Alexandra Park is one of downtown Toronto’s most unique, as well as oldest, neighbourhoods. Located in the very heart of the city, the neighbourhood abuts everything from Chinatown to Kensington Market to Grange Park to the artsy environs of Queen Street West and is within walking distance of the University of Toronto, the Discovery District, the Fashion District and the Financial District.
Part of the neighbourhood consists of private residences and historic homes, while the other half is made up of the Atkinson Housing Cooperative, which is about to begin a massive 15-year revitalization. The revitalization is set to turn Atkinson into a mixed-income, mixed-use complex for residents, where market value condominiums in a mix of townhouses, mid-rise and high-rise buildings will sit next to affordable housing in a neighbourhood that will also acquire new parks and recreational facilities.
Bordered by Dundas Street West to the north, Spadina Avenue to the east, Queen Street West to the south and Bathurst Street to the west, Alexandra Park is set to become one of the city’s most in-demand neighbourhoods, especially for those attracted by its downtown location, especially the nearby and world-renowned Art Gallery of Ontario and OCAD University (formerly the Ontario College of Art and Design). The neighbourhood is also home to the renowned independent stage company Theatre Passe Muraille. Alexandra Park is also the epitome of Toronto’s multicultural nature.
History and Social Profile
The area now known as Alexandra Park — named for the park at the south-east corner of Dundas and Bathurst, in turn named for the wife of King Edward VII, the first future monarch to visit Toronto — was originally Concession 1 of the Township of York. When the City of Toronto was incorporated in 1834, it included the area just north of Queen Street, roughly where Grange Street is today. The rest of what is today Alexandra Park was annexed by the city in 1859.
The neighbourhood began to take shape in 1841 when Sir Casimir Gzowski purchased the area from its original owners, the Denison family. Gzowski, a Polish engineer, built a giant home called The Hall at what is today the south-east corner of Dundas and Bathurst. The neighbourhood took shape around the house, and was populated heavily by Polish and Ukranian immigrants through the 1920s and 1930s, followed by immigrants from Germany, Italy, Greece, Portugal and Hungary.
In the 1960s, The Hall and most of the surrounding houses were replaced by a public housing project, known today as the Atkinson Housing Cooperative. The area quickly acquired a heavily multicultural flavour, which it proudly boasts to this day. The neighbourhood has many residents from Asia, especially China and Vietnam, from the Caribbean and from East Africa.
The housing project has had some problems over the years with drugs and gangs, but like the similar project under way in Regent Park, the revitalization plan set to be enacted over the next 15 years will turn the area into a successful, mixed-income, mixed use neighbourhood. The finished redesign will consist of a mixture of rental and condo buildings and townhouses, as well as new community facilities. The plans include 1,540 units of market condominiums and townhouses, with retail units on the south side of Dundas Street West, that should mark an economic and social rebirth for the former Cooperative. The result has been an intense interest in the chance to get in on the ground floor of a complex that will be in perhaps the most prime real estate imaginable in Toronto.
The other part of Alexandra Park is characterized by Victorian-style homes dating back to the 1880s and 1890s. There are also a few semi-detached homes and bungalows dating from the 1920s and 1930s.
The neighbourhood is also within easy reach of virtually all of the attractions of downtown Toronto, including some of its most popular neighbourhoods like Chinatown and Kensington Market.
Chinatown originally established itself around its food stores and markets — where Torontonians from all walks of life buy fresh and cheap fruits and vegetables — and its clothing stores, as well as, of course, its restaurants. The area quickly established itself not only as home to the Chinese community but as a popular destination for dining and shopping for all of Toronto, and as a major tourist attraction. The area now features two major malls, the Dragon City and the Chinatown Centre.
As the district matured, and many older Chinese began to move out of the downtown area, the area began to welcome a growing number of residents of Thai and Vietnamese descent, a change reflected in the number of Vietnamese restaurants now found in the area.
Chinatown has also acquired a distinct Latin-American flavour, in large part because of the Latino influence in the neighbouring Kensington Market, an area with its own unique history.
Officially designated a National Historic Site of Canada, the Market was originally the estate of George Taylor Denison, who purchased the land after serving on the side of the British in the War of 1812. Denison used the property to house his volunteer cavalry troop, which he commanded during the Upper Canada Rebellion. In the 1880s, the estate was broken up, and much of it was converted into Victorian-type row housing for Scottish and Irish immigrants. Many of those houses still survive in the side-streets of Kensington.
In the first half of the 20th century, the Market was home to a large Jewish community, known especially for tailor shops, delis, bakeries and a large number of synagogues, many of which still survive. Post-World War II, as the Jewish community moved north, the area became home to immigrants from Portugal, then from the Caribbean. The large number of Portuguese and Caribbean bars and restaurants are testament to their lasting influence.
During the Vietnam War, Kensington Market became known as a place where American draft dodgers could find a home, conferring on the area a reputation for progressive politics that it continues to uphold. Among other notable achievements by that generation, Kensington Market was the original home of The Body Politic, the ground-breaking gay and lesbian publication that marked the emergence of Canada’s homosexual community. The open-minded approach of Kensington Market has also meant a large number of writers, artists and film-makers have made their homes there.
Since the 1980s and 90s, the Market has been a magnet for immigrants from Latin America, but also from Africa and the Middle East, attracted by the area’s free-wheeling and open-minded policy towards newcomers. Kensington has subsequently become renowned for its Latin American food, with many restaurants and cafes exisiting side-by-side with more traditional delis, butchers and cheese shops. The area also houses some of the city’s favourite alternative stores, including vintage clothing store Courage My Love, bookstore Who’s Emma and a number of bike stores.
And of course, Queen Street West continues to be the heart of Toronto’s alternative arts scene, with clubs, bookstores, galleries, fashion boutiques and trendy restaurants filling the stretch between University and Spadina. In the 1960s, a number of music clubs established themselves along Queen, and when punk hit in the late ’70s, the area around Queen and Spadina was ground zero, helped by the nearby presence of the Ontario College and Art and Design. Clubs like the Horseshoe and the infamous Crash ‘n’ Burn helped put bands like the Diodes, Teenage Head and the Viletones on the map. Through the ’80s and ’90s, clubs like the Horseshoe, the Rivoli and the Cameron — all still thriving today — helped launch bands like the Cowboy Junkies and Blue Rodeo. Today, bands like Broken Social Scene and Metric continue to get their start in those clubs, as well as in more underground clubs like the Bovine Sex Club.
The recreational hub of Alexandra Park, however, remains the park that gave the area its name. At the south-east corner of Dundas and Bathurst, the park features an outdoor pool, a wading pool, an artificial ice rink and tennis courts. Next door is the Scadding Court Community Centre, which includes a gymnasium, an indoor pool, a weight room and meeting rooms. Adjacent is the Charles R. Sanderson Public Library, which offers programs for adults, children and preschoolers.
- Banh Mi Boys
- La Palette
- 416 Snack Bar
- The Burger’s Priest
- Epicure Café
- Gandhi Cuisine
- Charles G Fraser Junior Public School, 79 Manning Avenue, 416-393-1830
- Oasis Alternative Secondary School, 20 Brant Street, 416-393-9830
- Ogden Junior Public School, 33 Phoebe Street, 416-393-9110
- Ryerson Community School, 96 Denison Avenue, 416-393-1340
- Streetcars run along Spadina, Bathurst, Dundas and Queen