Notes on the history of Kensington Market

by Gil Zohar

Kensington Market - St. Andrews and Baldwin Streets leading west off Spadina Avenue, and Kensington and Augusta Avenue going north from Dundas Street West - has a storied place not only in Toronto's history but in the Canadian cultural landscape. Folk singer Murray McLauchlan had a 1977 hit "Down by the Henry Moore" with the lyrics: "I went down to the Kensington Market; Bought me a fish to fry; I went to the Silver Dollar; Looked a stranger in the eye."

Similarly, from 1975 to 1980 there was a television series called the "King of Kensington" starring Al Waxman and Fiona Reid. Both the song and the TV series romanticized one of Toronto's most colourful and ethnically pluralistic working-class neighbourhoods, reflecting the unique ambience of this remarkable area in the heart of the city. Neither portrayed the poverty of the community, especially during the first half of this century when it was a Yiddish-speaking slum. Today, though not as squalid as in decades past, Kensington Market retains all the vigour and the charm that traditional markets should have but seem to have lost.

The boisterous area that encompasses Kensington Market started out in the most sedate manner two centuries ago when Peter Russell, Administrator of Upper Canada, granted a 100-acre park lot to his friend, Captain John Denison. The land was given to induce Denison to settle in York. Or so the official story goes.

However, a more probable account is that Capt. Denison, after working as the farm manager for Mr. Russell, was rewarded with land grants and social connections. Capt. Denison's eldest son, George Taylor Denison, inherited the bulk of his father's estate, plus another huge inheritance from his first father-in-law and the dowries of four wives. He thus managed to become one of the wealthiest landowners in Upper Canada. Among his holdings was a 156-acre parcel extending from the modern streets of Queen to Bloor, between Major and Lippincott. In 1815, after building Belle Vue - a large white cheery abode, the family settled down as farmer gentry. In 1844, Denison founded the "Denison Horse" militia regiment. A square in front of the family mansion was laid out as a parade ground. It was donated to the city in the 1880s for parkland, today called Denison Square, while the house was demolished in 1889.

George Taylor Denison's heir, Colonel Robert Denison, donated land and building funds for St. Stephen's-in-the-Fields, the first Anglican church west of Spadina Avenue (circa 1858). By this time the large land owners, anticipating that they could make more money by selling building lots, were dividing and subdividing from Bloor Street to the lake front. The building boom they expected failed to materialize, and in the 1870s Spadina had less than two dozen houses upon its length north of Queen Street. West of Spadina, were corn patches, gardens and empty fields. Robert Brittain Denison had so few offers on his $350 estate lots that he split them each into three smaller lots. This established the pattern for the high density development in the area that remains till today.

The 1880s finally saw the building boom. Prosperous middle class families built on Bellevue Avenue, named after the Denison family mansion, and the immigrant English and Irish established themselves on the surrounding streets. Though varied in economic stature, the streets like most of Toronto, were determinedly British in nature and their names - Wales Avenue, Oxford Street, St. Andrews, etc. reflected this. Also during the 1880s, the Toronto Street Railway started horse drawn streetcar service up Spadina Avenue along College Street to Bathurst. By 1893, the service was electrified. This illustrates the extent of the neighbourhood growth better than any other single factor.

Dramatic changes began to take place during as the century drew to a close. Those who could afford it began moving away to the predominately Anglo-Saxon suburbs north of Bloor and the grand estates started to disappear. The Denison home, Belle Vue, was torn down; another estate home "Willows" became Toronto Western Hospital. A magnificent buff brick mansion, "the Hall," was sold to the city and Alexandra Park was created.

Commercial buildings began to line College Street during the next building boom that soared in 1912.

The district became an immigrant reception area. In the early 1900s, the Italian population from the Ward, an area near Queen and Bay that largely disappeared when Toronto City Hall was constructed in early 1960s, began to move into the neighbourhood around College and Grace Street. Toronto's Eastern European Jewish community, also leaving the crowded unhealthy conditions of the Ward, began to resettle in the Spadina Avenue, College Street area. The affluent stayed east of Spadina while the less prosperous moved into the western section. These streets with their very British names were to become the Jewish market - Augusta, Baldwin, Nassau (Cambridge) and Kensington.

The market started with simple pushcarts serving the Yiddish-speaking residents of the area and the workers in the garment trade now located on Spadina Avenue. Stalls appeared on the postage stamp front lawns, attracting the customers to the area. This small group of peddlers, created a magnet for other merchants and for kosher meat processing and chicken slaughter houses.

The small frame houses on narrow streets created a `shtetl' atmosphere reminiscent of Jewish villages in Eastern Europe but also similar to other Ashkenazi (Eastern European Jewish) slums like New York's Lower East Side, London's Whitechapel or Paris's Marais. Social prejudice compounded the immigrants' poverty to make the neighbourhood undesirable for Canadians of British ancestry. By the end of the First World War, the houses had deteriorated as single family dwellings, as ground floor rooms had been converted to stores with the outdoor market thriving. The commercial stalls have survived till today, drawing the customers indoors with their colourful charm - not to mention cheap prices.

By the 1920s, almost 80 per cent of Toronto's Jewish population of 35,000 were living in the Kensington area, and over 30 local synagogues had been established. Only two remain today south of College Street, of which one - Beth Israel Anshei Minsk (the House of Israel Men of Minsk but popularly called the Minsker Shul) on St. Andrews, erected in 1930 - is still used on a daily basis. As the name implies, the original congregants were Jews from Minsk in Byelorussia and environs. Today the congregation serves as a "kaddish factory" where Jews from uptown who work in the Spadina Avenue garment district stop in before work to say kaddish - the prayer for a deceased first-degree relative traditionally repeated twice daily for 11 months following death. As well, the congregation has been undergoing a revival in recent years attracting downtown homesteaders gentrifying older neighbourhoods.

In contrast, the handsome synagogue in Bellevue Square, Rodfei Sholom Anshei Kiev (literally the Pursuers of Peace among the Men of Kiev but popularly called the Kiever Shul), is preserved as a historic site and infrequently used for services. As the name implies, the original congregants were Ukrainian Jews from Kiev and environs.

The synagogue, was the first building of Jewish significance to be designated by the Ontario Heritage Act. Designed by a Jewish architect Benjamin Schwartz, it incorporates twin Byzantine-style domes, a decorative extended parapet, and four different styles of arched windows. Inside a monumental hand carved Holy Ark dominates, together with the typical Orthodox features of the period: a central bimah (reader's platform) with a frame for a huppa (wedding canopy), and a woman's gallery. Contributions from the working class Jewish families to the area financed this structure, which was completed in 1925.

It is noteworthy that both synagogues are aligned toward the east, in the direction of Jerusalem, as is traditional. Thus their front facade is in fact their side.

During the twenties, the market thrived and needless to say so did the Jewish population. Rumblings of anti-Semitism threatened the way of life found here. Health boards complained about the live chickens being slaughtered and the unsanitary kosher butcher shops - a complaint many of the residents took as harassment. This continued well into the late seventies and the last live chicken took its lonely saunter though the market about 1979.

In the twenties, another person strolled regularly through the market. Emma Goldman or Red Emma who visited from the United States and resided in the Kensington area, giving lectures and at one point declaring Toronto "deadly dull." At a farewell dinner in 1928 she elaborated on her views, declaring one problem to be the "curse of churches." This stated even though one of her major supporters was a socially conscious United Church Minister, Salem Bland. The "dullness" must have agreed with her because, strangely enough she revisited quite a few times and was living here when she died in 1940.

During the thirties and the forties, Ukrainian and Italian immigrants moved into the area, but they made little impression into the general flavour of the market. The Ukrainian National Federation is located on College Street just west of Spadina. After the Second World War, the cultural fabric of the area had a distinct change with the arrival of the Portuguese. Not only the goods being sold altered considerably but the now decrepit houses were being revamped and painted in glorious Mediterranean pastel colours. The Jewish market was definitely in for a change as its Yiddish-speaking customers began moving to distant northern suburbs street leading to Bathurst Manor at Sheppard and Bathurst. Bagels and blintzes, cream cheese and sour cream were displaced by Quince jelly, olives and sardines.

The advent of the Portuguese signalled a rejuvenating of the area as the shops became more diverse, including clothing and crafts from the Azores Islands. Following the abortive 1956 revolution in Hungary, exiles from Soviet oppression settled in the area. By the Sixties, the market had become predominately Portuguese and the other residents had moved to the west and north of the area. Shortly after establishing the Mediterranean look to the Kensington, the invasion of Cantonese-speaking Chinese spreading from lower Spadina and east of there began to make an imprint. As well, the market attracted newcomers from the West Indies. The cacophony of languages and cultures survives to this day with shops from different ethnic backgrounds standing beside each other like a commercial United Nations.

Another layer of this multicultural melange was added by the influx in the sixties of "hippies" and American draft dodgers who had fled to Canada to escape the Viet Nam War. Their presence gave an avant garde bohemian tinge to the market symbolized by frisbee throwing - and a whiff of marijuana - in Bellevue Square. In the Seventies and Eighties, the new Young Turks of business set up New Wave clothing shops and expanded the market. Now just south of the fish markets on Baldwin Street, designer new wave dresses flap in the breeze along Kensington Street. Organically grown vegetables vie for a place beside the fresh ground peanut butter.

That Kensington should become a "trendy" neighbourhood again marks the complete revolution of a century-long changing social status. The apotheosis of this trend is a funky two-storey orange-coloured residential tower looming in a laneway above the Victorian buildings near Baldwin and Augusta. The 1,300 square foot addition, designed by three University of Waterloo architecture students, incorporates a renovated former kosher chicken slaughterhouse.

Many times urban renewal has raised its head, threatening to reign in the market's chaos and hubbub. All three levels of the government have supported extensive "projects" for the area, only to be defeated by community opposition. Traffic patterns have been studied and parking lots created but the cars continue to jam up vehicular traffic. The pedestrian mall atmosphere, while not zoned, pervades the streets. Squabbles over the canopies hanging over the sidewalks have reached City Hall and been defeated. Toronto City Council approved a market by-law that would downsize the density of the retailers from two to one times the area of the lot and limit the expansion of the market.

This vital community has fought any attempt to change the character of Kensington Market sometimes with success and sometimes with defeat. You'll never hear a cock crowing any more on Augusta Avenue.

Plaque for Kensington Market

Europeans came to the area now called Kensington Market in the 1790s when Peter Russell, Administrator of Upper Canada, granted a 100-acre virgin parcel to his friend, Capt. John Denison. In 1815, Denison's eldest son, George Taylor Denison, built a family mansion roughly where the Kiever Synagogue stands today in Bellevue Square.

In the decades following the construction of St. Stephen's-in-the-Fields on College Street in 1858, the estate lots along Spadina Avenue from the lake front to Bloor Street were subdivided into small parcels for Victorian townhouses.

The original English and Irish settlers moved out after the turn of the century as Eastern European Jewish immigrants arrived. Beginning with pushcarts, the Yiddish-speaking peddlers built stalls on their front lawns and then converted ground floor rooms into storefronts and kosher slaughter houses.

In the 1930s and 1940s, the Jews were joined by working-class Ukrainians and Italians followed by postwar immigration waves from Portugal and the Azores Islands, Hungary, the Caribbean and Hong Kong. Most recently urban homesteaders have given the Market a bohemian flavour.