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2006 03 15
Imagining Toronto: Textures of Kensington Market
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The Market this night is deserted, after three, feral cats
comb for fishheads; diablerie
mists rising from sewer gratings, the moon through scaffolding,
crescented. (Lynn Crosbie, from "Alphabet City")

If every Toronto neighbourhood has a story, then Kensington Market is where the narrative refuses to be confined to the page. Like a cluster of pigeons, the words erupt outward to scatter and coalesce, muttering greetings in a hundred tongues, bargaining, hectoring, laughing, weeping. It is true that there is stillness here, but even the night is alive with breathing.
This is my refuge. It is where I can be invisible or, if not invisible, at least drunk. .... The smell from the market doesn't bother me. I've been here before, me and the old lady. We know the price of things. Which is why I feel safe in telling stories here. (Dionne Brand, "At the Lisbon Plate")
In Emerald City, John Bentley Mays describes how Kensington Market exemplifies architectural historian Spiro Kostof's portrayal of city streets as improvised spectacles where encounters are unscheduled and excitement always unrehearsed, places where memory meets desire, where it is possible to be at once invisible and archetypal. In The Robber Bride, Margaret Atwood describes Kensington Market's "music from elsewhere":
It's soothing to be among strangers, who require from her no efforts, no explanations, no reassurances. She likes the mix on the streets here, the mixed skins. Chinatown has taken over mostly, though there are still some Jewish delicatessens, and, further up and off to the side, the Portuguese and West Indian shops of the Kensington Market. Rome in the second century, Constantinople in the tenth, Vienna in the nineteenth. A crossroads. Those from other countries look as if they're trying hard to forget something, those from here as if they're trying hard to remember. Or maybe it's the other way around.
But there is, too, a tension here, between legacy and aspiration. If Kensington Market has long been a portal for those seeking to arrive, it is also a doorway they are relieved to exit. Mays writes,
To my knowledge, the residents of the Market today are almost all recent immigrants too poor to do otherwise, university students playing poor, and a handful of sophisticated urbanists who, for some reason, want to live among the Market's racket and odours."
And even these "sophisticated urbanists" who come slumming to Kensington Market seek to put their mark on it. Tourists of its counterculture, they leave lattes and lofts in their wake. In Sarah Dearing's Kensington Market novel (and City of Toronto Book Award winning) Courage My Love, one new arrival, despite being in flight from her bland Avenue Road life, seeks to impose order upon the market's chaotic landscape:
Her Kensington Market had been ordered in an efficient separation of products, and she labelled the main roads, for simplified reference, as Fish Street, Clothes and Vegetable Avenues. How much easier life could be if all streets had such utilitarian names; a person would always know precisely what to expect from an address.
But Kensington Market has its own way of resisting such coercions, and sometimes the market transforms its intruders. Later, having renamed herself, having listened, loved, and laboured there, Nova learns to appreciate the market's organic splay:
Underneath, like all markets, it possessed an ancient rhythmic hum created from trade, community, basic needs met, marriages -- or at least couplings -- made. This same music turns to white noise at a modern mall, some special secret element removed by its enclosure or the attempts at convenience.
And for all its noisy chaos, dry rot, and dereliction, it is true that Kensington Market redeems the city. It is a microcosm, a well, a shaft of light and darkness, a patch of unrestrained humanity that leaks out into the rest of the city and makes it live a little more fully. At night when the market gives itself over to alley cats, junkies, and bike thieves, the stall shutters rattle closed, and the clubs cease whirling and gutter into darkness, there is also a breathing stillness here, a listening. At dawn the market will rise and unfurl; the rest of the city along with it.
[email this story] Posted by Amy Lavender Harris on 03/15 at 11:28 AM

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