“There are Italian neighbourhoods and Vietnamese neighbourhoods in this city; there are Chinese ones and Ukrainian ones and Pakistani ones and Korean ones and African ones. Name a region on the planet and there’s someone from there, here.” – Dionne Brand, What We All Long For
I grew up on the other side of the border, just an hour and a half drive from Toronto, the roar of Niagara Falls and the width of Lake Ontario between us. It’s the city with the biggest population in Canada and one of the biggest in all of North America. It is a wonderfully diverse place, a truly global city – in fact, one of the 15 “Global Elite” cities in ATKearney’s Global Cities Report for 2016.
Like London, it’s a city with many areas that are very distinct and different from one another. In fact, there are a whopping 140 neighbourhoods that are officially recognised within the City of Toronto which has earned it the unofficial nickname “The City of Neighbourhoods”. With limited time on our short visit, we headed first to explore two of the most colourful: Chinatown and Kensington Market, which are, conveniently, neighbours themselves.
In Chinatown, one thing I noticed was that even though the script changed to Chinese on many shop fronts, there were a lot of maple leaf symbols too – making it clear that this was a Canadian Chinatown. Many of the street names here are bilingual with Cantonese script.
There were beautiful murals painted on the walls, of Chinese families through the generations and a long, snaking panorama of the Great Wall. A man in a flour-coated apron leaned with one foot against the side wall of a Chinese bakery with a cap pulled down over eyes, smoking a cigarette. Beside him, a stack of well-used bikes, unlocked.
To say it was a hot day was an understatement; there was a heat warning out. And so we wandered slowly, ducking into shade wherever possible, popping into Chinese groceries to look for a bottle of water. Some poeple walked under umbrellas. Others fanned themselves with folder bits of newspaper.
I’m always fascinated by the food markets in Chinatowns, by the fact that so much of it is unrecognisable to me and I always wonder about the names of the fruits and vegetables, how you cook them or if you eat them raw.
As Chinatowns usually are, it was a very colourful area, walls painted bright green, shop signs all shades of red and blue and yellow, outdoor displays of trinkets and souvenirs, t-shirts and waving cats and piles of exotic spiky Thai rambutan. We even found some magical floors worthy of #ihavethisthingwithfloors.
The scenery completely changes when you head into Kensington Market. It is a designated National Historic Site of Canada. It’s very multicultural, thanks to it’s complicated history. Many years ago, it was a European Jewish immigrant area with 30 local synagogues. In the 1950s, it changed as a Caribbean and East Asian population set down roots and the Jews had moved to more affluent places. After the Vietnam War, a number of American political refugees moved in. Then, during the 1980s and 90s, it was a wave of a large mix of newcomers escaping from some of the world’s more troubled places, the biggest populations from Central America, Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Iran, Vietnam and Chile. The restaurants reflect some of the latest immigrants to call Kensington Market home with a number of Latin American eateries offering up some taste street style food, like pupusas and empanadas.
Now, there’s a little bit of a mix of all of these cultures come together, and it’s also home to many writers and artists – a creative hub with a working class vibe, independent shops and no major corporate businesses to be found. There is a bit of a hipster vibe moving in with some more upscale cafes that will potentially change the vibes in the future.
Walk around and you’ll find plenty of secondhand and vintage shops, lots of quirky, eccentric scenery. On the first street we turned down, we spotted a hippie van covered in smily faces and peace signs with a canoe on the roof. Across the street, naked mannequins posed on a balcony.
There were graffiti-covered alleyways, restaurants with names like Rasta Pasta with a DJ outside, a cannabis cafe and plenty of headshops and specialty food shops. I would say, though I have not seen enough of the city too know if this is true, that it is likely one of Toronto’s most vibrant neighbourhoods.
In fact, Chinatown and Kensington Market are probably both up there when it comes to colourful and vibrant places in Toronto. It was the perfect area to spend our first afternoon, to see two very different neighbourhoods that patch together to make a small section of this incredible city.