Kensington: Toronto’s most eclectic neighbourhood, and arguably, its most multicultural. Today, this place is a haven for foodies, and one of the best places to people watch. But it wasn’t always this way. Here’s a look into the evolution of the landscape of Kensington Market.
Above: examples of Victorian row home architecture turned into storefronts today
In 1815 Captain George Taylor Dennison purchased the tract of land which is now modern day Kensington Market (with borders Augusta – Lippincott). After serving as Captain in the War of 1812, he used his new land to train his volunteer Calvary group, who he would later command in the Upper Canada Rebellion. Eventually, Dennison sold and subdivided his land in the 1850’s. Victorian style row housing were among the first properties to be developed on this land, and many of these buildings can still be seen today, on Wales Avenue! As the area was mainly inhabited by Scottish and Irish immigrant labourers, many of these new families helped land development in Kensington Market and Toronto.
Above: The original Denison Estate named Bellevue
Early in the 20th century, the Kensington landscape started to change. The area between University and Yonge street became a reception area for immigrants. For many new arrivals to Canada at the turn of the century, Kensington was the first point of contact. Great numbers of Eastern Europeans and Italians, seeking a new life in Canada, spilled into the densely packed housing area, transforming Kensington into a thriving working class neighbourhood. But more change was in store for the area. As the markets flourished in their sale imported European imports, the neighbourhood slowly transformed into a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood and market. Between 1920-1930, approximately 60,000 Jewish persons lived within and around the Kensington, referred then, as the “Jewish Market”. Shopkeepers established businesses, making the market an important shopping destination in Toronto. Putting down roots in the area, the residents built synagogues, some of which are still in Kensington today. Interestingly, Bellevue, the original Denison Estate location, is now the site of Kiever Synagogue.
Above: Kiever Synagogue today
After WW2, Kensington continued to transform. The Jewish population’s move to more prosperous areas of Toronto coincided with political conflict in Portugal, and, yet again, Kensington found itself as the first point of contact. Immigrants from the Azores started populating the Market (and further West as well), and new immigration of Caribbean and East Asian descent started to settle in the market. In the 1960s during the Vietnam Conflict, political refugees—draft dodgers and the like—from the U.S. also started to inhabit the area. This eclectic mix of languages and cultures, as well as the peace and love mentality of the 60s cultivated a unique ‘do and think what you want’ attitude of Kensington Market, a sensibility which stubbornly remains to this day. Further immigration from Central America, Somalia, Ethiopia, Iran, Vietnam, and Chile (and many others) contribute to the richness of this multicultural environment. .
Kensington Market has fought to retain its unique style, in the 1960’s, warding off plans to tear down the densely packed in housing of the market. Mayor David Crombie saved this from happening to the market, preserving its unique and eclectic atmosphere.
Although other neighbourhoods declined when 1980’s recession hit, Kensington managed to survive, thanks in a large part to the student population whose rent and patronage preserved the housing and stores. When George Brown College sold the modern day Kensington Loft building in the 1990’s, a major shift yet again occurred in the demographic. A declining student population, and aging store owners, made way for a new trend in storefronts. The Latin American population of the market started to set up food shops in place.
Above: Example of Latin influence in Kensington
Today Kensington Market is a major tourist destination and has been deemed a National Historic Site of Canada since 2006. It is a cultural mecca for artists, and a haven for free thinkers. Despite the steep increase in land value over the last few years, the inhabitants have remained predominantly working class immigrant communities, consistent with the community’s legacy in Toronto. A Toronto film maker is in the process of crowdfunding a documentary about this unique history. The project of the film is called Kensington Market: The First 150 Years, and you can help fund at the following link:
The dynamic spirit defines Kensington Market throughout its colourful history, making it one of the most diverse neighbourhoods in Toronto! Come check it out today!
Images Above: The free spirit of Kensington Market today
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