When travelling to a new city, I love exploring on my own – I usually read up on the area first, so I know a few highlights to look out for and sometimes I mark up a map with personal points of interest. That’s what I did ahead of a short visit to Toronto, pulling out Chinatown as one of the neighbourhoods to check out. Noticing a lot of foot traffic from one direction, I took a detour around Chinatown into Kensington Market and I liked what I saw but didn’t have time to explore further.
I fell in love with Toronto on that first visit and returned a year later to, and this time I enlisted the help of a professional tour guide to see and learn more of the area. Mike Carter from Tour Guys provided a two hour walking tour, filling us in on the history of Kensington Market, some of the quirks of local life and his favourite food-focused restaurants, bakeries, delis, groceries and specialist stores.
The first thing to point out is that Kensington Market is not actually a market but a colourful, lively and historically significant neighbourhood of the city. Today it’s known for its Bohemian vibe, with lots of street art, plenty of ethnic shops and restaurants, and some great shopping for those who love food, vintage clothing and handmade products. The neighbourhood is roughly bound by College Street to the North, Spadina Avenue to the east, Dundas Street West to the south and Bathhurst Street to the west.
For fellow history geeks… click here for the story of immigration into the neighbourhood, a key part of the history of Toronto... For thousands of years, the First Nations people of North America lived in this region. The first Europeans here were the French who set up trading posts in the early and mid 1700s, but these were abandoned when the British came. The first European settlers were a large influx of British, many of whom came from the States, which was in the throws of its war of Independence – those who wished to remain loyal to the British crown headed up to Canada rather than make the long sea journey back to Britain. The British government had decided to split their Canada territories into Upper and Lower Canada, and when Lord Dorchester arrived in Quebec City as Governor-in-Chief of British North America in 1786, he decided the capital for the new province would be in the Toronto area. Recognising the aboriginal title to the land, he bought more than 250,000 acres of land from the Mississaugas, though it was a long fight for them to get compensation. On the arrival of Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe the following year, the capital was set up in the location of modern-day Toronto, which he renamed to York after King George’s son, the Duke of York. Today, locations such as York Street, the Royal York Hotel and York University commemorate this name for the city, which endured until 1834. (At that point, with a population of around 9000 people, the Town of York incorporated into a city, reverting to Toronto in order to avoid confusion with New York City). Simcoe laid out the original ten-block plan for York-Toronto, setting aside some of the land for expansion of the government and dividing the rest into 32 100-acre lots for settlement. To entice the British gentry to emigrate, he contacted many of his friends and associates back in Britain and offered a huge plot of land and a well-paid government job to finance the building of a grand new home. Many took up the offer including Captain John Denison. The plot that encompassed the Kensington Market neighbourhood was bought by John’s son, Colonel George Taylor Denison in 1815 and he built the family homestead Belle Vue House here. The original road from the house down to St Stephen’s-in-the-Field Church (paid for by John’s grandson Robert Denison) is now Denison Avenue and many locations and landmarks are named for the family including Denison Square, Denison Creek and Bellevue Avenue. Eventually, the Denisons started to subdivide their land and sold small plots to Scottish and Irish settlers, who built their homes here. As this neighbourhood was being developed, so too was St John’s Ward (known as The Ward) to the East – a notorious slum of dilapidated shanty-town buildings where the poorest immigrants would first settle. Immigrants included Jews escaping from purges in Russia and Eastern Europe, Irish escaping the Irish Potato Famine, African American slaves fleeing via the Underground railroad to find a life of freedom and Chinese labourers brought in to build the railroads. Toronto’s original Chinatown was here, further East than it is today. Many of the Jewish immigrants worked in the sweatshops on lower Spadina, but the requirement to work on the Sabbath was an issue and many preferred to go into business for themselves and so they became peddlers. Visiting St Lawrence Market at the end of the day, they bought leftover produce on sale, loaded it onto their pushcarts and headed back to the poorer residential neighbourhoods where they sold it for a profit. The use of rags – scraps of fabric from the refuse of richer inhabitants – to make clothes, was the origin of the rags-to-riches expression. When the British eventually moved out of the Kensington Market neighbourhood, they started to rent their original homes to the Jewish community, who moved west from The Ward. Those pushcarts were now parked on the front lawn, and then the large front living rooms were converted into shop fronts, with the family living above. In the 1920s, the area became known as the Jewish Market, and 80% of Toronto’s Jewish population lived here – many were able to buy their homes instead of renting. As the British had moved out, so in turn did most of the Jewish community a few decades later, renting their homes to the next waves of immigrants – the Italians who came after World War 2 to build the city’s subways and skyscrapers; they later moved out to the area around College Street, where Little Italy is now located. In the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s came the Portuguese – first from the Azores and then from mainland Portugal, who brought with them a tradition of brightly coloured houses; they later moved onwards to Dundas Street, where Little Portugal is now based. This era also saw newcomers from the Caribbean, East Asia and even America (during the years of the Vietnam War). In the ‘80s and ‘90s immigrants came from trouble spots around the world including Central America, Chile, Ethiopia, Iran, Somalia, Sudan and Vietnam. Each immigrant community had an impact on the vibe of Kensington Market, bringing with them food (and new ingredients), culture, art and more. In 2006, the area was designated a National Historic Site, in recognition of it’s contribution to multi-culturism in Toronto. Houses and businesses are colourfully painted, some sporting impressive murals. Artworks such as the car that’s been turned into a planter, add to the eclectic vibe. The photo on the right (above) shows one of Toronto’s Marijuana Dispensaries. Canadian law allows people to buy marijuana for medical use from an officially licensed producer, of which there are very few. However, that hasn’t stopped an army of marijuana vendors from setting up shops in Toronto. Many, nominally, require a doctor’s prescription but some have a resident doctor on site to dispense these, some ask only for a letter of diagnosis of the condition from any medical practitioner (including chiropractors, for example) and others waive the requirement completely. Several of the stores sell fresh fruit and vegetables – I’m drawn as always to their displays of produce. There are three cheese shops within the neighbourhood. Global Cheese is a popular choice, with a great selection of local and regional cheeses, plus a fair offering of international ones. Blackbird is a charming bakery offering a range of high quality bakery items, some still warm from the oven. Founded in 2009, Jimmy’s Coffee is a small Toronto chain that provides a great place to stop for coffee. The shop on Baldwin Street was the second they opened; if the weather’s good, make your way out to the garden out back. There are plenty of ethnic grocery stores in the neighbourhood, and I could easily spend an entire day exploring their offerings. House of Spice is one such store. It’s main focus is on ingredients from the Indian subcontinent but I also spotted my favourite Spanish paprika brand there and huge bags of dried mulberries. Nu Bügel offers some excellent bagels. As is the style in this part of the world, they are first boiled in honeyed water before baking in a wood-fire oven. The onion bagel we tried was delicious. Offering a bewildering range of popcorn flavours, the Toronto Popcorn Company was established in 2013 by a family who moved to Canada from the Philippines just two years earlier. With over 200 flavours, it’s not easy to pick but luckily you can try a few before you buy. We spent just a couple of hours in the neighbourhood, but I could easily spend longer – there are plenty of food shops to explore, not to mention some great options for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The neighbourhood combines well with Chinatown, at its Eastern edge, which also has great plenty of great shopping and eating. More things to do in Toronto. More farmers markets and market neighbourhoods across Canada:
For thousands of years, the First Nations people of North America lived in this region.
More things to do in Toronto.
More farmers markets and market neighbourhoods across Canada: