The Market never grew up. Knock on wood. It’s never become a musty old museum where tourists gawk at what used to be. It’s not quaint or falsely preserved. Nor has it been forced out of its original character. Instead it acts like a teenager. Always re-inventing itself. Always a world in the making.
More than anything else, Kensington Market is a transient place. It’s a neighbourhood to grow out of. Kensington is perpetually adolescent, pimple-faced, testosterone-driven,hopelessly naïve. It is a place where lovers kiss in the alleyways. Where the old, decked out in colourful costumes, look young and where the very young feel free to bellow out their songs or cries to an ever-changing audience.
It’s the place in Toronto for those of us with family roots in Kensington to return again and again to reimagine our beginnings. One visit is never enough because Kensington Market is always changing. Visit it one week and a week later it takes on a different shape and a fresh appeal.
And so we return, month after month, year after year to compare where we are now as opposed to when we first arrived in Canada.
The Market can also provide a darker moment. This thought: what would have happened if we’d never been embraced by Toronto’s Kensington Market? If we’d stayed behind, or were left behind, or our families were never welcomed inside?
Of all of Toronto’s storied neighbourhoods, Kensington Market became the place of refuge for generations of immigrants fleeing tyranny and injustice from troubled and failing states across the globe. Stand at any busy corner in the market. Listen to the dozens of languages spoken. There is absolutely nothing that is uniform about the market. Not the residents, not the storefronts and homes, not the faces of the visitors reimagining their roots. Kensington is Canada’s arrival city.
This summer when I visit the market, the place where my mother’s family landed in the 1930s, I see a new face in my mind’s eye.
It is the face of a little boy from Syria named Alan. He is three years old. Alan is swimming toward the shore with his mother and father and brother. They have fled a war-torn land for the safety of Canada. They are swimming toward Kensington market. They are swimming toward a store-top flat where they yearn to begin a new life.
At the corner of Baldwin and Augusta stands a storefront that was once a Jewish chicken store. My grandmother ran the chicken store. Above street level is an apartment: a kitchen, two bedrooms, a tiny sitting room. My mother arrived at this flat when she was the same age as Alan is as he battles the roiling sea swimming toward Kensington market, toward his new home.
My mother and her parents and two brothers travelled from Poland to Germany and across the ocean to Canada. They were fleeing pogroms and war and religious discrimination. Their wish was to be safe. Alan and his family know that if they remain in Syria they will not survive.
On the first day of my family’s arrival, a little girl named Hayah walks along St. Andrew past the Minsk, the synagogue where she will pray for years to come, where she will be married and where she will sing in the choir.
On the day Alan and his family arrive, they will also walk by the Minsk. They will see the Star of David and they will know that Jewish people founded a sanctuary in this neighbourhood where they can be safe.
Alan and his family come to live in the same flat above the store on the corner of Baldwin and Augusta. There is hot water, electricity and heat when the weather turns cold.
Alan’s family inhabits the same rooms that my mother inhabited eighty years earlier. The feeling of relief is similar for both families. Alan sleeps in the same bedroom as my mother slept. He attends Lord Lansdowne Public School and then Harbord Collegiate. Later he’s accepted into the University of Toronto. He is a full citizen with all the rights and obligations of Canadian citizenship. He is alive. He is safe. His children will never need experience the danger he faced when he was three years old.
This is the promise of Kensington Market, a world in the making. A place to become someone you could only dream of becoming. A safe haven, a refuge, a home for the dispossessed.