Yes, Loblaws is probably coming to Kensington. But that’s okay—nothing is more authentic to the market than change.
Is there anything that more vividly epitomizes the caricature of “smug downtown elitist” than Kensington Market locals freaking out over a proposed Loblaws at College and Spadina? This is a neighbourhood, after all, where the firm majority of residents walk or bike to work; where on summer weekends, everyone sits in the park soaking up the sun and the second-hand pot smoke; where a three-bedroom townhouse sells for more than a million dollars; and where a person might pick up a volume of anarchist theory to read while eating a $10 artisanal grilled cheese sandwich. This is the neighbourhood lamenting an existential threat to its way of life because of a Loblaws? And not even a Loblaws in the market, but adjacent to it? Come on.
And yet, here we go, with an online petition from the activist group Friends of Kensington Market, objecting to the incursion of a union employer into the imagined corporate no-go zone surrounding the area. “Kensington Market is a unique and irreplaceable part of Toronto,” it reads. “This special place is at risk if a Loblaws moves in to 297 College St., 400 meters from the heart of Kensington Market.”
The organization has been sounding the alarm about the arrival of Loblaws since 2011, when plans were first announced for a 15-storey condo development on College Street with the grocery store occupying the second floor. The group has said the chain will create unfair competition for the market’s small and “fragile” indie shops. (For its part, Loblaws has said the outlet will be more modest than others, and more suited to a mixed-use neighbourhood.)
Questions about the merits and perils of gentrification have been tossed around in this debate, just as they were when a Walmart was slated to open on Bathurst last year. But the concern in this battle is not really about the poor being pushed out by fancy businesses catering to the tastes of the wealthy. Loblaws and Walmart are not really fancy (if they were cars they’d be a Honda Civic and a used Hyundai). They don’t represent upscale exclusion, but rather mass-market inclusion: the nondescript median-ness of homogenized corporate monotony. And for the radicals and independents of the market, that’s a real problem.
Their fears, I would argue, are not so much economic as aesthetic. If Loblaws does drive out the market’s small food vendors (a fear that may be overblown—though we’ll get to that later), it is not access to decent food or decent prices that will be lost. It will be that most elusive and desirable of post-millennial consumer products: the perception of “authenticity.” Kensington is not the only part of the city where the authenticity question has arisen—it’s being discussed in every neighbourhood where the gentrification-preservation kabuki is playing out, like Leslieville, Parkdale, and The Junction. Kensington is only the most extreme example.
But in a city with 100,000 newcomers each year, with more than half of its residents born elsewhere, authentic has become a bit of a meaningless word. Especially in Kensington, where the entire history of the neighbourhood is one of constant reinvention. There was a time when people thought the sight of live chickens in cages was essential to its character. Today it’s all about locavore butchers and Pedestrian Sunday Street Festivals. Kensington has been lots of things. Loblaws or no Loblaws, it will be lots more. The only thing that will remain constant is the question of who has the right to be there, and ultimately, that is a matter of taste.
It’s grating to hear anyone talk about their own exceptionalism, but let’s give the Friends of Kensington Market and their local pride its due. Urban thinkers like Robert Fulford, Richard Florida, and Doug Saunders have identified it as the neighbourhood that best represents what Toronto is and what makes it great. Two different CBC sitcoms have been based there (King of Kensington in the 1970s and Twitch City in the 1990s). As noted in the Loblaws petition, the market is listed with Maple Leaf Gardens and Fort York as a national historic site.
So, yeah, it’s a special place.
But what really makes Kensington special cannot be preserved. Consider how it started: In the early 1900s, Jewish immigrants migrating there from the city’s original slum, The Ward (now home to the Eaton Centre and City Hall), converted Kensington’s residential blocks into a makeshift market, selling produce and other foodstuffs on the sidewalk in front of converted Victorian houses. As these early residents became more established and affluent, they migrated north on Bathurst Street and waves of new immigrants took their place. These newcomers—Portuguese, Brazillian, Hungarian, Afro-Canadian, East and Southeast Asian, and Carribean—then modified the market in their own image. Finally came the “bohemians and young urban professionals,” as the Kensington Market Historical Society notes on its website, the group that may be most associated with the market we know today.
Successively and together, those groups created the hodge-podge, hand-built, ramshackle paradise of fish markets, vegetable stands, galleries, vintage-clothing stores, cafes, restaurants, and, most recently, artisanal butchers and chic kitchenware boutiques, where so many of us have bought black-market cigarettes, partied in after-hours clubs, and shopped for amazing food and ridiculous bell-bottoms.
If there is one thing about the market that never changes, it’s the resistance that it’s varied residents have shown to change. This, despite the fact that it has endured far greater threats than a Loblaws on its perimeter.
Longtime Kensington vendors have withstood the incursion of another Loblaws affiliate—Zimmerman’s Freshmart—right on AugustaAvenue*, and they co-exist with the competition of neighbouring Chinatown just fine. Once, people thought the opening of Loblaws on lower Jarvis would threaten St. Lawrence Market, but those fears have proved unfounded. In fact, in neighbourhoods where Loblaws and its ilk have stood, there’s been an opposite effect: New independent food markets open up right next door and do well. Where I live in The Junction, a No Frills predated the organic vegetable market, butcher shop, cheese boutique, and a booming weekend farmer’s market that have sprung up in the past decade.
I don’t see any reason to suspect that the people who travel from across the city to shop in Kensington will suddenly choose to go to Loblaws. The big-box option already exists nearby in the form of the Metro at Bloor and Spadina. Indeed, plenty of Kensington food vendors seem to share the conviction that local indie businesses will survive just fine without strident protection. The owners of the sustainable fish market Hooked, itself a relatively new and upscale addition to the market, told the website Curbed, “Loblaws does what they do well, and Kensington does what they do well. It’ll be fine.”
It’s true that longtime family-owned institutions have been closing or moving out slowly over the years, as they’ve always done. Earlier generations moved on because they wanted to relocate to prosperous places further afield. And current waves of immigrants now tend to land in the suburbs, in strip malls on Jane Street or Sheppard Avenue. Kensington’s most recent arrivals are those bohemians and hipsters who live alongside the varied demographics of Chinatown, Alexandra Park, and Harbord Village at its borders. To the extent that anyone or anything is driving out the remaining small businesses, it may be the tastes and preferences of this now-dominant group of gentrifiers.
Take the example of European Meats, which closed in 2012 after more than 50 years at the intersection of Baldwin Street and Kensington. The owners weren’t forced out by high rents or big-box stores. They weren’t forced out of business at all—their other Toronto locations are still going strong. The owners told the press that they got an “offer we couldn’t refuse” for the sale of their building and noted that the market no longer supported an old-fashioned butcher. According to a story in the Star about the closing, shoppers wanted more locavore stores and chi-chi restaurants. Organic butcher Peter Sanagan, who then had a small shop up the street called Sanagan’s Meat Locker, was quoted as saying European Meats had been a “cornerstone of the market. It’s bitter to see them leave.” And then after a bit of speculation about who would move in to replace the iconic store, Sanagan’s chi-chi locavore butcher shop, looking for room to expand, moved into the space in 2013. They sell high-quality products that people want at a competitive price. Was that so bad?
The Kensington Market of past generations is gone, or is going of its own accord, because of real-estate values and the preferences local residents express with their wallets, if not always with their protest signs. That preference, for now, isn’t for big-box stores, but for higher-end boutique joints and restaurants and bars. There’s nothing wrong with that: This is the market of today, and it is still an amazing place. Because of its improvised nature and the grittiness that has persisted in its streets and stores, it is not just a place to shop—it’s an experience. Which may be the real source of the objection to the Loblaw-blah-blahs and their kind encroaching on this sacred turf—that they’ll make Kensington a more ordinary place.
Compare the objections raised last year about the proposed Walmart franchise on Bathurst Street with the nostalgia orgy that occurred around the same time over the planned shuttering of Honest Ed’s, just a few blocks north. Both are big-box stores that sell cheap and cheaply made items. Both are massive, dominating their retail landscapes. Why is one hated and the other beloved?
Because Honest Ed’s, for all its garish crappiness, is an eccentricity, a locally owned landmark that lives up to one of its slogans, “There’s no place like this place anyplace.” Walmart is the opposite: the world’s largest retail chain, commanding its huge and famous discounts through the pure volume of its samey-sameness. If Walmart replaces Honest Ed’s on the downtown strip of Bathurst, we will have lost nothing much in terms of retail offerings—in fact, Walmart is probably objectively better. But it will feel like we lost a bit of Toronto’s soul, traded for a plug-and-play piece of Everyplace.
And that’s the conundrum for people drawn to up-and-coming locales. When we move to a neighbourhood we like, we think of our arrival as completing the area’s evolution: We are the cherry on top of the sundae. Now that we are there, the neighbourhood is perfect. We don’t imagine we are part of an ongoing transition. We want to lock the doors behind us and stop the things we liked about the place from changing any further. And notably, if less consciously, we want to stop any more people like us from moving in to make it less special and more popular.
Kensington Market, for the foreseeable future, shows no signs of becoming less of a unique place, even as it changes to reflect the tastes of those who live and shop and party there now. It has evolved into a different neighbourhood than it was in decades past, and will continue to do so. But that is the story of the market.
As long as Kensington continues to exist in something like its current form, I’m confident it will survive as a unique and irreplaceable neighbourhood for future generations to put their stamp on. It will continue to thrive because people across the city value it and want to see its essence preserved. That civic affection for Kensington is what connects the market of the past to the very different market of the present.
But as we witness the city changing around us, it’s worth noting that corporate greed and the plotting of developers don’t single-handedly transform neighbourhoods. Those interests only respond to what the community wants. If we’re worried about a Loblaws moving in and making the neighbourhood more generic, it’s because we are worried that we—as a community—will shop at that Loblaws, or Starbucks, or Walmart. That we’ll choose it, like everyone else has. Rather than fearing change, perhaps we can be grateful for our hard-won choices instead, and give ourselves credit for the transformation that results.
The current big-box battle is far from the first time Kensington has tangled with newcomers. Here’s a history of some of the neighbourhood’s dust-ups.—David Topping
1. The enemy: Fascists
The Jewish Market, as it was once known, often drew Nazi wannabes looking for trouble. And they found it, as Jean Cochrane recounts in Kensington, her 2000 history of the neighbourhood: “The young men in the market hid bottles they could grab as weapons if they needed them. A witness recalls with satisfaction that one fish merchant used a mackerel to smack an invader in the face.”
2. The enemy: “Urban renewal”
The City of Toronto deemed Kensington Market “sub-standard” and in need of “urban renewal,” which, at the time, often meant bulldozing and starting again. Residents created the Kensington Area Rate Payers’ Association. They won over local MPP Allan Grossman and managed to secure a promise from the province to protect the community.
3. The enemy: University of Toronto
U of T bought a whole block in Kensington for half a million dollars, then set about planning a students’ residence tower. Their new neighbours promptly said no. The university sold the land to the Toronto Board of Education, which built the modestly sized Kensington Community elementary school instead.
4. The enemy: Toronto Western Hospital
When: The mid-’90s
After many decades of encroaching on the market, the hospital hadn’t expanded since the ’70s, though the truce between the community and the medical facility hasn’t always held. In the early ’90s, the Action on Hospital Incineration fought to close the hospital’s smokestack, which had been puffing out remnants of incinerated medical waste. They succeeded in 1995.
5. The enemy: Nike
The sportswear giant opened a gallery and performance space on Augusta named Presto and paid “street teams” to walk around dressed head-to-toe in swooshed gear. “I think there’s a good chance this will backfire quite spectacularly,” said No Logo author Naomi Klein at the time. It did: The storefront was covered with anti-corporate graffiti and Nike had to hire security. Within weeks, Presto’s stay was over.
6. The enemy: Zimmerman’s Freshmart
Martin Zimmerman struck a deal with Loblaws to open Kensington’s first supermarket across the street from Zimmerman’s Discount, his cousin Danny’s store. (They don’t talk much anymore.) Before Freshmart opened, American performance artist Reverend Billy led locals in an exorcism out front. Zimmerman thanked him “for bringing in 300 new customers.”
7. The enemy: Starbucks
Real-estate agent Phil Pick told the National Post that he was hoping to bring the coffee chain to the spot of a shuttered fruit market at Nassau and Augusta. Residents responded with a petition and filled the neighbourhood with “We ♥ our local cafés” posters. Starbucks got cold feet, and today, there’s a restaurant named Tasty Corner where it might have been.
CORRECTION, FEB. 5, 2014: The original version of this article incorrectly stated Freshmart was located on Kensington Avenue, when it in fact is located on Augusta.