What will happen to our St. Lawrence Market

Nearby competition from huge grocery conglomerates threatens the survival of the small family businesses who make the iconic Market such a treasure

By Annalee Orr –

2.1002771.Lee-Orr-IMG_0237The historic St. Lawrence Market is at the very heart of our wonderful Old Town Toronto neighbourhood. It marks the centre of where our city first began. Even before the arrival of European adventurers, traders and settlers, it was known to the indigenous peoples as “To-ron-to” (the meeting place).

Beside this protected bay, sheltered by a bountiful peninsula (Toronto Island) and fed by two major transportation rivers on the west and the east (the Don and Humber rivers), it was a natural place for the native peoples to meet and trade. They would arrive on the shores of the lake where the Market stands today, by canoe and on foot to barter their wild produce, fish, eggs, game, and animal pelts.

Even after the early settlers arrived in the area, they continued to trade with the native peoples for their goods. The natives taught them how to survive in our harsh climate by introducing them to the wild flora, fauna and medicinal herbs that grew in the forests. They also taught them the skills of ice-fishing, trapping and hunting. The original trading place on the shores of the lake became a thriving market place with the arrival of further European immigrants .

The settlers exchanged manufactured goods, such as; blankets, iron tools, cloth and beads for the native people’s bounties of fish, game and wild produce. A wharf was built to welcome larger ships to the port. A shed was built over that to protect the vendors and their wares, and the first combined city hall, courthouse and jail was built on the shoreline. Today, you must pass through the entrance of the original city hall into the South Market building which was added to the back of the old city hall in the early 1800s in the style of Victorian train stations in England. The huge, decorative iron girders that span the Market were raised by man and horse power, and were considered to be quite an accomplishment in architectural design at that time.

Over the years, the Market has survived as the centre of our community through devastating fires, good times and bad, redevelopment proposals, renovations and political ambitions. It has remained “the meeting place” for our diverse and vibrant city.

It is now facing a new challenge. The dull and functional North Market Building, built in the 1960s, will soon be razed and replaced with a much larger and more visually exciting modern building. For those who cherish the St. Lawrence Market for its unique contributions to the quality of life for our Downtown neighbourhood, this latest evolution will bring about many changes to the institution we love.

In the past decade, the neighbourhood has undergone a massive evolution in its demographics. With the building of many high-rise condo developments in the area, some new tenants have moved here with the expectations of the same style of life they enjoyed in the suburbs. Several large grocery stores have opened nearby to meet this demand and now compete with the Market.

They are often open 24-7 and offer many of the gourmet choices in cheeses, fish, meats, baked goods and produce that once could only be found at the Market specialty stores. With the old family-style of doing business, limited opening hours, and many new competitors for neighbourhood shoppers, the vendors of the Market have found that business has dropped sharply in recent times.

The Market, which is managed by the City of Toronto property department, recently raised the rents on most of the family businesses struggling to survive at the Market during these recessionary times.

With many of the products that people bought at the Market available at the new local supermarkets that have surrounded it, the Market is no longer the “only game in town” and must adapt and change with the evolving times.

Among the many reasons that people still shop at the St. Lawrence Market is the unique, personal relationships they have established over the years with individual vendors. This friendly “one-on-one” interaction does not take place in the supermarket environment. There are still, rare and unique items available at the Market that can‘t be found anywhere else. The vendors are willing to share stories of their personal experiences and favourite family recipes with their clients and answer any questions or suggestions they may have about their products.

Only at the Market, is shopping for food a total experience. The entire family may dine, albeit in the casual atmosphere of a busy marketplace, stroll and enjoy the many lively “buskers” and musicians who entertain the crowds.

Also at the Market, they have access to the many hand-made, one-of-a-kind, products designed by the creative artisans who sell their crafts at the Market stalls. Here they can talk directly to the artists who make all these beautiful pieces of jewelry, knitwear, pottery and decorative items. The cost of these works, are often less than half what they would expect to pay in expensive gift shops for unique, hand-crafted pieces.
In the uncertain future of the direction the Market is taking, it will have to adapt to the changing conditions of the marketplace. In order to compete effectively with its many challengers in the area, it is necessary to promote its unique position as a historical, family-owned, small scale marketplace. In its advertising, it needs to address the importance of the history of its beginnings, the personal service offered by the many small family-run businesses within the Market, and the rarity of the artists, craft persons and entertainers who display their skills at the Market.

This is the only “edge” the Market has to compete with the invading supermarkets!

The Market needs some basic maintenance, repairs, up-grading and clean-up. To make a visit to the Market a little more appealing it should offer the same basic amenities to its clientele as the competitors. Some shopping baskets or carts might make shopping a little easier.

A comfortable, clean place to eat, drink and enjoy the passing scene would be an improvement to the current eating areas scattered around the Market. Surely the City of Toronto could afford a few nice tables, chairs, live plants and softer lighting in the Market’s crowded seating areas. They are now decorated with a mish-mash of folding tables and chairs and used furnishings .

The city staff at the Market could do a better job of keeping the place clean, and properly maintained. A few coats of new paint on some of the dingier walls would not go amiss. The individual vendors also have a responsibility to keep their businesses clean, well maintained and appealing.

For example, the historic display of photos in two cabinets by the elevator, are a disgrace. Surely someone could at least clean the glass of fingerprints and smears, dust the tops of the cabinets and replace the blown-out overhead lights. This is a display that every tourist and visitor to the Market stops at to wonder at the historic pictures of the Market as it was in the past. What is the impression they are left with at the current state of neglect of what should be a “showpiece” of the Market’s history?

Also, with the recent expansion of staff in the Market office, the vendors quite often cannot get any straight answers about rules and regulations about setting up their areas of display. Vendors are often buffeted by the whims of the office staff, and rules are issued in an arbitrary fashion. Complaints about staff decisions or harassment can not be made without being accused of “being rude to the staff” and threatened with eviction.

There has been a series of advertising and marketing persons hired by the city to properly promote the Market, but for some reason, the amount of money each business and vendor is charged each month to pay for promotion, has accomplished very little.

As the Market’s rents continue to rise, the much needed promotion and advertising declines, and shoppers find the Market experience to be too burdensome, we are worried that the Market will empty of its present vendors and be replaced by the corporate chains that have taken over everywhere else. The usual lineup of Starbucks, the Gap, McDonald’s, etc., will fill the old Market and the new proposed building and it will turn into just another boring shopping mall like many others across the city.

I’m not sure this is the direction that we want our venerable St. Lawrence Market to take.

How can we turn the tide? Good question! Perhaps you may have some suggestions? If you do, email them to me at: annalee.orr@hotmail.com