TORONTO — Before Kensington Market in Toronto became the hip, vintage-shop, urban scene it is today, it was just a small area with a strong identity, which many immigrants, including Jews, called home.
Virtually every immigrant group that came to Toronto before the 1980s first planted their roots in this area, said Rosemary Donegan.
Donegan, a curator who focuses on art in relation to industrialization, was speaking about how Kensington Market and Spadina Avenue have changed over the years, at the inaugural event for the Kensington Market Historical Society, on March 20.
“It’s a living street, it’s changing all the time,” said Donegan, about Spadina Avenue. These new immigrants were actively involved in the city’s politics, she said, a reason why the street became known as “red Spadina.”
Jewish life flourished on these streets, with Hebrew and Yiddish newspaper stands lining the sidewalk, although in those times they would arrive a day late from other major cities, said Donegan. The streets were filled with greengrocers, synagogues, a Yiddish theatre and kosher butchers. Although those are long gone, you can still see faded Hebrew letters on some of the buildings.
It’s estimated that 20,000 to 30,000 Jews lived in this area at one point, but most of the Jewish community had left by the 1950s. Today, only two synagogues remain: the Anshei Minsk Synagogue on St. Andrew Street, an Orthodox shul that still holds daily services, and the Kiever Synagogue on Bellevue Avenue.
“It was a village, an enclosed area,” said Jean Cochrane, the author of the book Kensington. “It was a bubble. It was very much a cohesive neighbourhood. They’re a strong community, and when they feel threatened, they mobilize.”
That’s still true today for Kensington Market locals like longtime resident Marion Kane, 66.
“When I moved there in 1978, there were live chickens on the sidewalk. It was mainly food shops, lots of Jewish merchants were still there at that time,” said Kane. “Gradually, the Jewish merchants have nearly all gone. The European Quality Meats and Sausages [a butcher shop that had been there for more than five decades] closed last April. The whole feeling of the market has changed.”
Kane is a member of the Friends of Kensington Market group, which aims to preserve the market’s unique character. They stopped Starbucks from opening last year, and they’re currently attempting to thwart Loblaws from opening a supermarket in the neighbourhood.
“A lot of the change is inevitable,” said Kane, “but part of it is worrisome. There’s a danger of it becoming gentrified, like another Yorkville. We need to preserve Kensington as a haven for small merchants.”
Kensington looks vastly different than it did 50 years ago, when it was a place for low-income immigrants. Now, the market is much more upscale, with lots of bars and cafés and many vintage shops, and younger, hip residents, as Kane put it, who want to move in.
There are still some elements of the past that remain, such as the outdoor food market and its reputation for bringing food from every corner of the world on one street. It’s these elements and many more that the Kensington Market Historical Society wants to preserve. “There’s lot of interest in its history, and that’s why we started it,” said the society’s president, Dennis Reid.
The residents who have been watching the area change hope that the society will still have a market to preserve in 10 years time.
“They’re moving with the times, but in the process we don’t want to lose everything that makes Kensington special in the name of the almighty dollar,” said Kane, “like the outdoor street life, its cosmopolitan nature, the fun and flavour of the place. It would be painful to lose it.”