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Hello From Toronto – Exploring Chinatown and Kensington

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In all my explorations of Toronto over the last few years I have learned that in addition to numerous world-class sights and attractions, Toronto has many lesser known nooks and crannies that are full of history, interesting stories and anecdotes. One of the best people to learn from about the twists and turns of Toronto’s history is Bruce Bell, a well-known author, playwright, actor, standup comedian who is also a passionate historian and has become one of Toronto’s most well-recognized history experts.

The story of how I met Bruce is also quite intriguing: my brother, who happens to live in Austria, was reading a German travel magazine that was featuring a story about Bruce, so he called me up and said that there is this guy that is doing all these neat walking tours through Toronto and that’s how I connected with Bruce – through a European detour. Over the past couple of years I have taken two of his tours, covering the downtown area and featuring a culinary exploration of Toronto’s famous St. Lawrence market. I have always enjoyed the experience and wanted to do another tour with Bruce for a while.

Well, I figured it was definitely time for more entertaining and informative explorations of Toronto; this time it was going to be Chinatown-Kensington, one of Toronto’s most vibrant and fascinating neighbourhoods. So I called up Bruce and said let’s do another tour. To share the experience I brought out six of my friends and we met yesterday at 6:30 pm at one of Toronto’s modern architecture icons: the OCAD Building at 100 McCaul Street, just south of the University of Toronto campus. The OCAD Building, I call it the “gift box on stilts”, is part of the 2004 redevelopment of the Campus of the Ontario College of Art & Design. The Sharp Centre for Design has a unique “table top” structure which has quickly become one of Toronto’s most recognizable landmarks.

We met in the Butterfield Park area, surrounded by the stilts holding up the table top of this extraordinary building. From there we headed west into a green space that features Toronto’s oldest house: “The Grange” was built in 1817 for D’Arcy Boulton Jr., a member of one of early Toronto’s most prominent families who owned about 2000 acres of land in the area. The classical mansion reflects the British architectural traditions of the 18th century. Today, the Grange is owned by the Art Gallery of Ontario and is in the process of being renovated and integrated into the AGO’s Frank Gehry-led redesign.

After leaving this park we walked north on Beverley Street which features several yellow-brick mansions of some of Toronto’s most pre-eminent families, the “Family Compact” – the true power brokers of the early 19th century. Families such as the Cawthras and others owned huge tracts of land in what is today’s downtown Toronto. The Bolton family even owned a private racetrack near the intersections of Dundas and Beverley and many formal social occasions were celebrated on their enormous estate. We also passed by a former hotel which dates back to 1822, one of the very few hotels left from that era which today is a men’s residence.

Our stroll took us westwards on Baldwin Street, a street with a mix of imposing mansions, historic apartment buildings and narrow Victorian homes with attractive architectural details and amazingly intricate woodwork. Bruce stopped at a mansion of one of Toronto’s most influential historic figures: George Brown (1818 to 1880) was a Scottish-born Canadian journalist, politician and one of the Fathers of Canada’s Confederation. He was also the founder and editor of the Toronto Globe newspaper which today is known as the Globe and Mail.

Bruce enlightened us that George Brown was an important figure in the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses that allowed African slaves to escape from the United States to Canada in the 19th century. Ironically, as much as George Brown supported the cause of freeing black slaves, he remained a staunch anti-Catholic. Bruce elaborated that while the United States was characterized by an ongoing conflict between Blacks and Whites, early Canada’s conflicts mostly unfolded between Protestants and Catholics. Bruce added that in 1880 George Brown was shot by one of his former employees at the Globe newspaper, a certain George Bennet who had been fired from his job for drunkenness. Although George Brown only suffered a leg injury at the time he died about 6 weeks later from the wound.

Just a few steps further west we saw the mansion of Robert Baldwin, a member of the Parliament of Upper Canada and a key public figure around the time of the 1837 uprising of the Toronto population against the entrenched British power structure. The unsuccessful Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837 was an uprising against the British colonial government, particularly about the issue of land allocation. Most of the land in and around the old City of York was owned by the “Family Compact”, a group of extremely wealthy Anglican conservative families that represented Canada’s elite at the time. Robert Baldwin was instrumental in establishing Responsible Government, which advocated increased independence from Britain and self-government for Upper Canada.

We had finally arrived on Spadina Avenue, the expansive north-south artery that is the centre point of Toronto’s Chinatown. This historic neighbourhood, one of three Chinatowns within Toronto’s city boundaries, is centered around Spadina and Dundas and is the largest Chinese shopping area in the city. Old Chinatown is actually one of North America’s largest, not surprisingly as Toronto features the second largest Chinese population in Canada after Vancouver.

Recent years have seen a migration of Chinese immigrants to the suburbs which has led to the closure of some of the local restaurants. Many former Chinatown residents, originally from mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong have moved outside the City’s boundaries and the void has been filled by many ethnic Chinese people from Vietnam. As a result an increasing number of store signs are now in Vietnamese, in addition to the well-established Chinese stores.

Goods sold include fruits and vegetables, meat and seafood, low cost clothing and general merchandise, all of which are sold at very reasonable prices. Recently there has been a noticeable local increase in Latin American immigrants, testament to the fact that Toronto’s demographics continue to be in flux.

The same story applies even more to Toronto’s Kensington area, roughly bounded by Spadina Avenue, College Street, Queen Street and Bellevue Avenue. As Bruce explained, it is one of Toronto’s most ethnically diverse and eclectic neighbourhoods and has been attracting immigrants from different countries of origin for the last 130 years or so. Originally the Denison estate, the Kensington area became a residential area for Irish and Scottish immigrant labourers. The small working-class houses in this historically inexpensive area have been inhabited by successive waves of immigrants from different places. From 1910 onwards, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe as well as some Italians started to stream into the area. The entire Kensington area became known as “the Jewish Market”, and about 60,000 Jewish residents lived here in the 1920s and 1930s who worshipped in about 30 local synagogues.

We stopped at the Minsker Synagogue at 10 St. Andrew Street, home of the Congregation Anshei Minsk, Toronto’s Downtown Synagogue. Construction of the synagogue commenced in 1922 and was finally completed in 1930. As a result of the out-migration of many of the Jewish residents from Kensington, today it is one of the few synagogues still in active operation in downtown Toronto.

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, Caribbean, 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”.

Right opposite the Al Waxman statue at the corner of Bellevue 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.

Incidentally this was also a favourite hangout for the notorious 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.

Source by Susanne Pacher