Few neighborhoods provoke as many opinions as Kensington Market. Some see it as an eclectic area full of vibrant shops, and fruit and vegetable stands that carry traces of the immigrants who passed through. Others see its mix of vintage clothing boutiques and increasingly pricey specialty food shops as gentrification in action. Still others insist it’s a dump.
Glen Baillie Place, Fitzroy Terrace and Kensington Place
During the late 1880s, the Kensington Market area was a British working-class neighborhood. Worker cottages were built at the back of several lots to provide affordable family housing. Three of these laneways can still be walked down today and all feature cottages that still serve as compact residences. On Glen Baillie Place, with an entrance off the west side of Spadina, north of Dundas (tucked between Ajisen Ramen and Dumpling House), stands a row of cottages inspired by the Romanesque Revival architectural style, popular at the time.
Around the block, off Kensington Avenue, north of Dundas, Fitzroy Terrace is a quiet respite from the busy market streets. Standing apart from the Victorian worker cottages is No. 1 (aka Gradient House). Designed by the Superkül architectural firm around 10 years ago, it was inspired by Japanese urban homes, maximizing its interior space via elements such as a steep roof.
Further north off Kensington Avenue is Kensington Place (marked by a small green sign pointing in its direction), where a row of worker cottages, over time, have taken on a variety of colors and materials.
If you’re in the heart of the market, go north on Kensington Avenue, west on Baldwin Street, and south on Augusta Avenue to Denison Square. A series of plaques on the southeast corner outline the market’s history, while the former Sasmart store sits empty across the street. The street honors the Denisons, a land-owning military family, whose estate Belle Vue stood at 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, is now Bellevue Square Park. Take a seat next to the statue of actor Al Waxman, who starred as a local convenience store owner in the ’70s sitcom “King of Kensington.”
The site of Belle Vue is currently occupied by the Kiever Synagogue. Completed in 1927, it was designed by Benjamin Swartz in a Byzantine style with a pair of domed towers. As the city’s Jewish community moved north in the ’50s, Kiever struggled to stay open. A preservation effort launched 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 becoming a residential street during the late 19th century. The light brown building at 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 into office space in 2016.
North of Oxford Street, Victorian heritage buildings on the east side evolved into a row dedicated to social services during the early 20th century: 87 Bellevue was a private hospital, then a seniors’ home and now offers supportive housing; 91 Bellevue, once an Anglican mission dedicated to converting immigrant Jews, has been since 1962 St. Stephen’s Community House, whose services range from childcare to conflict resolution training; 95 Bellevue, built to house physician at the Hospital for Sick Children, became a Salvation Army home for mothers and infants and a later day care for children whose mothers worked in factories during the Second World War, before becoming Westside Montessori School.
Two landmark buildings mark your arrival at College Street. On the southwest corner, No. 8 Hose Station 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 that are still used today. On the southeast corner, Anglican church St. Stephen-in-the-Fields is another legacy of the Denison family. Opened in 1858, the Gothic Revival structure was designed by Thomas Fuller, who worked on the federal Parliament buildings in Ottawa around that time.
Head west on College Street, then turn north on Croft Street, named after John Croft, the lone fatality associated with the Great Fire of 1904, which destroyed much of the financial district. An explosives expert, Croft was killed while inspecting a slow-acting fuse that went off during demolition work on Front Street. For many years, a Monty Python-esque mural honored Croft; it has since been replaced by an image of a friendly raccoon.
Resembling a laneway but fully serviced, Croft Street feels, like the market area itself, improvised. A community project involving residents, police and muralists during the 2000s turned the street’s graffiti-covered garages into a work of urban art. The designs have changed over time, but you will find works celebrating the city, ranging from maps of lost rivers to a poetic salute to a scrappy local cat named Monty. Mixed in among the art are a many housing styles, including converted industrial space and boxy modern architecture.
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