04/11/2013 12:12 EDT | Updated 06/11/2013 05:12 EDT

Kensington Market: Battle is on for my Neighbourhood's Heart and Soul

Located in the heart of down­town Toronto bor­dered by Col­lege and Dun­das to the north and south, to the east and west by Spad­ina and Bathurst, this unique enclave is a quirky, edgy, messy mish-mosh of old and new.

It's where skinny Vic­to­rian row houses stand side-by-side with assorted shops and eater­ies sell­ing every­thing from soup and suits to nuts and neck­ties - with plenty of stuff in between.

Grafitti adorn many of its walls. This feisty tan­gle of nar­row one-way streets obeys none of the usual rules and cheer­fully marches to its own drum.

It's been a safe and wel­com­ing haven for waves of immi­grants to this city since it was the pre­dom­i­nantly Jew­ish mar­ket more than a cen­tury ago.

It's been a place for mer­chants to set up shop cater­ing to every influx of new­com­ers: Jew­ish, Por­tuguese, East­ern Euro­pean, Chi­nese, Viet­namese, African, Caribbean, South Amer­i­can - and more.

It's been a micro­cosm of our mul­ti­cul­tural urban scene. It's unique. It's real.

It's a major tourist attrac­tion. And, in spite of scuf­fles over the years with urban renewal, drugs, fires, the Spad­ina Expressway-that-never-was and con­stant change, one thing stays the same: Kens­ing­ton Mar­ket is alive, well and def­i­nitely kicking.

But today there's a bat­tle going on for Kens­ing­ton Market's heart and soul. And it's got me worried.

I was born in Mon­treal, then spent my for­ma­tive years in Lon­don, Eng­land. My fam­ily and I returned to Canada in the mid-1960s.

After stints in Edmon­ton, then North Bay, I found myself in Toronto -- a city I found mostly unat­trac­tive and unwel­com­ing. That is, until 1978 when I wan­dered into Kens­ing­ton Mar­ket on a food-shopping spree one sunny fall afternoon.

There were chick­ens squawk­ing in cages on the side­walk out­side sev­eral shops on Bald­win St. Nearby, Lottman's and Perlmutar's bak­eries were busy sell­ing Jew­ish rye bread, Dan­ishes and bagels.

On Augusta Ave., there were two thriv­ing Zimmerman's, the famous "egg lady" Cipora Off­man and all man­ner of green­gro­cers whose wares were dis­played in colour­ful array in out­door bins.

Shop­pers crowded the side­walks, many of them older women laden down with bags of food. Some were load­ing bushels of pep­pers and apples des­tined for home-canning or bak­ing into cars.

Two hubs of activ­ity were key attrac­tions: Euro­pean Qual­ity Meat and Sausages with its low prices, famed home-made kiel­basa, pop­u­lar hot food counter and line-ups of meat-buyers wait­ing to take a num­ber by the door. Down the street, Casa Açore­ana, with its won­der­ful sign, "Nuts Make the World go Round," was a focal point at the cor­ner of Bald­win and Augusta as a source of cof­fee, bak­ing ingre­di­ents, as well as grains, beans, nuts and seeds sold in bulk.

Then and there, I decided Kens­ing­ton Mar­ket would be my home.

For two years, I lived in the apart­ment above Courage My Love on Kens­ing­ton Ave.

Then, in 1980, I knocked on the door of 195 Augusta Ave. - a row house over­look­ing Belle­vue Park -- with a yen to buy. An elderly man answered the door. He wanted to sell after the death of his wife but had just taken down the "For Sale" sign. "You must be an angel from heaven," he said sweetly.

Mr. Anton Ger­muska sold me the house and I lived there for 25 bliss­ful years.

As a sec­u­lar Jew with­out roots -- my mother is a holo­caust refugee from Latvia, my late father a Mon­trealer who grew up in the St. Urbain ghetto -- I may not have known it at the time but Kens­ing­ton Mar­ket had spo­ken to me with its warm vibe, its lively eth­nic mix and its unspo­ken refusal to conform.

Over the years, I've become part of the Kens­ing­ton fam­ily. As with any fam­ily, there are happy and sad times.

In sum­mer, the won­drous patio at Por­tuguese restau­rant Amadeu's on the cor­ner of Augusta at Deni­son has long been home to a mot­ley crew of musi­cians, writ­ers, bicy­cle couri­ers, tourists and fam­i­lies out for the day, all enjoy­ing the sun, twi­light, grilled sar­dines, pitch­ers of beer and San­gria along with lots of kib­itz­ing, laugh­ter and only the occa­sional fist-fight.

On World Cup soc­cer week­ends, the place is packed and you can hear wild cheers, as well as groans, for sev­eral blocks.

When Amadeu Gonçalves, co-owner of Amadeu's with his wife Celeste, was killed in a car acci­dent in 2008, we all grieved that dev­as­tat­ing loss.

Celeste, with the help of her daugh­ter Eliz­a­beth and son Rui, has bravely car­ried on. Oth­ers haven't.

In April, 2012, Euro­pean Meat closed its doors after more than 50 years. Young chef Peter Sana­gan has moved into the giant loca­tion sell­ing upscale, naturally-raised meat that's locally sourced.

Down the street, Hooked -- a small store spe­cial­iz­ing in sus­tain­able seafood -- has opened up in what was once the Jew­ish butcher shop Max & Son.

A cou­ple of green­gro­cers are now gone. The egg lady died. And now the build­ing hous­ing land­mark Casa Açore­ana is for sale for more than $2 mil­lion. The Pavao fam­ily, who have owned and oper­ated it for 50 years, will likely bow out.

In 2005, I had neigh­bour trou­ble and moved to the rural city of Strat­ford. Five years of try­ing to adjust to small-town life failed. I returned to the inim­itable Mar­ket -- my real home.

What's next for Kensington?

For me, it's bit­ter­sweet. I know my neigh­bour­hood is in demand. Real­tors have sniffed out big prof­its. It's a tourist des­ti­na­tion par excel­lence. The bar and restau­rant scene is flour­ish­ing. Hip­sters hang out at spots like Roach-o-Rama and Urban Her­bi­vore. Con­dos and other devel­op­ment -- includ­ing Loblaws and a cou­ple of face­less big-box enter­prises slated for the Market's periph­ery -- are wait­ing in the wings.

The dreaded word "gen­tri­fi­ca­tion" is loom­ing large.

We must embrace inevitable change. But, like the area's city coun­cil­lor Adam Vaughan, I want it to be good change.

Grass­roots groups call­ing for action are on the case: Kens­ing­ton Mar­ket Action Com­mit­tee, Devel­op­ment Watch, Friends of Kens­ing­ton Mar­ket (on Face­book and Twit­ter), the Kens­ing­ton Mar­ket His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety and an active Busi­ness Improve­ment Asso­ci­a­tion. Mer­chants and res­i­dents are concerned.

Let's help the small inde­pen­dent mer­chants sur­vive. Kens­ing­ton was built on hard work and the "mom-and-pop" busi­ness plan.

Let's not for­get its legacy described by Jean Cochrane, author of the excel­lent book "Kens­ing­ton," as "a mag­net for the oppressed."

Let's restrict liquor licences so we don't have another enter­tain­ment dis­trict that comes alive at night -- and not in a good way..

If gen­tri­fi­ca­tion of a cer­tain kind hap­pens, let's above all save Kens­ing­ton Market's won­drous, unique heart and soul.