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Toronto's Cultural Mosaic

For the week of Monday April 28, 2008

In the last week of May, 1967, the City of Toronto placed Kensington Market in a category of sub-standard neighborhoods slated for urban renewal. The residents of Kensington fought hard to protect their home, which had become a symbol of tolerance and acceptance in multicultural Toronto.

Baldwin Street, 1922
© John Boyd / Library and Archives Canada / PA-084813
In the early 1900s, Toronto’s Jewish community looked to improve their living conditions by moving out of the immigrant slum, The Ward. They were not welcome in the Anglo-Saxon neighbourhoods, so they moved to a working-class area bounded by Spadina, Bathurst, College and Dundas streets, now known as Kensington Market.

The Jews quickly established a bustling street market. Peddlers pushed their carts, while residents converted the fronts of their houses into shops, where they sold produce, clothing and anything you could possibly need. Live poultry was even sold on the streets until 1983.

Following the Second World War, many Jewish families moved north to the suburbs and new immigrant groups moved in. The largest group of newcomers was the Portuguese. In 1953, Sousa Restaurant, the first Portuguese-owned business, opened in the Market, and the dominant language switched from Yiddish to Portuguese. The times had changed, but the idea of tolerance remained. Children in Kensington were brought up to accept all religious and ethnic groups and did not understand the racist terms heard outside the community. 

Present Day Baldwin Street
© Parks Canada / Andrew Waldron / 2005

This idea of community united the residents of Kensington Market in 1967 when the City of Toronto considered the area in need of “urban renewal.” The City, partnered with the provincial and federal governments, intended to clean up the area and reduce congestion on the narrow streets.

The community organized itself as the Kensington Area Residents Association (KARA) to fight back against the City. KARA fought to be included in the discussions for redevelopment of the area. The residents wanted to preserve the unique qualities of the Market, especially the modified house fronts. In 1969, the federal government halted the funding for urban renewal projects and the unique qualities of Kensington Market were saved.

Today, Kensington Market survives as a multicultural community in the heart of Toronto, with each successive wave of immigrants adding its own flavour to the area. More then 20 different cultural communities, including Portuguese, Chinese, Koreans, Vietnamese, Latin Americans, Middle Eastern and Southeast Asians, co-exist in the neighbourhood. Kensington Market was designated a National Historic Site in 2006 for representing Canada’s commitment to a cultural mosaic.

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