March 01, 2012

Tragedy of the Meaty Commons

A Chicxulub-intensity extinction event is headed for my dinner table, and it lands on April 7. European Quality Meats, the butcher shop I’ve been frequenting for the last fifteen years, is slated to close, a casualty of gentrification. Established half a century ago, it’s a fixture of a key Toronto location, Kensington Market. This matrix of independent shops shows the marks of successive waves of immigration. For a hundred years it’s been the place freshly arrived communities gravitate towards, leaving stores and restaurants behind even when they become prosperous and move elsewhere. From Jewish to Portuguese, from Caribbean to Tibetan, its businesses are the Toronto I love in microcosm. Kensington likewise mirrors the history of alternative culture in the city, from the used clothing shops of the 80s to the artisanal coffee and charcuterie joints of the present moment.

With one or two exceptions, chain stores have failed to gain a foothold here. Despite the odds, Kensington remains a vibrant oasis of local culture. Two things about oases: they’re delicate, and people fight over them. Conflicts bubble between residents and park squatters, between proponents and opponents of car-free summer festivals.

Were I cruelly tricked into telling an evil mastermind how to wreck the market, European Quality Meats is exactly the jenga tile I’d tell him to knock out. The nabe is served by a few other meat purveyors, from the cutting edge to the poky and old-school, but none can handle EQM’s volume, or deliver its balance of value and, well, quality. What happens to Kensington’s shops of other categories, like produce, seafood, cheese, bulk food, and manifold national specialties, if you can’t really buy everyday meat there anymore?

It’s hard to begrudge any owner of a longtime family business for cashing out, selling the property, and pocketing $1.8 million—even when they aren't septuagenarian Holocaust survivors like European Meats founder Morris Leider. A business isn’t a heritage site, no matter how much it may anchor the neighborhood around it.

That building is worth nearly two mil because it’s in Kensington. And Kensington is Kensington because of its key commercial institutions, European Quality Meats foremost among them. You couldn’t ask for a more frustrating example of gentrification’s core irony.