Kensington Market and the Voices of the Neighborhood (Part 1)

Kensington Market and the Voices of the Neighborhood (Part 1)

By Jonathan Wu

For many tourists and local Torontonians, Kensington Market is an enchanting destination marked by, among other things, a distinct layered architectural quality. Walking through the neighborhood, you become immersed in buildings defined by additions and makeshift alterations.

As heritage conservationist, David Deo, describes in more detail: “Edwardian storefronts are barnacled onto narrow Victorian houses, while semi-legal canopies and market stalls create random choke-points on busy sidewalks” resulting in an architectural palimpsest.

Beyond just being a quirk, these layered build outs physically express the waves of various new immigrant communities over the past century who have passed through the market, creating a life for themselves through a counter-culture of micro-enterprises and a practice of self-regulation. 

Presently, though the demographics of the market has increasingly shifted towards middle-class, affluent Canadian citizens and college students, a perception of the neighborhood as a countercultural immigrant hub remains. This sustained aura is particularly evident in terms of how the sounds of the market are conceived.

Travel sites and brochures frequently present the neighborhood as a colorful and lively area where one can hear Caribbean, Portuguese, Italian, and many other languages and dialects as well as a wide of range musical genres coming from buskers and the speakers of local businesses. This perception of the market not only circulates online and in print, but is reproduced by the visitors themselves as Zoe, a visitor to the market tells me:

“You hear different languages…when you’re walking down certain spots you’ll hear different music coming from right next to each other. There’ll be a Jamaican vibe coming, Ethiopian music coming next to it. There’s just different flavors.” 

And on a more formal level, a plaque in the area recognizing Kensington Market as a national historic site of Canada states: “Filled with scents and sounds from around the world, Kensington Market recalls the history of the Canadian urban immigrant experience in the 20th century.” 

            These formulations presents Kensington Market as a cornucopia of sounds from around the world. They position the neighborhood as a sonic microcosm of Canada’s multiculturalism ready for what sociologist John Urry calls the “tourist gaze.”

As Urray writes in his 1995 book Consuming Places,

“central to tourist consumption is to look individually or collectively upon aspects of landscape or townscape which are distinctive, which signify an experience, which contrasts with everyday experience” (132).

In this sense, the multicultural soundscape of Kensington Market becomes a type of acoustic foreground to boost tourist consumption, which leads me to ask: what is being unheard in the background? 

            In this paper, I aim to listen to the architecturally layered space of Kensington Market as, what Martin Daughtry has called, an “acoustic palimpsest” to consider, through sound, the making of place rather than the consuming of it. Specifically, I draw from my interview with long-time resident and activist Tam Goossen on her listening orientation to the market, highlighting the individual and collective actors that constitute the voices of the neighborhood. I conceptualize these voices as another layer of soundscape that make and are made by Kensington Market. Focusing on such voices destabilizes an assumed multicultural coherence of neighborhood’s “different flavors,” giving emphasis to the dissonance and noisiness of local democracy in action.  

Continue Reading Part 2.

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