Toronto Chinatown And Kensington

Captivated by the colourful and unusual variety of stores we walked through narrow streets filled with a jumble of vintage clothing stores, bakeries, restaurants, shops selling anything from fish, cheese and meat to dry goods and assorted merchandise. At about 7:30 pm most of the stores had closed or were in the process of closing, but the diverse and unusual storefronts and murals illustrate the Bohemian flavour of this area. Bruce pointed out numerous favourite hangouts: places such as Cob’s Bread, Graffiti’s Bar and Grill, My Market Bakery, the Chocolate Addict and many other unique nooks and crannies illustrate the free-spirited character of this unusual neighbourhood. At the intersection of St. Andrew and Augusta we stopped to admire a “half a house” that was attached to some flat-roofed houses and the complex was then capped off on the other side by another “half a house”.

One of the most poignant symbols of Toronto’s multi-ethnic mixing is a restaurant called the “Hungary Thai”, an eatery that surprisingly combines European and Asian culinary traditions originating in Hungary and Thailand. There is no better area than Kensington Market to come face to face with Toronto’s culturally diverse makeup. Today’s Kensington features residents and merchants from all over the world, including people of Latin, Carribean, European and Asian origin.

Southwest of Augusta Avenue we turned onto Bellevue Square Park, a green space that is frequented by a very Bohemian crowd of people, representing some of Toronto’s artists and counterculture. Kensington Market is one of the few areas that features Cannabis cafes and products, and there is a distinct marijuana culture that pervades the area, particularly on Bellevue Square Park. The northwest end of the park features a statue of Al Waxman (1935 to 2001), a Toronto actor who starred in a popular television series “The King of Kensington” and was involved in numerous charitable organizations and events. Bruce pointed out that Al’s wife Sara is immortalized on a bench right next to the statue in a carving that says “Sara loves Al”.

Avenue is another relic from Kensington’s Jewish history. The Kiever Synagogue on Denison Square was built in 1912. Its twin towers are crowned with Stars of David which give it a distinct middle-eastern or Byzantine feel. Although many Jewish residents have left the Kensington area over the last few decades to move further north in the City, the Kiever Synagogue continues to be active and to offer religious services every Sabbath as well as educational services to the remaining Jewish population.

We proceeded southwards on Augusta Avenue until we reached Queen Street. At the corner of Augusta and Queen we stopped and Bruce made us aware of one of the emblematic statues guarding the entrances of Kensington: an oversized cat prancing on a globe, an appropriately offbeat symbol of this colourful neighbourhood.

Across the street Bruce pointed out the former Alexandra Park public housing complex that has been renamed the Atkinson Housing Co-op. Bruce explained that this residential complex was a major urban planning mistake and had become one of Toronto’s most crime-ridden areas. In 2003 the former Alexandra Park became Canada’s first public housing complex to be converted into a tenant-managed, non-profit housing cooperative, a move which has greatly improved the safety in this area.

At the intersection of Dundas and Queen Streets, right in the heart of Chinatown, Bruce stopped again to show us the Art Deco Victory Theatre, a former vaudeville theatre. He also explained that this theatre had at some point morphed into the Victory Burlesque, home of famous Gypsy Rose Lee, the famous burlesque dancer who became known for putting the “tease into striptease”.

The history of the Spadina area is colourful indeed. Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe settled in the area from 1832 onwards, but major immigration got into full swing in the 1890s. Many of these poor Jewish immigrants had little language skills and began to work in low-paying jobs in the garment factories that had sprung up near Spadina.

Numerous Jewish delicatessens, tailors, cinemas, Yiddish theatres, synagogues and other political, social and cultural institutions developed in the area. Indeed, as Bruce pointed out, Spadina Avenue became the centre of the Garment District which still survives on a much smaller scale today – even today there are numerous fashion and fur stores that sell their merchandise to the public at wholesale prices. Bruce also elaborated that many of the buildings and warehouses became gradually higher, a direct result of the invention of the Otis safety elevator which made it feasible to carry out industrial manufacturing on higher level floors.

Our group then stopped at the Glen and Paul Magder Fur Store which was a pioneer in reforming Toronto’s Sunday shopping laws by staying open on Sundays, despite heavy fines. Right around here we also got to admire the former location of a theatre owned by the parents of Mary Pickford, the famous Toronto born-actress, “America’s Sweetheart” who became Hollywood’s biggest star of the Silent Era. Together with Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford was a cofounder of United Artists film studios.

We then walked east on Queen Street which features a whole stretch of eateries, restaurants and eclectic bars and taverns, including the Rivoli, an extremely popular bar, restaurant and pool hall. At the Horseshoe Tavern Bruce explained that many famous music acts of Toronto, including Blue Rodeo, got their start at this tavern.

Boyd Gang, a 1950s gang of bank robbers led by Edwin Alonzo Boyd. The gang garnered a lot of media attention due to its sensational actions, including bank robberies, jail breaks, liaisons with beautiful women, gun fights and daring captures. Two of the gang members were captured and hanged for the murder of a policeman in 1952 while Edwin Boyd, by then a Canadian folk hero, was sentenced to eight life terms plus twenty seven years concurrent. He was paroled in 1966, relocated to British Columbia and died in 2002.

Just steps further east is the “Friendship House”, where Russian refugees were taken in, it is also the centre of the Communist League of Toronto and the former location of the 1980s television series “Street Legal”.

A few steps east is a series of Victorian townhouses that, as Bruce explained, were owned by two sisters who had had a serious falling out. Although the buildings were symmetrical in appearance the sisters did their best to modify the architecture to ensure that each of their sides would look different from the other sister’s property. Bruce pointed out a couple of former vaudeville theatres, explaining that in the era before cinemas and podcasts, almost every city block had one or more of these theatres which were popular entertainment spots for the locals.

At the Corner of Queen and Soho is the Black Bull, a decades old hotel and tavern that features a spacious outdoor patio. Bruce explained that in the 1800s Toronto’s city limits extended to Peter Street, and the tavern housed in this building was the last tavern on the way out of town. This was at a time when a horse and carriage ride to Niagara Falls could take two days, so a final watering hole on the outskirts of town was important.

Another significant Toronto landmark rose up impressively in front of our eyes: Toronto’s CHUM City Building, the main studio complex of CTV Globemedia. The building houses City TV and its famous Speakers Corner video booth (which allows members of the public to voice their opinions on any topic), Cable Pulse 24, MuchMusic, Star! and the Fashion Television Channel. Its 1914 Neo-Gothic terra cotta façade make it an instantly recognizable landmark in downtown Toronto, and the news truck with the turning wheels that is built into the eastern façade make it a real icon of the downtown core.

Well, our informative and entertaining Chinatown-Kensington Tour had come to an end. Bruce, with his dramatic abilities, was able to educate us and entertain us at the same time, introducing us to historically significant parts of the city that we had never seen or simply walked by without noticing.

Although a relatively young city, Toronto has a fascinating history, and Bruce Bell is just the guy to open our eyes to it.