Toronto celebrates Kensington Market in word but not deed

OPINION: A new Heritage Minute honours the neighbourhood's role as a landing pad for immigrants. It’s too bad Toronto now makes it impossible to create places like it, writes John Michael McGrath
By John Michael McGrath - Published on October 27, 2017
For more than a century, Kensington Market, in downtown Toronto, has been home to new Canadians. (Ryan Raz/Creative Commons)

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​More than a century ago, the Jewish workers living near Toronto’s garment district had a bright idea: they could supplement their household incomes by converting their homes into small businesses. Some took discarded fabric from their employers and turned it into homemade clothes they’d sell on their front lawns. Others turned their hand to baking and other pursuits. (Today, we’d call their wares “artisanal” and mark them up by 50 per cent.) Eventually, many simply converted their homes into storefronts.

The Jewish Market, as it was called then, became a landing pad and lifeline for Eastern European immigrants, roles Kensington Market would play again for multiple waves of immigrants — and continues to play today for the Chinese Canadians who make up nearly 40 per cent of its residents. (Full disclosure: my father-in-law owns a business in the market and lives nearby.)

Kensington has assumed near-mythological proportions in Toronto’s narrative, and not without reason. It is, very literally, the kind of place the city uses to advertise itself to the rest of the world. This week, it was awarded Canada’s highest civilian honour, a Heritage Minute — joining such exclusive company as the Halifax Explosion of 1917 and the “I smell burnt toast” lady.

But it’s a good thing Kensington Market already exists — because it would be against the law to build it today.

Toronto’s rules place paramount importance on preserving residential areas as exclusively residential spaces: homes, nothing but homes, forever homes — preferably ones with large front and back yards. Kensington was originally built as what we’d call a “stable residential neighbourhood” today, but its early 20th-century working-class residents didn’t have to apply for permits to change it: they could just start making it their home, so they did. That’s how the market got its dense mixing of homes, shops, and restaurants.


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Toronto’s planning documents sing the praises of mixed-use spaces, but if you try to replicate the entrepreneurship of the market in the real world, you start running into walls. Put some clothes racks and a cash register on your front lawn on a street not zoned for commercial uses — that is, almost all of the residential streets in this city — and you’ll quickly get a visit from municipal by-law enforcement and, if you persist, a cease-and-desist order.

(“But what about yard sales?” you may be asking. Yes, Toronto polices yard sales.)

If you try to start a business that offers food and drink to customers, things get even hairier — and that’s before we even talk about the important and good public health rules. Technically, a “retail store” is a permitted use in residential areas under the city’s 2013 harmonized zoning by-law, but only in buildings that have 100 apartments or more. You can run a “place of worship,” but only if you have an enormous lot (30 metres of street frontage) that was originally built as a place of worship. The synagogues that opened early last century to serve Kensington’s Jewish residents wouldn’t be allowed today.

The list goes on: while the city of Toronto engages in yet another round of discussion about whether and how and how much to allow laneway houses, Kensington already has plenty of homes built into the warren of laneways in the market’s south end. They are, alas, also firetraps, but they were built at a time when it didn’t occur to anyone that they should be prohibited.

The regulatory state that grew up over course of the 20th century is a very good thing: yes, keep putting fluoride and chlorine in our drinking water. That’s fine. But the way we’ve decided to arrange our cities comes with costs, and they’re not shared equally — often our choices reflect race and class biases, not strict public safety concerns.

Kensington continues to welcome some of the city’s new arrivals, but it’s increasingly alone in Toronto’s downtown as new Canadians get pushed into the inner suburbs. Vibrant communities are created in those places, but they can’t match the dense mix of services and stores (whose owners are often more willing to take a chance on an immigrant hire) that a neighbourhood like Kensington is able to offer. For communities living in the city’s postwar tower blocks, the situation is even more absurd: the city has taken years to legalize uncontroversial uses like grocery stores in 1970s-era slab towers.

And when immigrant communities try to make themselves more at home — say, by adding a mosque or a temple to a community with a large and fast-growing Muslim or Hindu population — the city goes to war with them in the name of preserving warehouses whose owners are struggling to find tenants.

The city of Toronto can celebrate Kensington all it wants and then celebrate it some more. Toronto badly needs more places like it. But if it wants to honour the market in deed and not just in word, it needs to take a hard look at how its allegedly neutral rules affect new Canadians and make it impossible to replicate the market’s success elsewhere. 

Photo courtesy of Ryan Raz and licensed for commercial use under a Creative Commons licence. (See the uncropped version.)


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