Friday, November 8, 2013

Kensington Market

Global party mix in a heritage neighborhood

A colorful community with an independent streak, Kensington Market is a national’s historic site.

Clement Virgo, all six feet of him, cuts a striking figure in his jean jacket, hands in pockets and collar up, bargaining in a Kensington Market fish shop. The owner asks after Virgo’s son, and Virgo walks out with a smile and a discount on his black cod fillet. “It’s a small town,” says Virgo, one of Canada’s most revered writers and directors of film and TV. Kensington is also one of the oldest neighborhoods in Toronto, a protected heritage site spanning several scruffy blocks west of Spadina, a major north-south artery that crosses the city and burrows into the heart of Chinatown. As you walk around on a weekend, it helps to keep your elbows out to steer through the crowds. People line up for empanadas; racks of vintage clothing huddle next to independent cafes where the pierced and tattooed get their caffeine hits.

Virgo came to Toronto from Jamaica at the age of 11 with his mother, brother, and two sisters. He grew up mostly in Regent Park, a public housing project on the east side of the city, but whenever he could, he’d ride to Kensington on the streetcar (Toronto has a subway system, but downtown is best navigated by ‘red rocket’ streetcars). “I loved walking pst musicians playing Spanish music, reggae. I’d hear people speaking Portuguese, Jamaican pataois. It’s a piling on.” He’s lived in and around the area for almost 20 years.

Virgo leads me to Caribbean Corner, a grocery store on Baldwin Street. Virgo’s moun used to take him here as a kid; it’s still his go-to for Jamaican spices and jerk sauce. But what he wants to show me today is outside: “Look,” he says, pointing to a Star of David carved into the sidewalk by the doorway, a reminder of the time nearly a century ago when the neighborhood was predominantly jewish.

“I have a mixed-race six-year-old who know how to order sushi and burritos,” he says. “The Market is the city I want to live in.”

Residents are ferociously protective of Kensington, once the core of Toronto’s punk rock scene. There’s no  Starbucks (Virgo says the best locally roasted coffee is Ideal’s, and the best place to drink coffee and people-watch is Casa Acoreana), and there’s only one small chain grocery store. We pass the Waterfalls Indian Tapas Bar: “This is where Nike tried to get in,” says Virgo. In 2002, a club opened up that seemed like a typical indie music  bar but proved to be a promotional vehicle for Nike. When locals got wind of the invasion, some repeatedly left garbage on the club’s doorstep to protest Nike’s foreign labor practices. The Swoosh packed up and left. 

Down the street is El Trompo, Virgo’s favorite taquito joint, where he eats a heaping plate of huevos con chorizo. This is hangover food, which might be necessary of one follows Virgo’s advice and hits the Embassy Bar on the last Saturday of every month. “It’s a bit like a speakeasy,” he says. DJs spin and local reggae music musicians share the microphone. In the summers, the doors open and the sound of reggae spills over into Bellevue Square Park down the street.

Kensington Market borders Toronto’s Chinatown, and Virgo wants to visit the movie theater where he used to watch Hong Kong action flicks as a kid, awakening a lust for film that would lead him to make features like poor boy’s game and to direct episodes of The Wire.

Much of the Chinese population, like many ethnic communities in Toronto, has migrated to the suburbs, but on this brisk fall day, Chinatown is still teeming with people. A waiter dumps vats of steaming water into the gutter by the side of the street, letting loose an aroma of fish. When we get to the former site for the Golden Harvest theater, near the corner of Dundas and Spadina, it’s a bubble-tea shop.

“Is there still a theater in the back?” Virgo asks the apron-wearing woman behind the counter. “Can we see it?” He’s got Hong Kong director John Woo on the brain. Behind the counter, through a plywood door, is a staircase that looks suspiciously cinematic. Oddly, the woman shuts the door so we can’t peek in.

“Nothing here! Bubble tea!”

It’s a strange moment, and Virgo laughs. “Everything changes,” he says

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