Posted 23/Nov/2006 00:25:00
I landed in Kensington Market in the middle of an August heat wave in 1987. Moving to Toronto from Halifax on a whim to live with friends, I had taken a cab from the airport, assuming that every cab driver in the city would know where Kensington Market was. After all, one of Canada's most famous sitcoms, The King of Kensington, was set there. After an hour of driving around the maze of one-way streets, and bewildered by what looked, to my green suburban eyes, like a third world country, I was deposited in front of a vintage clothing store as the cab roared off. It was only then that the smell hit me; a combination of rotting fruit, cooking tofu, fish, marijuana and grease from nearby Chinatown.
The King of Kensington - the statue of actor Al Waxman in Bellevue Square.
Almost twenty years later, that same smell brings back waves of nostalgia, and even though I no longer live in the middle of Toronto's most colourful and vibrant neighbourhood, it is where I feel the most at home. Walking the cluttered streets, dodging bicycles, butchers tossing sides of beef over their shoulders, boxes full of live crabs, and apples that have fallen from their display makes me feel more comfortable and relaxed than anywhere else in the world.
Built originally as homes for Irish immigrant labourers, the market proper encompasses only a few blocks. By the 1920s, it had mostly been taken over by Jewish immigrants who ran small businesses from their homes, either set up in the front yard or in the main front room. Over the years, these buildings have been converted to proper stores, usually with apartments above and at the back, but the custom of putting goods on display out front continues to this day, even though the original Jewish families have since been displaced by Italian and Portuguese businesses, who were then pushed out by the growth of Chinatown. In recent years, more and more hipsters seem to be moving in, as the old Jewish delis and Portuguese groceries become cocktail bars or swank restaurants.
A canopy of crinolines outside Exile
Today, the market is almost divided in half, with some of the city's best and well-known vintage clothing stores taking up the south end of Kensington Avenue. Regulars and visitors alike flock to shops such as Courage My Love and Exile for great vintage gowns, jeans, accessories, and even buttons. The north end of the street and the intersection at Baldwin Avenue leads to a culinary delight, as a variety of cheese shops, bakeries, fishmongers, spice stores and coffee roasteries hug the sidewalk and lure you in. It is said that there is a greater selection of fruit and vegetables in Kensington Market and Chinatown than anywhere else in the world. If you want it, you can probably find it here.
Ethnic specialty stores abound, and places like Perola's, Patty King, House of Spice and Little Tokyo all cater to a food-loving clientele, while fans of kitsch could spend hours in SasMart, a housewares store full of 70s-style wine decanters and racks of cotton housedresses.
The very best part about Kensington Market is that it is insulated from the outside world to some degree. Not that progress doesn't happen all around it, but while the styles may have changed, and some of the food is more sophisticated, most of the market looks exactly as it has for the past fifty years, with racks of simple, fresh produce out in front of hundred-year-old houses and stores. The streets are almost impassable via car, so people walk here, often in the middle of the road, loaded down with bags. Kensington even plays host to a monthly car-free event throughout the summer where the whole area becomes a giant street party.
A trip to Kensington Market is a must for any visitor to Toronto. Heck, it's a must for locals as well. This little corner of the city, for all of its weird smells and funny music, is really the jewel of Toronto.