By Jonathan Wu
I was first introduced to Tam Goossen by a mutual acquaintance during my research of the market in the summer of 2019. Tam, I was told, would be an excellent individual to speak with given her long-tenure in the neighborhood. A Chinese immigrant, Tam moved from Hong Kong to Canada in 1970 and became a resident of Kensington Market in 1974, first as a student renter and eventually as a homeowner where she established herself and her family and continues to live there presently.
In addition to having lived in the neighborhood for a long time, Tam has also had a notable career as a public servant, community organizer, and activist, experiences that have framed her listening of the market. From 1988 to 1997, Tam served as an elected public school trustee of the Toronto Board of Education. As a trustee, she played an integral role in advancing the Heritage Languages Program in Toronto’s public schools to create more inclusive learning environments for children of immigrant families. Following her with time serving through the school board, she became actively involved in various capacities with the Urban Alliance on Race Relations and the Good Jobs for All Coalition.
While Tam’s public contributions have largely served the city of Toronto more broadly, she traces the emergence of her activist voice to her experiences of living in Kensington Market. As Tam recalls, immigrating from Hong Kong, which at the time was a British colony, she was immediately drawn to the dynamics and possibilities of local democracy in the neighborhood. On moving into the area, she notes that she experienced, “tremendous community activism and that’s how I learned to become an activist myself.”
Indeed, beginning from the 1960s, the residents of the neighborhood, which was largely made of up Jewish, European, and Asian immigrants, began actively organizing to resist numerous gentrification projects introduced by the city council and developers. This included plans to raze and rebuild, constructing a highway through the area, expanding a parking facility, and building high-rise condos. During this period, Kensington residents and business owners were able to withstand the practice of reinvesting urban spaces for more affluent clientele with a high degree of success. They did so by making their collective voices heard through local protests, submitting counter proposals, creating mobilization groups and championing a neighborhood planning process based on extensive community consultations. This push back to plans of gentrification continued into the 70s when Tam moved in.
In this sense, Kensington Market afforded Tam the means to develop her public voice. Through observing and participating alongside her neighbors in mobilization efforts, attending and hosting public meetings, putting up posters, and handing out flyers, she learned “community activism at the very local level” and “saw how when you have real involvement at the local level, then things can actually be done and you can push back at city hall or at the school.” She described this learning as seeing how an authentic angry voice can speak to a gentrified anglo voice. The sound of Tam’s public voice, then, reverberates can be heard in terms of her experience within Kensington Market. As anthropologist Tim Ingold argues, sound is “a phenomenon of experience – that is, of our immersion in, and commingling with, the world in which we find ourselves.”
Given Tam’s understanding of her public voice in relation to the neighborhood she lives in, when the topic of sound came up in our conversation, her first response was to bring attention to the various voices of the Market. This was one type of sound embedded among the sounds of food and music festivals in the market and the folks coming out of bars late at night that she also spoke of. Specifically in regards to the voices of the market, she spoke of the multiplicity of it on both individual and neighborhood-wide registers, evoking Nina Eidsheim’s conceptualization of voice as “a collective, encultured performance, unfolding over time, and situated within a culture” (29). For Tam, her own voice in the neighborhood is never singular. She speaks as a neighbor who wants to be liked, a parent who is looking out for her children, and an activist who shows anger and pushes back.
In the neighborhood more broadly, there are the voices of residents at community consultations and the public meetings of community mobilization groups commonly found in Toronto neighborhoods such as Business Improvement Area groups and the neighborhood’s residents association. There are also groups that are more specific to Kensington market. In the 1960s and 1970s, there was the Kensington Urban Renewal Committee. Presently, there are a number of active groups including the Kensington Market Action Committee, The Kensington Market Community Land Trust, Friends of Kensington Market, and the Kensington Market Historical Society. All these collectives and individuals contribute to creating protocols, initiatives, campaigns, and coalitions to define and shape what Kensington Market was, is, and should become.
For Tam, listening to the market in this way can be a headache, which I interpret here as a form of noisiness. Differing interests, language barriers, and preconceived notions generate forms of semantic noise that always has the potentiality to erupt into sonic noise of verbal disagreements and protests. Yet, contrary to the negative connotations that is associated with noise in soundscape discourses, Tam highlights that the noise coming from the voices of the neighborhood is critical in that “you’re essentially introducing local democracy” into the space. Within the frames of the tourist gaze or sense more broadly, this layer of sounding perceived by Tam is not often heard, but yet, contributes significantly to the processes of place-making.