Few neighborhoods provoke as many opinions as Kensington Market. Some see it as an eclectic area filled with vibrant shops and fruit and vegetable stalls that bear the traces of the immigrants who passed through. Others see its mix of vintage clothing boutiques and increasingly expensive specialty food stores as gentrification in action. Others insist that it is a dump.
Glen Baillie Place, Fitzroy Terrace and Kensington Place
In the late 1880s, the Kensington market area was a British working-class neighbourhood. Worker’s cabins were built at the rear of various lots to provide affordable family housing. Three of these alleys can still be walked today and all feature cottages that still serve as compact residences. At Glen Baillie Place, with an entrance from the west side of Spadina, north of Dundas (tucked between Ajisen Ramen and Dumpling House), is a row of cottages inspired by the Romanesque Revival architectural style popular at the time.
Just around the block off Kensington Avenue, north of Dundas, Fitzroy Terrace is a quiet respite from busy shopping streets. Aside from the Victorian workmen’s cottages is No. 1 (also known as Gradient House). Designed by the Superkül architecture studio about 10 years ago, it was inspired by Japanese urban houses, maximizing its interior space through elements such as a sloped roof.
Further north on Kensington Avenue is Kensington Place (marked with a small green sign pointing your way), where a row of workers’ cottages have, over time, taken on a variety of colors and materials.
If you’re in the heart of the market, head north on Kensington Avenue, west on Baldwin Street, and south on Augusta Avenue to Denison Square. A series of plaques in the southeast corner outline the market’s history, while the old Sasmart store across the street sits empty. The street honors the Denisons, a landowning military family, whose Belle Vue estate stood on the northwest corner of Denison Square and Bellevue Avenue from 1815 to 1889. The land across the street, which the Denisons allowed to be used as a military parade ground, it is now Bellevue Square Park. Take a seat next to the statue of actor Al Waxman, who played a local shop owner in the ’70s sitcom “King of Kensington.”
The Belle Vue site is currently occupied by the Kiever Synagogue. Completed in 1927, it was designed by Benjamin Swartz in a Byzantine style with a pair of vaulted towers. When the city’s Jewish community moved north in the 1950s, Kiever struggled to stay open. A preservation effort started in the 1970s led to its restoration, and it continues to hold weekly services and host special events.
Turning north from Kiever, Bellevue Avenue was the carriage lane to the Belle Vue estate before it became a residential street in the late 19th century. The tan building on the southeast corner of Bellevue and Oxford, built in 1907, originally housed a Bell telephone exchange where switchboard operators were trained. After spending decades as the site of a plastics manufacturer, it was renovated as office space in 2016.
North of Oxford Street, the Victorian heritage buildings on the east side were converted into a row dedicated to social services in the early 20th century: 87 Bellevue was a private hospital, then a nursing home, and now offers supportive housing ; 91 Bellevue, once an Anglican mission dedicated to converting Jewish immigrants, has since 1962 been St. Stephen’s Community House, whose services range from childcare to conflict resolution training; 95 Bellevue, built to house the doctor at the Hospital for Sick Children, became a Salvation Army home for mothers and babies and later a nursery for children whose mothers worked in factories during World War II, before becoming at Westside Montessori School.
Two iconic buildings mark your arrival on College Street. On the southwest corner, Hose Station No. 8 opened in 1878, a few years after the city established a full-time professional fire department. In 1911 it was the first station in Toronto to use a motorized fire engine. Ironically, the building was damaged by fire during preparations for its restoration in the early 1970s. It was rebuilt in its original style with additional engine bays still in use today. In the southeast corner, St. Stephen-in-the-Fields Anglican Church is another Denison family legacy. Opened in 1858, the Gothic Revival structure was designed by Thomas Fuller, who worked on the federal Parliament Buildings in Ottawa at the time.
Head west on College Street, then turn north on Croft Street, named after John Croft, the only fatality associated with the Great Fire of 1904, which destroyed much of the financial district. Croft, an explosives expert, was killed while inspecting a slow-acting fuse that went off during demolition work on Front Street. For many years, a Monty Python-style mural honored Croft; it has since been replaced with an image of a friendly raccoon.
Alley-like but fully serviced, Croft Street feels, like the market area itself, thrown together. A community project involving residents, police and muralists during the 2000s turned street graffiti-covered garages into a work of urban art. Designs have changed over time, but you’ll find works that celebrate the city, from maps of lost rivers to a poetic salute to a local cat named Monty. Mixed with art are many housing styles, including converted industrial space and boxy modern architecture.
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