By David Deo
Kensington Market holds a mythical status amongst Torontonians as a place of colour and chaos. A trip to Kensington is a palpable experience—the produce is cheap, the colours are bright, and the smells are strong. The Market’s built form is defined by additions, makeshift alterations, and non-conforming uses. Edwardian storefronts are barnacled onto narrow Victorian houses, while semi-legal canopies and market stalls create random choke-points on busy sidewalks. Small additions speak to utilitarian goals achieved by limited means, the resulting palimpsest being something akin to a medieval city centre. The materiality is not noble, much of it plywood, sheet-metal, concrete, and stucco. There is, however, a richness in the mosaic of textures and colours and in the vibrant street life they foster.
Despite Toronto’s long tradition of newcomers remaking neighbourhoods, there is no other place like Kensington. The layered build-out over the Victorian building stock is a specific pattern born from waves of subcultures expressing their agency over a small pocket of Toronto. Kensington Market is unique for being an area totally redefined by minority groups, creating an alternative marketplace through micro-enterprise, and sustaining it through a strong culture of self-regulation. The Market still attracts subcultures, and their cultural patterns continue to advance a discourse with the built environment. This language tells a story of outcasts synthesizing cultural identity and practices in a safe place. The Kensington neighbourhood is a rectangular area bound by four major streets northwest of downtown Toronto. The market area is in the eastern half, characterized by colourful and chaotic commercial activity concentrated on Augusta Avenue, Kensington Avenue, and Baldwin Street.
Cities are dynamic places whose forms can be attributed to processes of chaos and order. Order is something designed and imposed from a position of power, whereas expressions of chaos emerge organically from bottom-up, self-organizing processes. Toronto’s layout and built form have long represented order. The pattern dates back to the late 18th century surveys of Ontario. These land divisions, applied over a gentle topography, created a regular and expansive grid layout characterized by straight major thoroughfares and right-angle intersections. The social culture of Victorian Toronto was likewise ordered, dominated by a Protestant morality that held a strong influence over the political, economic and social institutions of the day. Reformers were zealous, targeting any practices that were unhygienic or undermined the traditional family structure. Public health was thus tied to morality as well as hygiene, and various building types and practices were maligned as sources of disease. (1) Apartment buildings and the practice of taking lodgers were seen as threatening, since they reduced privacy and brought strangers into the domestic realm. The ideal was the single family home, owner-occupied, and detached if possible. (2) Toronto’s first land-use restrictions emerged to help foster these ideals, first by prohibiting certain uses in residential areas, and later designating house-only areas. (3) These regulations pushed commercial uses and apartments onto main streets, buffered from the residential neighbourhoods nestled behind. Keeping sources of moral disease in plain view made them more easily regulated by authorities and the watchful eyes of society at large. This ordered pattern, borne of mainstream morality and imposed by municipal regulation, still defines much of the city today. Thus Toronto’s grid and characteristic land-use patterns don’t merely represent survey lines or roads, they are also the manifestation of a values system embedded in the urban fabric.
The Kensington neighbourhood has a complex, organic form reflecting over a century of chaotic interventions and additions layered over a Victorian subdivision. The area was originally comprised of three different tracts of land, whose uneven subdivision created inconsistent and unrelated block sizes [Fig. 1]. By the 1890s it had fully developed into a late-Victorian subdivision, occupied by a Canadian and British middle class. (4) Most buildings were at least semi-detached, with many in rows of three or more shoe-horned into the tight lots. Houses bore the stylistic norms of the day, dominated by the Queen Anne style and other vernacular designs. Prominent bays capped with sharp gables added interest to massing and created picturesque rooflines, while polychromatic brick accents and ornate bargeboards brought flamboyant life to the facades.
After 1900, large numbers of Eastern European Jews began moving to the area as the original residents moved to new suburbs. Most had moved from The Ward, regarded at the time as a notorious downtown immigrant slum. It is significant that the first minority group to establish a critical mass in Kensington Market was a largely Orthodox Jewish community. In addition to having a set of cultural practices and rituals very distinct from Toronto’s Protestant majority, the orthodox way of life was rooted in the reality of being a permanent subculture. The cultural resilience embedded in the Jewish faith found quick expression in the Kensington area, as merchants began selling familiar wares to their community. A vibrant trade developed, first with vendors peddling from wooden carts. This form of micro-enterprise had low start-up costs and is the origin of Kensington Market’s tendency to conduct business on the street, rather than indoors [Fig. 2].
By 1915 a critical mass of storefronts emerged at Kensington and Baldwin streets as the nucleus of what was then the Jewish Market. Operating a store in this hitherto residential area required some degree of cost-effective conversion. The cheapest method involved simply hanging a sign on a house and selling goods from the front yard or living room. Much of Kensington Avenue operated in this fashion south of St. Andrew Street, a tradition that continues today. Others took a more formal route, constructing flat-roofed additions that extended from facade to sidewalk [Fig. 3]. By infilling what had been a residential setback, the storefront engaged the street in a more typical commercial fashion. Additions were brick, with generous glazed areas at grade surmounted by large retractable awnings. They rose one or two floors, leaving the attic storey and roof of the original house visible. The aesthetic effect is jarring, with the sober austerity of the Edwardian additions contrasting the colourful Victorians hidden behind. This hybrid form was once common in Toronto, where houses existed before a street became commercialized. Many of these were torn down and rebuilt as mixed-use structures, so as to better conform to their neighbours. In the Jewish Market however, the ad-hoc form of non-conformance quickly became the norm [Fig. 4].
Toronto’s food industry didn’t serve the needs of the Jewish community, which had strict dietary restrictions and their own culinary traditions and tastes. Food importing was limited, and the Jewish community relied on local ingredients to produce traditional recipes. This need to sell, and sometimes produce, products is reflected in the types of shops, with butchers, dairies, bakeries, and grocers making up the majority of food sellers. Commercial additions and street vendors helped grow the Jewish Market into the 1930s, transforming the entire west part of Baldwin Street. The narrow, once-residential streets became an active part of the market space, unlike on major streets where the wide roads were dangerous, and reserved for traffic only [Fig. 5]. Thus despite the proliferation of brick-and-mortar businesses, the streets and sidewalks remained the focal point of market life and trade. The unique form and customs of the Jewish Market fostered a commercial culture unlike anywhere else in the city.
The unique urban form of the Jewish Market was animated by ways of life that were not common for Toronto’s Protestant majority. A Globe and Mail newspaper article from 1937 notes the market’s “Asiatic atmosphere,” suggesting it was a palpably exotic place, with rituals and rites unfamiliar to the average citizen. The growth and resilience of these lifeways in the face of zealous social reform and increasing regulation owes much to the irregular street and block pattern that insulated it. The Kensington neighbourhood, with haphazard block sizes and short streets simply did not physically mesh with the urban form beyond it. In a city defined by streets that are straight, predictable, and permeable, the Kensington neighbourhood is surrounded by a membrane of T-intersections that prevent smooth passage in and out of the area [Fig. 6]. This causes it to become “a place apart” both physically and mentally. For people who do not frequent the Jewish Market, the area disappears from their mental map of the city. For those who live and do business here, the area attains a discrete boundary, conducive to a heightened sense of identity. In A Pattern Language, Christopher Alexander suggests subcultures need to be protected by some sort of barrier if their customs are to thrive. With neighbours comes immense social pressure to conform, usually motivated by property values. Subcultures that are physically insulated from these dynamics can resist the cultural and economic pressures from the mainstream. (5) Kensington Market’s discontinuity with the urban fabric beyond serves to insulate the area, creating a physical enclave.
The Jewish Market’s location off Toronto’s conventional grid allowed it to bypass the social and regulatory power structures that ordered the commercial and cultural spaces in the rest of the city. The Market was replete with conditions offensive to moral standards at the time. Yet unlike The Ward, which was under constant siege from reformers and health officers, life in the Jewish Market was surprisingly unmolested by authorities. The aforementioned Globe and Mail article comments on the local laissez-faire character:
With little regard for city by-laws, fruits, vegetables, pickle barrels, crates of chickens, trays of glassware, stocks of bananas, piles of all sorts of things, are stacked out beyond the street line, cascade out over the sidewalk. (6)
It is natural for a strong culture of self-regulation to emerge in a place without formal rules. This, combined with a tendency toward micro-enterprise, helped create a unique urban ecology. The Jewish Market was the result of people with scant resources reshaping their environment according to their needs and traditions, unhindered by overlording political and social forces. Kensington Market became an alternative marketplace in the physical, economic and social senses.
In the 1950s, large groups of Portuguese immigrants settled in the neighbourhood. Unlike the Italians and other post-war migrant groups, the Portuguese lacked an established community to help adapt to life in Toronto. Thus the community was particularly self-contained, choosing to live, worship and shop amongst themselves. (7) Like the Jews, they quickly set about reworking the Victorian neighbourhood to serve their community needs. What followed was another commercial boom, transforming the hitherto residential Augusta Avenue. Whereas the Jewish businesses produced and sold goods local in nature, the Portuguese businesses relied more on importing. An increasingly globalized world meant it was feasible for them to import fish and other cultural products that were difficult or impossible to recreate locally. Eventually this access to international markets attracted other immigrants, who struggled to find the familiar foods of their homeland elsewhere in Toronto. The area had outgrown its monocultural origins, and was now commonly called Kensington Market.
Faced again with the challenge of adapting residential spaces to commercial uses, the vernacular form of the fixed enclosed awning emerged along Augusta. The process began as in the Jewish Market, with storefront additions infilling residential setbacks. But Augusta’s wide sidewalks allowed businesses to go beyond retractable awnings and create permanent display areas. These took the form of a shed roof, supported by wooden posts and decked with ply-wood or sheet metal. Resourcefully utilitarian, they used inexpensive, readily available materials to provide shelter, display open air goods, and increase shop space [Fig. 7]. In the 1970s many of these spaces were enclosed, often with plywood, to protect goods from cold winter temperatures. Whereas the awnings of the Jewish market sheltered the sidewalk and public realm, this new form actively occupied it. All along Augusta the sidewalk is nibbled by these structures, eroding the once spacious walkways and creating another urban condition unique to Kensington [Fig. 8].
Admittedly, discussing only the Jewish and Portuguese communities of Kensington Market leaves a thousand stories untold. Newcomers have long been seduced by the opportunity of affordable commercial space in a concentrated, viable marketplace. Countless others have taken shelter in its social sphere, long a safe space for the societal outsider. In recent decades, social outcasts like Rastas, punks and artists have sought refuge within its walls. In the 1990s a large Chinese community emerged, and today there is a strong Latin American presence. Burrito joints and coffee shops now occupy enclosed corner spaces in a variation on the Portuguese style. They have big windows and trendy finishes conducive to a sit-down environment [Fig. 9]. Down the road, multiple signs hang over a door hinting at the fact that a single space is being shared by three or four different food vendors. Over a century since the establishment of Jewish market, Kensington continues to be defined by resourcefulness and a willingness to reshape the environment. For now, the discourse between pattern of use and built form remains healthy.
For a long time, a perceived urban squalor shielded the area from the demographic changes that have been redefining other parts of the city. But as the post-industrial reality of Canadian cities marches forward, Kensington is inevitably susceptible to the gravity of change. As children of the suburbs flock back to the city in full force, property values skyrocket and ethnic culture is commodified before being reduced to a caricature of itself. Downtown Toronto is being forced to reconcile with the fact that the working class immigrants who defined the city in the twentieth century are largely written out of its future.
When Jewish migrants transformed the Kensington neighbourhood from physical enclave into a social one, a new urban ecology emerged with unique social, economic and regulatory dynamics. The resulting vernacular condition enabled successive groups of minorities and outsiders to reshape their own space. Changes in turn attracted new groups, and the discursive process became a normalized cycle. Thus Kensington Market is a place whose built form and social rituals are utterly indivorcable. Its essence of place is not in the historic Jewish Market or the Portuguese interventions on Augusta. Rather it is the evolving composite of layers, continually changing, that defines Kensington Market. The Market is not important because it was shaped by vernacular patterns, but because those forces continue to shape it. Kensington Market is alive. Change and evolution are necessary for living things, but so is an underlying spirit or essence. In Kensington that is the enduring agency of the outcast to shape their own place.
1. Lawrence Solomon, Toronto Sprawls: A History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007), 25-27.
2. Richard Harris, Unplanned Suburbs: Toronto’s American Tragedy (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 87-93.
3. Peter W. Moore, “Zoning and Planning: The Toronto Experience, 1904-1970,” in The Usable Urban Past: Planning and Politics in the Modern Canadian City, ed. Alan F.J. Artibise and Gilbert Arthur Stelter (Toronto: Macmillan Company of Canada Ltd, 1979), 320-324.
4. Patricia McHugh, Toronto Architecture: A City Guide (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1985), 181.
5. Christopher Alexander et al., A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 75-79.
6. “Toronto’s Busiest Market On Kensington Avenue Has Asiatic Atmosphere,” The Globe and Mail, August 6, 1937, 4.
7. Joan Nankivell, “They Never Really Left Home,” The Globe and Mail, August 11, 1973, A17.
David Deo studied history at Concordia University in Montreal and heritage conservation at Willowbank in Queenston, Ontario. He is a heritage specialist with Taylor Hazell Architects in Toronto.