
The importance of diverse and energetic pockets of Toronto cannot be overstated. They dictate the flow of our city and ultimately shape the people who live here. We are lucky to have a community full of individuals who recognize that. In this, I’m simply aiming to curb a catastrophic view of the changing environment. I challenge individuals to support new and old businesses alike, and with the same earnest devotion that led the market to where it is today. For without it, I don’t know where I would go on Sunday mornings.