If there was ever a place that embodied the diversity of Toronto, it would have to be the one and only Kensington Market. In the heart of the city, Kensington Market is a distinctive multicultural neighbourhood. The market is one of the city’s oldest and most famous neighbourhoods, and in November 2006, it became a National Historic Site. Bounded by College and Dundas Streets and Bathurst Street and Spadina Avenue, most of this neighbourhood is filled with eclectic one-of shops, where you can find almost anything imaginable from any era.
How It Started:
Before the first European settlers, the Mississauga Native people inhabited what we know today as Kensington. The first European settlers arrived in the late 1700s. The British took possession of the land as part of a massive land sale treaty first signed in 1787 in Prince Edward County with three Mississauga Native Chiefs. The southern part of the Toronto segment covered the lakeshore from roughly the Etobicoke River to the Scarborough Bluffs.
In 1815 George Denison bought a park lot that included the land between what is now Major Street and Lippincott Street, and running north to Bloor Street. His residence called “Belle Vue” was located approximately where the Kiever Synagogue now stands, and across from what is now known as Denison Square. The Denisons were prosperous, conservative gentry, and along with their strong connections to the business community were actively involved in public, church and military service.
Kensington’s street names have links to the Denisons, including Lippincott, Augusta, Denison and Belle Vue, and reflect the British influence with College, Oxford, Kensington, St. Andrew and Wales.
The Jewish community in Toronto grew rapidly from 3,000 inhabitants in the early 1900s to 32,000 by 1913, and 45,305 by 1931. Eighty percent lived in Kensington and the surrounding areas. Most were Orthodox Jews who came from rural villages in Eastern Europe and Russia, who were driven out by persecution.
The Jewish immigrants in Kensington built a community in the midst of poverty and rejection: synagogues, schools, English classes, a medical dispensary, stores and tearooms that were gathering places for news and discussions. The first Jewish merchants sold their wares from pushcarts and horse-drawn wagons, and made stores out of the first floors of their homes, especially on Kensington Avenue and Baldwin Street. For years Torontonians called it the Jewish Market. It was like an Eastern European Market, with its crated chickens, live fish, pickles and cheeses made in the back room, and the smell of bagels and bread wafting over it all.
By the 1950’s most of the Jewish population had moved out of Kensington, and the neighbourhood was filled with new immigrants including: Italians, Ukrainians, Hungarians, and people from the Caribbean. Immigrants came to Kensington because it was very friendly, secure and the strong community spirit reminded many newcomers of their homes.
The Portuguese began arriving in Kensington Market in the late 1950s. They painted the old house fronts in bright, warm colours, and decorated front yards with religious icons. Kensington bloomed with the grapevines, vegetables and flowers growing in their backyards and creating a neighbourhood with a different style, but with the same feeling of community. The Portuguese continued the Jewish tradition of opening stores on the first floor of their homes.
Augusta Avenue was the focal point of the Portuguese Community with new families and new stores. The primary language spoken switched from Yiddish to Portuguese. Kensington was a major Canadian Portuguese centre for living, shopping, social and business life throughout the 60s and 70s. Many of the Portuguese community’s firsts were started in Kensington: Vinga, first Portuguese importer/exporter of goods, first Portuguese Canadian Club and Portuguese Free Interpreter Service, as well as the first social service agency for the Portuguese Community. The Tivoli Billiards on Augusta and Brazil Restaurant on Nassau were gathering places and informal hiring halls for Portuguese men.
Since the late 1800s, the Kensington area of Toronto has been the centre of the dreams and struggles of successive waves of immigrants. In 1892, there were 86,415 people in the City of Toronto, with more than 80,000 residents of English, Irish or Scottish origin.
By early 1913 the total population ballooned past 200,000, of which 32,000 were Eastern European and Russian Jews. By 1931 there were 45,305 Jewish people in Toronto, with 80% living in Kensington and surrounding streets. Hungarians began to arrive in the 1920s and 1930s, and found their way into Kensington Market. At the same time there were also Italian immigrants working on city infrastructure projects. This community settled and grew west of Bathurst.
In the 1940s, about 4,000 African Canadians resided in Toronto, most living in the areas bounded by Spadina-Ossington and Dundas-College. Most worked for the railroads nearby. The community was mixed with some families already established in Canada for generations. Many Black organizations allied themselves with Jewish groups to strengthen unions and social causes. By the 1970s Caribbean bakeries and food stores began opening, offering patties and other produce from Jamaica and Barbados. There was never a large concentration of Caribbean people living in the area, but they enjoyed shopping in Kensington because they could find familiar things to buy. People from Portugal started to arrive in the late 1950s, but it was not until the 60s and 70s that Kensington became a major Portuguese Canadian centre and Augusta, the heart of their village.
By the 1970s, the face of Kensington had changed, as a wave of new immigrants from China, Hong Kong and Vietnam started to settle in the area. They continued the old “Kensington” tradition of using the first floor of their homes as stores. The Chinese community grew rapidly and today makes up over 40% of the Kensington population. Local businesses have changed accordingly to keep up with the demand. The fruit and vegetable stands that sprawl out to the sidewalks along Spadina Avenue are an exciting addition to the already colourful Kensington Market. In the 1980s refugees from Southeast Asia started to arrive, primarily from China, Vietnam, and Laos. In the late 1980s refugees from Latin America also found their way into Kensington Market.
Kensington continues to be a major reception area for new immigrants, creating a real mixture of people and cultures. One sees people whose families have been there for a long time, and those who are more recent. The many stores in the heart of Kensington Market reflect that cultural diversity with ownership by both long settled immigrants as well as more recent immigrants from such countries as Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Iran and Saudi Arabia and from many other parts of the world.
Kensington Market Festival of Lights
December 21st is the winter solstice and also the shortest day of the year. During this longest and darkest night of the Toronto year, a number of different presentations from the rooftops and storefronts of Kensington Market will light your way as you traverse the various areas of the market west of Spadina Avenue and south of College Street. The exhibition will include the famed Samba Squad as well as a number of different characters in costumed garb in a carnival parade the likes of which you are very unlikely to see anywhere else during the coldest part of the year! The Festival of Lights remains hand-made and commercial-free since 1987.