Starbucks at Kensington?

I live in a very centrally located neighbourhood in downtown Toronto. I’m within a 15 min walk to just about anything – movie theatres, hospitals, schools, universities (two of them), shopping malls, you name it. There are at least four 24h grocery stores within two block of my appartment. The only thing that I don’t like about where I live is that there are no independent coffee shops close by. The closest thing is an Italian cafe at the Manulife Centre, a good 10 min walk away. There are plenty of chains though – Second Cup, Starbucks, Timothys, Lettieri are all around within a block. I’ve given up having espresso-based coffees in any of those places since none of them do a half-decent job. Lettieri is the less bad of all of them and occasionaly I’ll have a macchiato there.

To get my coffee fix, I go to Kensington on saturdays. It’s my therapy and my refuge from coffee-chain land. So, you can imagine my surprise and annoyance when I found out this week that Starbucks wants to open a store right in the middle of the market. Please. Give me a break. It’s not the place for it. But then neither is Paris or Barcelona but somehow they made it in. And it all comes down to landlords wanting to be greedy. A spot opened up in the market and what do they do? Well, apparently they don’t really want to have to spend money with renovations but want to charge 5,000$/month rent for a small store. Who can afford that? Only big corporations.You’ll see the resident’s response to that here.

One of the things that make me really sad when I travel these days is to witness the corporatization of businesses everywhere. North American urban centres and malls (and many rural shopping centres too!) look exactly like any other urban centre and malls anywhere else in North America. This trend is even getting to Europe where a shopping street in 15th arrondissement in Paris looks exactly like a shopping street in Barcelona. A friend of mine was having a baby shower here in Toronto and since I went to Paris in the spring, I decided to buy a gift there – I thought it would be nice to have a little outfit from a local baby store and it was kind of fun to go shopping for baby clothes in a foreign city. I got really disappointed when I got home and found out that the particular French store I shopping in has a store here in Toronto. What’s the point? I think all this homogeneization only stiffles creativity and tolerance for anything that is different.

Sorry for the rant.

PS: apparently Second Cup opened a store in the market a few years ago but it didn’t last very long…

Saturday morning at Kensington

As I’ve said many times before, Kensington Market represents my idea of what Toronto and ultimately, Canada, means for me. It’s a place where old and young, rich and poor, every ethnicity, rub shoulders in peace. But despite the recent wave of gentrification, it’s not a place for everybody. It’s not manicured and some would say that it is definitely rough around the edges. Its origin as a cheap market for working class immigrants is still evident and one of the things that fascinate me, ever the historian. One can see the different waves of Canadian immigration history in its stores: first there were the Jews, then the Chinese, the Portuguese, the Jamaican and more recently, the Latin Americans. All of this is evident at the corner of Augusta and Baldwin where we hang out. Louie’s Cafe, where we spend many hours, is owned by three generations of Portuguese immigrants, their neighbour is Solly, the Jewish butcher, who grew up in the market and serves his own coffee at Louie’s, across the street is a Chinese fruit and vegetable stand where the matriarch of the Portuguese family does her shopping. The owner respectfully carries her shopping and walks her across the street when she’s done. Next door is the Chilean empanadas place. It’s a tight knit community.

Above all, Kensington teaches us not to judge by appearances. We’ve seen men in expensive suits sitting beside a group of very rough-looking punks, who were always apologetic and polite if they bumped into you. We are one a first-name basis with some of the local street people, who are always very nice and dignified.

Markets are a place filled with a special energy that capture much of the soul of a community. As Javier Reverte said so beautifully in his book about his African adventures, to really understand a place, one needs to visit its public markets. I take that to heart and try to always visit a local market where I am. In Montreal, we were regulars at Jean Talon, with its special Québécois atmosphere. In Barcelona, our favourite market was the Mercado de l’Abaceria Central, in Gracia, which was busy every day of the week. Here in Toronto, despite having visited the St. Lawrence Market a few times, we quickly took to Kensington.

This morning was a particularly nice one to be in the market. The air was dry and the sky was a perfect shade of blue. I regretted not having my camera.

But here’s a b&w from last year: