On a graffiti-covered wall in the scrappiest neighbourhood in Toronto's core, a poster has been hung that reads: Wanted: Phil Pick for Killing Kensington Market.
It's the handiwork of Friends of Kensington Market, a local group of residents who have a bone to pick with the real estate agent who, they say, is threatening a landmark, Casa Acoreana, by jacking its rent. Shop windows are covered with "No Loblaws No" signs, protesting the possibility that the grocery chain is going to move onto College Street.
"Save Kensington" types have never been shy to raise their voices. And once again, market protectionists are sounding the alarm, arguing that the market of old – once known as the Jewish market in the early 20th century, when shoppers shared the streets with live chickens and goats – may lose its feisty, independent identity.
But is it really time to panic?
The new generation of green grocers, fishmongers and butcher shops say no. It's true that national chains like Starbucks (Mr. Pick was vilified in 2008 for suggesting it as a tenant) have attempted to make headway here. But they've always been deterred – partly because the tight streets, limited parking, spotty garbage removal, and tiny buildings in need of extensive repair have kept them out.
Meanwhile, a new brand of shopkeeper is quietly transforming the place: opening stores that cater to a new, more upscale clientele, while paying homage to the market's unruly spirit.
Walk down Baldwin Street, and you'll find a lineup outside Sanagan's Meat Locker, which replaced the longstanding European Meats, and specializes in hormone-free meats from local farmers. A stone's throw away is a fishmonger, Hooked, which sells ethically sourced, sustainable fish. Other popular newcomers include Hogtown Charcuterie (Polish-style terrines and smoked meats), Thomas Lavers Cannery and Deli (homemade jams, jellies and fresh pastas) and Jimmy's Coffee, which replaced the infamous Hot Box Cafe.
"Is Kensington changing? Definitely," says Pete Sanagan, a former chef and owner of the butcher's shop that bears his name. "But I don't think it's changing as an integral, vibrant food market in the city… It's just that newer customers and newer owners are coming in, which is the natural evolution of any neighbourhood."
Mika Bareket, owner of the cookbook store Good Egg, says Kensington's gentrification is a good thing – as long as it stays true to the neighbourhood's roots. "I've been here five years, and every year my business goes up," says Ms. Bareket, 40, who named her store in tribute to the market's once-thriving egg sellers. "It's inevitable we'll be surrounded by the Starbucks and Shoppers Drug Marts coming into the vicinity. But I don't believe Kensington will be overrun by them," adds Ms. Bareket, who has lived in Kensington her whole life. "There are too many of us who will fight tooth and nail to keep the independent spirit and the vibe. We're just trying to add a bit of spit and polish."
Hooked's owner Dan Donovan says Kensington will thrive and survive because its infrastructure works well for smaller businesses – not supersized ones. "The area's just not built for an 18-wheeler pulling up and delivering forklifts of products," he says. "The history of Kensington Market is that it's always been in the hands of small businesses and entrepreneurs," Mr. Donovan says. "That remains intact."
It's true that mom-and-pop shops are disappearing. But still, there are record stores, skateboard and longboard outlets, and organic emporiums like Tutti Frutti and Essence of Life that offer a selection of natural beauty products that rival anything at Whole Foods (and are substantially cheaper). These stores are attracting young, hip urbanites from across the city.
Susannah Bunce, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto Scarborough's department of urban geography, says the area's eclectic charm is not likely to face a major threat from large-scale retailers. "I don't think big box would ever come to Kensington because of what they'd have to do in terms of redevelopment," says Prof. Bunce, who worked on a revitalization plan for Kensington in the mid-1990s. "It's much easier to build a big box store on a parking lot or a gas station lot than to knock down a bunch of buildings in a really dense neighbourhood." And even parking lots around here are not easy targets. An attempt last year from retail landlord RioCan to build a 125,000-square-foot development nearby on Bathurst Street faced strong opposition from neighbourhood groups, and was rejected by the city.
Meanwhile, Friends of Kensington Market have gathered on weekends to protest Loblaws, asking pedestrians to sign petitions. Friends supporter Dominique Russell says a new location of the grocery chain, slated for the base of a new condo building on College Street, would be too close. "The backbone of the market has always been raw food sellers, whose profit margins are very thin," says Ms. Russell. "Given Loblaws' size, they can compete in a way that could destroy many of the smaller, family-owned businesses."
However, change continues, on a smaller scale. Mr. Sanagan points out that even some old-time fishmongers and cheesemongers, like Sea King and Global Cheese, have renovated to move with the times. "Some of the older generation is also keeping it fresh and current. It's definitely not an us-versus-them thing."
The uproar over a rent hike at the beloved Casa Acoreana, which has been in Ossie Pavao's family for more than 50 years, has once again pitted the tight-knit community against Mr. Pick, who represents several major landlords in the area – and isn't a Kensington resident himself. Mr. Pavao's fans have lit up Facebook and Twitter with protests.
Mr. Pick knows he's at the top of Kensington's most-wanted list, but he says after 10 years leasing property in the neighbourhood, he's developed a thick skin. "I'm not insecure," he says. "People are entitled to their opinion. But Kensington Market is in the heart of downtown Toronto, and it's improving, not dying. Rent hikes are a function of supply and demand. We're not gouging. We're talking fair market value."
Mr. Sanagan empathizes with the small family businesses that have been hurt by higher rents. "I'm lucky my shop is successful, but if I suddenly had to pay 150 per cent more, I wouldn't be very successful either," adds the butcher, who pays less than $60 a square foot for his space. Some Kensington landlords are rumoured to be asking $60 to $90 a square foot.
Mr. Sanagan says he has no issue with the agent whose face is plastered everywhere. "[Mr. Pick is] a real estate agent doing his job, and his job is to get the most money for his landlord. Do I agree with what some of the landlords are asking for? No. This isn't Yonge Street or Yorkville. But the area is on the rise."
One trend that disturbs Good Egg's Ms. Bareket is the increasing number of bars and restaurants flooding into the area. Ms. Bareket says they aren't as stable – often turning over every couple of years. Ms. Russell says the clubs are a worry because they could change Kensington from a booming daytime market to a raucous nighttime one.
Last week, behind the long wooden counter at Casa Acoreana, the 55-year-old Mr. Pavao says he's still in the dark about whether his building has been leased. But he has no plans to leave Kensington; in the worst case, he'll relocate in the market or nearby. "I'm already serving four generations, and I figure I've got 30 years left in me," he says.
Then he points to a sign hanging on his coffee grinder that carries a very Kensington sentiment: "Moderation has its place and it's not here."