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U of T anthropologists launch 'ethnographic' study of Kensington Market

Researchers hope to document the neighbourhood as it faces gentrification pressure.

Colourful graffiti is just one part of what makes Kensington Market unique

Courtesy of The Kensington Market Research Project.

Colourful graffiti is just one part of what makes Kensington Market unique

Instead of travelling to a far-flung island to live among an isolated tribe, a group of University of Toronto anthropologists are turning to their own backyard to do some fieldwork.

Researchers at the school’s ethnography lab have launched what’s called an “ethnographic” study of Kensington Market.

It’s the first time a Toronto neighbourhood has been put under the microscope like this. But, similar techniques were used in Chicago to study gang life, said Joshua Barker, vice-dean of graduate education and associate professor of anthropology.

“It’s really an important community for understanding Canadian diversity, and, also, the history of Toronto,” he said about Kensington.

“There’s a real interest in the creative side of Kensington Market (and understanding) the dynamics that have made to such a great place.”

The research team is in the early stages of their work doing things like attending Pedestrian Sundays as volunteers and reporting back to the lab with field notes on their observations.

They’re also reaching to community groups and asking what they’d like to see done with the findings. One option is creating an archive of some sorts.

Part of the goal, Barker said, is to document the fabric of the neighbourhood as it changes.

“One of the things we’re looking at carefully is what’s going to happen to the neighbourhood when the large public housing tracts are demolished and rebuilt according to the new development proposals,” Barker said.

Emily Hertzman, a doctorate student in anthropology, said Kensington is more and more experiencing pressure in terms “of gentrification, space and expansion,” from debates about big-box stores to lower-income residents feeling boutiques are too pricey for them.

“So we look at, basically, people’s reactions and responses to that and perceptions of that kind of pressure,” she said.

Masters student Bronwyn Frey called the neighbourhood “an eclectic grab bag” of structures and people.

“The buildings aren’t beautifully constructed, they’re often very run down, but somehow the interactions between the buildings are what makes it so unique,” she said.

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