The Chinatown and Kensington Market neighbourhood in downtown Toronto is one of the city’s most distinctive, colourful, historic and creative areas. Hugely popular for the food and clothing stores, the restaurants and the artistic atmosphere, the neighbourhood is a fascinating mix of ethnic cultures, students, underground communities and businesses, political activism, professionals, old and new housing.
While Chinatown — bordered roughly by College Street to the north, University Avenue to the east, Dundas Street West to the south and Spadina Avenue to the west — and Kensington Market — bordered by College Street to the north, Spadina to the east, Dundas to the south and Bathurst Street to the west — are distinct neighbourhoods, they blend smoothly into each other. Walking west from Chinatown, one finds oneself entering Kensington Market almost without noticing the gradual change until one realizes that the dumplings have changed to empanadas.
The two tend to be thought of as one in part because they share a common heritage. In the first half of the 20th century, both Kensington and Chinatown were part of the large Jewish community that populated downtown Toronto. Following World War II, as the Jewish community moved further north and the Chinese found themselves moved out of the original Chinese neighbourhood on Dundas, the nature of the area changed. In the late 90s, a wave of Latin American immigrants found Kensington Market a welcoming home, making the area the puzzling but neighbourly and festive mixture found today.
While the area has traditionally had a high proportion of immigrants — especially Chinese, Vietnamese, Portuguese and Latin American — it has always had a mixed population. A lot of students have made the area their home — from the University of Toronto on the neighbourhood’s northern edge and the Ontario College of Art and Design on the southern edge — but there’s also a lot of artists, fashion designers, small tech companies, underground music and dance clubs and a growing number of professionals attracted by the condos and lofts being renovated out of old warehouses and factories. The area — especially between University and Spadina — also has a number of quiet, tree-lined side-streets with older homes that have created a family atmosphere in the heart of downtown.
History and Social Profile
For the first half of the 20th century, the area was home to a very large Jewish community, especially along Bathurst and Spadina, with many residents working in the numerous textile and fabric factories and warehouses occupying the nearby garment district. As a result, the area also became home to numerous Jewish delis, tailors, bookstores, cinemas, Yiddish theatres and synagogues.
After World War II, as many of those factories began to close, much of that Jewish community moved further north in the city. Meanwhile, Toronto’s Chinese community, which had made its home between Dundas and Queen Streets, especially around Bay Street, bound themselves being forced out of their homes in the 1950s and 60s by plans to construct the new city hall. That building and the surrounding Nathan Phillips Square now occupies much of what was originally Chinatown. While parts of the original Chinatown survive along Dundas Street, many of the residents moved to the northwest along Spadina Avenue.
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, there’s the statue of Al Waxman — the King of Kensington himself — in Bellevue Square Park. Not to mention the fact that the original Police Academy movie shot its riot scenes in Kensington Market.
The Market holds several car-free Pedestrian Sundays festivals during the summer. There’s also the annual Kensington Market Festival of Lights, held during the Winter Solstice in December. The parade features giant puppets, firebreathers, stiltwalkers and samba, and a bewildering mix of the area’s cultures from the Caribbean to Latin America to native performers.
- Graffiti’s Bar and Grill
- Jumbo Empanadas
- Lee Garden
- King Noodle House
- Kom Jug Yuen
- El Trompo
- Free Times Café
- Last Temptation
- Urban Herbivore
- 506 College Streetcar
- 505 Dundas Streetcar
- Spadina Streetcar
- Bathurst Streetcar
- Queen’s Park Station, on the Yonge-University-Spadina line
- St. Patrick Station, on the Yonge-University-Spadina line
- Kensington Community School, 401 College Street, 416-393-1290
- King Edward Junior and Senior Public School, 112 Lippincott Street, 416-393-1320
- Harbord Collegiate Institute, 286 Harbord Street, 416-393-1650
- Ryerson Community School, 96 Denison Avenue, 416-393-1340
- Lord Lansdowne Junior and Senior Public School, 33 Robert Street, 416-393-1350