It’s been a bad month for place-keeping in Kensington Market. First the Kensington Market Community Land Trust’s (KMCLT) attempt to purchase two buildings on a stretch of Kensington Avenue threatened with land assembly fell through, and then the oddly named Kensington Safe Streets (KSS) was approved at TEYCC despite a concerted effort, and a rare community consensus, against it.
Pedestrianization of Augusta and Baldwin was rolled back to a pilot project to begin in 2024 (the terms of which are vague) and, thanks to a motion by Paula Fletcher, Economic Development and Culture will report on the impacts of the street redesign on small business, but the infrastructure plan — pavers and rolled curbs — remains. Arguably, these elements make the area less safe for pedestrians and more difficult to navigate for those with accessibility needs, while fostering gentrification and creating a more challenging small business environment.
According to the City’s survey (flawed to the point of absurdity, but anyway), 92% of respondents wanted more pedestrianization. So no one is happy. Does anyone trust the City to plan the chaos and energy of Kensington Market and not wreck it in the process?
I know this city loves the market. It’s disheartening to see the controversy over the Safe Streets Plan unfold in the public sphere as car-loving privileged NIMBY owners vs the public good. It’s as though the market is a disastrously unsafe place in need of fundamental redesign, a redesign being held up by a selfish minority of greedy owners.
That view is a simplification founded on a misunderstanding of the market’s complicated and delicate ecosystem. A market needs deliveries. Customers need to pick up large orders (the kind that can make or break profitability). No one is arguing for more cars in the neighbourhood. It’s not retrograde car-lovers vs progressive thinkers. Most of us live in the market because it’s a good area for pedestrians. I for one, don’t even drive.
Listen to the public deputations at TEYCC on June 23rd (starting at 1:59:00) and you will get a nuanced, complicated view. A community of residents — owners and tenants — and businesses, both those who own their buildings and the more vulnerable who don’t, together, asking for the City to consider the needs and interests of those who make this market work when they fix the streets.
Homeowners read deputations on behalf of vendors who couldn’t make it; business owners whose property values stand to gain from the plan spoke against it (one on behalf of his grocer tenant); several neighbours gave up their spots so that Miruna Soiu, a parent and long-term tenant, could play the recordings she and her partner had made of merchants who couldn’t take time away from their stores to speak. All of these voices saying: just fix the streets, don’t engineer us.
The priority for community groups and the BIA is to keep the market a working market, supporting raw food vendors and anchor businesses. This is supposedly the stated objective of the City, as well, but when asked about the consequences for raw food sellers, the City’s representative, Jason Diceman, simply shrugged his shoulders and said: “this is just about the streets,” as though the nature of the streets has nothing to do with use. It’s the shopkeepers and denizens of Kensington Market who changed the nature of the streets in order to create and sustain the market. As Peter Sanagan put it: “you can’t change the fabric of what a market looks like without discussing the actual implications to the businesses that form the market.” But the City of Toronto can, and apparently, will.
The community consensus is simple. Fix the streets to the standards of Vision Zero: widen the sidewalks, make the streets more accessible but don’t prettify with pavers and rolled curbs (lots of curb cuts please); slow the speed limit to 20 km/h everywhere in the neighbourhood (including the residential streets); allow short-term parking to accommodate deliveries and customers. Any discussion of permanent pedestrianization must be community-led.
Don’t fix what isn’t broken.
Because what’s lost in the passionate discussions about pedestrianization is the fact that Kensington Market is already a pedestrian-dominant zone. It’s an exemplary neighbourhood. To the Reddit users saying “we should just take over the streets,” we say, yes of course, have you watched the way people move in the streets here? (It’s a question for the City as well: they have done no studies of foot traffic, nor an economic study, nor traffic studies that include of Pedestrian Sundays; they haven’t canvassed affected business owners, or even consulted the BIA.)
When did pedestrian priority become necessarily car-free? It’s a simplistic equation that ignores the complexity of the market we love and of the city we live in. As my neighbour, Robert Allsop, put it in his deputation:
“Kensington Market is the one place in the city where there’s a kind of self-regulating, un-negotiated truce between drivers, pedestrians and cyclists. Congestion on busy days is part of the general liveliness of a busy market.”
What problem is the redesign meant to solve? The streets are not unsafe in the market area. There has been one accident since 2008, the earliest publicly available record. Adam Zendel, who supports pedestrianization, stated in his deputation that in fact Kensington streets are not safe since the stretch of Dundas near us is one of the deadliest in the city.
But that only underlines the fundamental problem with the plan. If the idea is to make pedestrians safer, why not start — or even include, for that matter — a part of the neighbourhood that is actually dangerous?
Despite its title, the plan is about permanent pedestrianization. The reasons for seeking that are laudable, but abstract, unspecific to the everyday realities of Kensington: progress for the planet, cleaner air, a reduction in emissions, a change in our city’s car culture.
More pedestrian-friendly zones is absolutely a goal we should be pursuing as a city. But why start with a neighbourhood that is already pedestrian-dominant? Why start with a culturally unique world-renowned neighbourhood that has grown and changed organically? Why place-make somewhere that is already (well) made?
Shamez Amlani, who started Pedestrian Sundays Kensington Market (PSK), pointed out the breadth of influence on planetary emissions when he placed a quarter on the table at TEYCC: “if this room is the GTA, this quarter is Kensington Market.” When he started PSK, he believed that it would start a movement that would see better pedestrian access across the city. It didn’t. Absent other city-wide initiatives, it just changed the perception of Kensington as a market neighbourhood to a destination, and to the City, a tourist zone to exploit.
Some naively imagine that pedestrianization will simply remove the cars and everything will remain the same, just with fewer cars. But more informed commentators understand that gentrification is an inevitable consequence of pedestrianization and of this particular street re-design. They tell us we should accept these losses as inevitable because gentrification is inevitable, because Kensington Market is already filled with tourists and we should just accept its natural evolution.
If Kensington Market ever just accepted the fate that was assigned to it, it would not exist at all. Businesses aimed at tourists have indeed moved in, but it remains a place where there is synergy between merchants and neighbours, its coffee shops and bars places we gather.
It’s also still a market: there’s fewer raw food sellers and many are more expensive than their previous incarnations, but there are more places to buy food than most neighbourhoods, and new ones are still arriving.
Despite Loblaws’ best efforts, I can still get almost all my shopping done here. There are two new fruit stores. I can get cheese from Ping and from Global Cheese, spices from Carlos at House of Spice; vanilla and dry goods from Victoria at Vida, fish from the Portuguese guys and Hooked, meat from Sanagan’s; bread from Blackbird; we are well stocked with health food stores: Sugar and Spice, For Life, Tutti Fruitti, Green Space and Essences of Life. There’s a latino grocery store, Caribbean specialities and baked goods, and did you know there is a fresh tofu and rice noodles factory here?
These businesses, along with the vintage shops, the patios, the restaurants make this market. The immigrants who came here made this place, and new immigrants continue to make Kensington Market unique. Are we really prepared to tell them that city planners know better than they do what needs to happen here? Are we prepared to tell multi-ethnic, multi-generational, independent businesses that their survival doesn’t matter?
Are we prepared to tell Yvonne Grant, who quite literally created a Caribbean corner with her shop in 1977, that its time for her and her customers to move on? Or Victoria, who has been informing and organizing her fellow store owners, who has invested years of her labour into this community, that she’ll be fine, after Covid, after construction, after the redesign raises property values and changes the nature of the streets?
To the businesses that have nurtured other businesses, renting to and supporting each other like the Lu’s of Essence of Life, and Magnus, who started Rasta Pasta at a stall on Augusta and now owns three businesses on Kensington Avenue, do we say, well, you’ve had a good run?
It’s classic gentrification to say to immigrants: thanks for making the area cool, now move along so we can play here.
We absolutely need more pedestrian-friendly planning in this city. Toronto is way behind other cities. I’d love to see pedestrian zones stretching from Yorkville (already gentrified) through to the under-utilized fields of cement in the financial district (some with cows.)
As proponent of pedestrianization point out, other cities have pedestrianized whole areas. Montreal has 10 arteries closed for the summer. In focussing the pedestrian conversation on a single small mixed neighbourhood in downtown, Toronto has limited its imaginative possibilities. When I asked Diceman why the City didn’t consider pedestrianizing Yonge street, he laughed. We couldn’t even keep Lakeshore closed for a few Sundays.
Other cities pedestrianize boldly, but not blindly. Montreal has a different plan for summer than winter. Many cities take anti-gentrification measures, like special support for green grocers, tax reductions for legacy businesses, expropriation of buildings to support culturally important businesses. None of these place-keeping measures exist here, nor are they even being talked about.
In my discussion with Councillor Saxe about the Safe Streets plan, she invoked the Distillery District. And my heart breaks, because as much as that area is vibrant in its way, it’s nothing like the open, culturally and socially mixed vibrancy of the market I love.
At the core of the conflict are two views: one of the market as a destination — a place to play, a tourist attraction, the other as a place to live, shop and be. One view looks optimistically to a hypothetical future, the other considers the complicated present. One is about place-making, the other place-keeping.
We have pioneer place-makers here who organically developed a neighbourhood that is unique in the world. By all means, let’s move towards less car-centric neighbourhoods. Let’s use our most successful pedestrian-dominant neighbourhood as an example to be followed, not as a problem to be remodelled out of existence.
Photo: Ryan Rubin
Dominique Russell is the founder of Friends of Kensington Market and the co-chair of the Kensington Market Community Land Trust. She is the recipient of the John Bousfield Distinguished Visitorship in Planning for the fall term at the University of Toronto.