Welcome to Kensington Market (Chinatown):
If the streets of Kensington Market were a book, visitors would read chapter after chapter of immigrant stories here – Jewish, Italian, Chinese, and so many more, even American draft dodgers. Hippies left their counterculture mark here, in this community that famously drove out a Nike corporate store and where an independent bakery successfully replaced a chain outlet. Locals shop for vintage clothes at the beloved Courage My Love, and get their cookbook fix at Good Egg; they know the fish monger, the butcher and the fruit vendor by name. A National Historic Site that is also home to the city’s cannabis cafes, this rich, diverse community gives fresh meaning to the word eclectic. There’s nowhere like it in all of Toronto.
What you'll fall in love with:
Kensington Market is for curious people who love surprises, folks who like to taste new flavours, meet unique people and find new holes in old walls. This is the home of the one-of-a-kind shop, and you’ll love digging through the racks, chatting up local bakers and cheese mongers, or stumbling upon restaurants that serve Jamaican-Italian fusion (Rasta Pasta), Hungarian-Thai fusion (Hungary Thai) or chicken and waffles (together at last, thanks to The Dirty Bird). The progressive politics show up in the bookstores, head shops, street posters and graffiti. You’ll fall in love with it all.
Kensington Market draws an eclectic mix of people, and this very diversity is what makes it such an interesting place to live. Hipsters and immigrants rub shoulders with seniors, Rastafarians and artists, along with young parents who want their kids to grow up understanding how diverse Canada can be.
The community is anchored by the market itself, which is clustered in the centre of the neighbourhood along Augusta and Kensington Avenues around Nassau, Baldwin and St. Andrew Streets. Park your bike at the side of the narrow streets and saunter past the fruit market, butchers, fish mongers and cheese shops, pop into the House of Spice, peer in the window at the tattoo shop, check out the house-made clothes at Model Citizen or wander down the aisles at beloved Blue Banana Market, which carries everything from jewelry to hot sauce.
Eat at Big Fat Burrito and then head across the street to Wanda’s Pie in the Sky for dessert, or try the gluten-free, organic and vegan eats at Hibiscus. Tijuana-style Mexican food is on offer at Seven Lives, traditional Venezuelan eats at El Arepazo or try some El Salvadorian pupusas at Emporio Latino. And this is just the tip of the iceberg – Kensington Market offers an almost endless supply of unique restaurants to try.
The annual Winter Solstice Festival takes place in the market each December, put on by Red Pepper Spectacle Arts, a not-for-profit community arts organization. Since 1987, the lantern-lit parade has wended its way through local streets with performers, drummers, giant puppets, fire-breathers and stilt-walkers to celebrate the longest night of the year. During the summers, the local Business Improvement Area association organizes Pedestrian Sundays (car-free streets), monthly Market Art Fairs and the annual Market Jazz Festival every fall.
Along the southern edge of the market, you’ll find Bellevue Square, a rough-around-the-edges park that hosts everyone from yuppie moms to pierced skateboarders. Stop here to eat the food you picked up in the market and to people watch, but don’t be surprised if you find locals smoking marijuana cigarettes. A good alternative is the nearby seven-acre Alexandra Park, which offers a community garden, volleyball court, ball diamond and children’s playground and wading pool. There is also an outdoor ice rink in winter and an outdoor pool in summer.
A liitle bit of history:
Kensington Market stands on land that was first granted in the 1790s to Alexander Grant, a politician, and Major E.B. Littlehayes. In the early 1800s it was purchased by George Denison, who built a mansion on the property and called it Belle Vue. In the years that followed, the family sold off sections of land. By the 1870s, the area had developed into middle class neighbourhoods.
Denison’s grandson, Frederick C. Denison, was born in 1846 and grew up in the lap of luxury here, attending Upper Canada College and studying the law. He might have lived the life of a gentleman, but he did something extraordinary: He commanded the Canadians in the 1884 Nile Expedition. This extraordinary adventure saw nearly 400 early Canadian Voyageurs – including more than 86 aboriginals – travel to Egypt and then up the Nile, deep into Sudan. They were trying to save British Major-General Charles Gordon and his 6,000 men, who were trapped under siege in Khartoum, having refused to pull out when ordered to do so. On January 26, 1885, Khartoum fell to the Madhist army, and the entire British garrison was slaughtered. Gordon’s head was delivered to the Madhi. Denison and his Voyageurs arrived two days later, to find they were too late. They returned to Egypt and eventually to Canada; in all, 16 Canadians died. Fred Denison went back to his law practice, was given a medal, and later became an Member of Parliament. He died in 1896. Three years later, Sir Winston Churchill published The River War, an account of the entire escapade.
Jewish immigrants started settling in Kensington Market starting in the early 1900s, developing an old-world marketplace and building dozens of synagogues; after the Second World War, the neighbourhood welcomed new waves of immigrants from Portugal, the Caribbean and East Asia, and later still, draft dodgers from the U.S. In more recent years, people from all over the world have come to the neighbourhood, including people from Sudan, Somalia, Vietnam, Chile and many other places. This vibrant multi-cultural neighbourhood was designated a National Historic Site in 2006.
Kensington Market stretches from College Street up north all the way down to Dundas Street down south, and from Bathurst Street in the west to Spadina Avenue in the east. Like other neighbouring communities, there are lots of young people here, many of whom attend one of the nearby post-secondary schools. Homeowners tend to be a bit older, with lots of working-age folks, but fewer children than most Toronto neighbourhoods. Kensington Market is close to Chinatown, and lots of your neighbours will speak Chinese, Cantonese and Mandarin. The average annual after-tax income hovers around $50,000 per year. Most people here live in condominiums or row houses, though there are some single family detached homes on offer as well.
Kensington Market (Chinatown) on a map
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