Gentrifying the Public Realm

Contesting Narratives Within Representations of Street Vendor Culture in Toronto

VISD 4002

Contemporary Studies in Architecture & Design

James Lee


This paper examines how the public realm can become gentrified through the fetishization of street vendor culture in Toronto. Two popular shipping container markets that demonstrate this pervasive urban dialectic will be analysed within a framework that considers spatial fetishization, spatial politics of public space, performativity, and symbolic power within social space. The first of the two, Market 707 is a modest development built in 2011 that stretches along the public sidewalk of Dundas St. W and offers a wide variety of authentic international street food and small local businesses. The second market is “Stackt Market,” a large-scale development from 2019 consisting of 120 shipping containers that were stacked and configured to create a trendy outdoor market. When looking at each market within these frameworks, contesting narratives in the public realm becomes clearly apparent. The paper explores these comparisons in two main parts. First, the background, function, and importance of each market and their relation to public space will be examined. The second part will focus on the narrative within each public space, defining how the spatial experience is affected by fetishization of street vendor culture. This paper concludes by arguing that the gentrification of the public realm through spatial fetishization leads to less accessible and less ethical public space, a redefining of the public realm in favour of dominant classes. It questions the feasibility of large-scale street vendor developments void of fetishization, and the subsequent requirements to do so.

Keywords: fetishism, gentrification, public



This paper sets out to uncover the causes and methods of gentrification within a city's public realm. Specifically, it aims to explore two shipping container markets through contesting narratives in the city of Toronto: Market 707 and Stackt Market. These markets are amongst the few prominent representations of street vendor culture in Toronto. Market 707 exemplifies public involvement and community culture. On the other hand, Stackt Market illustrates how the effects of consumer culture have allowed a shift in the nature of its public space. In other words, the fetishization of street vendor culture allows a gentrification of the public realm to develop.

To better understand the causality of this gentrification, both markets will be analysed in contrast to one another within a framework that considers spatial fetishization, spatial politics of public space, performativity, and symbolic power within social space. This will be achieved using two primary areas of focus. The first shows the context and history of each built environment with physical evidence of the fetishization of these spaces. Subcategories of this first point are built forms, usable public area, and visible aesthetics. The second focus explores the experience and narrative of the physical spaces chosen for these unique street markets. Subcategories of this focus will include my own personal spatial experience, habitus as a sense of place, performativity, and the access/restriction as it relates to the local customers who frequent and rely on these venues as part of their daily lives.

To establish how the areas of focus concurrently contribute to a practiced narrative, a framework of definitions will first need to be laid out. Henri Lefebvre’s concept of “Spatial Fetishism” will be the core foundation of my thesis. Then, to focus on the market's involvement in the public realm, I will draw from Margaret Crawford’s article “Contesting the Public Realm” and David Harvey’s article “The Right to the City” to establish the definition of what the public realm is meant to be. Once this has been established, I will present the evidence and support it with the framework from Jan Smitherman’s “Spatial Performativity/Spatial Performance,” and Pierre Bourdieu’s “Social Space & Symbolic Power.”


Fetishism and Public Space

Edward W. Soja describes what Marxists traditionally called “fetishism” of space as, “the creation in the structure of spatial relationships of an autonomous determinant to history and human action separated from the structure of social relations and the production process that generates it” (207). Essentially, spatial relationships are seen as being determined solely by their own internal dynamics, rather than being shaped by historical, cultural, economic, and political factors. This leads space to be viewed as an objective, neutral entity (Soja 208). According to Soja, Lefebvre argues that this subsequently contributes to the reproduction of dominant power relations and obscures the potential for alternative spatial practices and structures (222).

When this definition is applied to street vendor culture, it means reducing the culture to its primary function while ignoring the social process that led to its initial creation. This is the process that leads to the gentrification of the public realm. The definition of the public realm varies though based on one's position within the urban .

To establish how “fetishism” specifically gentrifies public space, we must first ask, what is “public” defined as? In her article, “Contesting the Public Realm,” Margaret Crawford discusses the “liberal model of the bourgeois public sphere,” addressing how this model of the public sphere emphasizes unity and equality as ideal conditions. Depicted as a “space of democracy,” where all public discourse takes place. Within this model, social and economic inequalities are temporarily put aside in the interest of a “common good” (Crawford 4).

While this sounds like the perfect depiction of what the public realm is meant to be, Crawford states that the subsequent practice of this model is defined through the ideals and universal norms of the bourgeois (Crawford 4). Crawford argues that the meaning of concepts such as public, and space is in fact continually being redefined in practice through lived experience. No single physical space can truly represent a completely inclusive “space of democracy” (Crawford 5).

With this thinking, we must not look at the public realm as a concrete definition, but rather a space that applies the ideals of a “space of democracy” and considers the norms and values within the community's use as a means of change. To put it more precisely, a space that also considers the individual and collective right to the city. David Harvey explains this right as a “right to change ourselves by changing the city more after our heart’s desire. It is, moreover, a collective rather than an individual right since changing the city inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power over the processes of urbanization” (Harvey 1). The public realm surrounding street vendor culture is a great example of this, as it often contests the norms surrounding the public use of a city’s sidewalks, all while benefiting the community with its presence. Street vendor culture blurs established understanding of the public realm, subsequently allowing the possibility of gentrification to occur when fetishized (Crawford 6).

Fig. 1. A group of people using the public sidewalk to enjoy a meal at Market 707 (Photo by Vince Talotta).


Street Vendors & Public Space

Now that a method of thinking about the public realm has been introduced, both markets can be analysed to see their relation to public space. Market 707 was the first of the two repurposed shipping container markets to appear in Toronto. It was built and organized by the Scadding Court Community Centre in 2011 and originally consisted of only eight vendor stalls. Market 707 has now grown to twenty stalls in 2023 (Huynh). These stalls stretch along a public road adjacent to the sidewalk (see fig. 1), populating a once desolate area. Some stalls consist of service and retail business, while most serve authentic street food from around the world at an affordable price.

Market 707 was an innovative model for Toronto at the time and helped rectify multiple issues within the surrounding community. The initial thought process involved in its creation did not focus solely on its intended function as a finished product, but rather as a reaction to local social causes. According to Scadding Court’s executive director Kevin Lee, it was designed as a sustainable way to reduce poverty in the community. Its creation assisted start-ups, non-profits, and low-income entrepreneurs, as well as improved access to goods and services in socio-economically challenged areas (Infantry). The low-cost development model allows rent to be an average of $600 per month (2023) which makes it available to people who have traditionally been locked out of business ownership (Huynh).

Scadding Court had wanted to see change in the unutilized public space, so they took matters into their own hands and tested their own “right to the city.” In Market 707’s case, repurposed shipping containers were simply brought in and placed on vacant areas of public space around the community centre (see fig. 1). Vendors obtained business licences, passed health inspections, outfitted the interiors themselves, and opened shop (Morrow). In an interview with The Globe and Mail in 2012, Toronto city councillor Adam Vaughan commented on how city staff saw the development, bought into the idea and became customers themselves, eventually finding ways to invest city funds and protect the development (Morrow). City councillor Vaughan stated, “When a great idea comes up, sometimes it's better to do it first and ask for permission later.” The history and context of Market 707 conveys a true sense of public space and exercised its collective right to the city by going against practiced norms.

Market 707 as a case study exemplifies how public space should be treated in Toronto. It allows for better public involvement and community culture. Unfortunately, not all visions of street vendor markets have the same community backed creative process. While Market 707 considered the history and context to determine its function, Stackt Market focuses on the function of a finished product, arguably using Market 707 as the specific example. During the sanctioned expansion of Market 707, the firm LGA Architectural Partners oversaw the project (Infantry). Years later, LGA also oversaw the second shipping container market in Toronto: Stackt Market (Healy).

Stackt Market is by no means a “bad” development when looked at through an architectural lens. It is a vibrant space built out of 120 new and reclaimed shipping containers within a 2.4-acre lot, occupied by pop-ups, creative incubators, and over thirty retailers including food and beverage vendors (Healy) (see fig. 2). Despite having similar functions, it has a different relationship to the public realm than Market 707. Stackt Market is arguably a fetishized version of Market 707. Its spatial relationships can be interpreted as being determined solely by their own internal dynamics, rather than being directly shaped by historical, cultural, economic, and political factors. This leaves the social and spatial dialect of an environment open for appropriation and often follows the current trends of consumer culture that reward the developments internal dynamics. The built forms of each market reflect on their own subsequent internal dynamics.

Fig. 2. Containers are stacked aesthetically and create space for curated art (Photo by Industryous Photography).

Stackt Market is a large-scale development when compared to Market 707. A large-scale development takes away from the individual and collective involvement in shaping the space as it relies on a much higher level of sanctioned building. This can be seen in the fetishized built forms of Stackt Market. Rather than a community backed creative process shaping the development, the built form is fetishized through architectural spectacle. Stackt Market takes containers and piles them on top of each other in intricate ways, hence the name “Stackt.” The ground floor is where all the shops reside, while the upper levels of containers have no programmed use or access for pedestrians. They are there only for aesthetics and to house some mechanical systems (Healy) (see fig. 2).

In comparison, Market 707 is a modest line of containers with a utilitarian function. The form was not the primary focus. Its form and function were subsequent to its history and social context. The repurposed shipping containers were meant to be a cheap alternative structure that could easily be obtained. Stackt Market has good intentions but cannot recreate the history that made Market 707 such an integral addition to the public realm. It creates a large-scale version that is inherently more expensive which raises rent when compared to the low-tech efforts of Market 707. With monthly rental prices upwards of $1,900 (2021), it is a considerable amount higher than Market 707’s modest $600 (2023) (Berg). This is a clear example of a core cause and effect resulting directly from operating within a fetishized commercial agenda. An agenda that eventually leads to a muted and tone-deaf social environment and an increasingly gentrified public realm.

The increased price limits access to low-income entrepreneurs that cannot afford physical retail space and opens the community engagement to a more dominant level of class and corporate sponsorship. This limits the collective right to the city. Those with higher capital are more likely to be able to express that right, and in doing so they will make it align with their norms and values which benefit their lifestyle (Bourdieu 19). As a large-scale development Stackt Market issues a higher level of control over its public space. This correlates directly with capital rather than social interaction. The fetishization of street vendor culture creates capital-led control and limits the inhabitant’s collective right to their city. This leads to experiencing growing gentrification through the contesting spatial narratives between both markets.


Narratives Within Public Space

A spatial experience differs among individuals and can create different subjective narratives within public space based on the position they occupy in social space (Bourdieu 19). With this in consideration, I shall focus on how each market influenced my personal spatial experience. Additionally, aspects such as habitus, performativity, and access/restriction play a significant role in conveying an overall narrative. These aspects along with my personal experience aim to convey gentrification through the fetishization of street vendor culture. Each market conveys a significantly different atmosphere when visited. Market 707 conveys a sense of community and culture that is accessible to people of all classes. In comparison, Stackt market conveys a sense of community that has a distinct level of class exclusion.

These distinctions can be made clearer by understanding Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of “Habitus.” This refers to the set of dispositions and attitudes that are developed through socialization and embodied in individuals, and which shape the way they perceive, think, and act in the world (Bourdieu 14). Commonly put as a person's norms and values. Habitus implies a “sense of one’s place” but also a “sense of the place of others” (Bourdieu 19). This “sense of place” is reinforced by individuals with goods and services that are homologous to the position they themselves occupy in social space (Bourdieu 19). Considering this, Market 707 is very much a place occupied by the working class but not limited to. The market itself is situated next to a hospital and library, both of which are egalitarian and working-class spaces. It has a utilitarian function of serving street food at lower prices and does not associate with any goods or services classified as “bourgeois.” Despite being a public space occupied prominently by the working class, its goods and services are available to any class distinction by being situated along a public sidewalk used by all.

In comparison, the goods and services at Stackt market orient themselves toward a more “bourgeoisie” attitude. Instead of having a utilitarian function, the market includes trendy food stalls serving fetishized traditional ethnic food as “fusion food,” art studios, and designer clothing shops. When experiencing the market there is a distinctly different sense of lifestyle associated with its vendors compared to Market 707. This distinction conveys a sense of place less accessible to the lower class. Market 707’s cheaper food allows for more frequent visits that creates a human connection with the vendors and sense of community. The more “bourgeoisie” attitude at Stackt Market prevents as many frequent visits from “working class” individuals and creates a sense of community among those in upper classifications, contributing to their spatial narrative.

The narrative of each market is also affected by spatial performativity. Jan Smitheram discusses this concept in her article “Spatial Performativity/Spatial Performance” and defines it as the ability of spatial practices to produce and reproduce social identities and power relations. She suggests that these spatial practices are inherently performative, and that they play a significant role in shaping our experiences and perceptions of space and place (Smitheram 56).

Fig. 3. Containers are stacked to create an entrance equipped with a rolling metal gate (Photo by Caroline Aksich).

Through actively engaging in these spatial practices, it “questions how norms are constructed in architecture through performativity” (Smitheram 61). These norms then subsequently influence how social and public space is viewed and can affect the “sense of one’s place” (Bourdieu 19). An example of this is the performativity within surveillance. Different degrees of surveillance shape our experiences and perceptions of public space. At Market 707, internal surveillance is achieved through passive policing strategies. This strategy improved the safety of the area and is practiced passively by the retailers and patrons, called an “eyes on the street” approach and is successfully to the increased public presence of the development (Anjuli).

In comparison, Stackt Market has active surveillance in the form of security guards. These guards patrol the public areas of the market and situate themselves at the front gate during closing (see fig. 3). Security guards being present within a public space challenge the very notion of “public.” By constantly privately surveilling the entirety that is Stackt Market, it is claiming a privileged “right to the city” through capital (Harvey 9). Exercising this “right to the city” performatively creates norms associated with higher levels of class.

Along with the performativity of surveillance, there is a difference in access and restriction. At Market 707 the public space is accessible 100% of the time since it sits parallel to a sidewalk. There is no active strategy during the night or day to restrict any group such as the homeless from using the space. No group challenges the limits of public space more than the homeless (Crawford 7). For them, a minimal boundary exists between public space and the sphere of domestic life. Their private use of public spaces tests the promises of a “space of democracy” (Crawford 8).

Stackt Market takes a much different approach. Since the market has fetishized street vendor culture, it has become a gentrified product that can be separated from the public realm at will. The market has a large metal gate that has set opening and closing times dictating access (see fig. 3). At night, the space becomes completely private, restricting groups such as the homeless from using it as refuge. The market restricts a group's right to the city, changing the nature of “public” and gentrifying the public realm. As well as these physical restrictions, there are multiple strategies in place to restrict artistic expression. Within Stackt Market there are deliberately placed privately commissioned murals that take the place of public graffiti and security guard surveillance prevents any unwarranted additions. At Market 707 there is no additional internal strategy in place to prevent graffiti. While it is still not legally allowed, it is not privately restricted.


Closing Thoughts

The public realm is constantly being contested with varying representations of itself. Street vendor culture is situated within public space and has a direct correlation to its everyday use. Public space is in turn subjected to the effects and actions of street vendor culture. When fetishized, its use challenges the understanding of public space. By fetishizing the culture, it ignores the social and historical processes that led to its initial creation and means reducing the culture to its primary objective function. Ultimately creating a public realm more oriented towards lifestyles associated within more dominant levels of class. This paper reiterates how competing narratives of street vendor culture in Toronto uncover areas of gentrification within the public realm created from subsequent fetishization. The mere existence and spatial experience of each market conveys this spatial narrative.

Stackt Market takes the utilitarian forms of modest street vendor stalls and reimagines them through architectural spectacle. Repurposed shipping containers at Market 707 were meant to be cheap alternative structures easily implemented into the public area, while at Stackt Market they are stacked in aesthetically pleasing ways and contain no usable programmed space on upper levels. At Stackt Market its active use restricts certain rights to the city while at Market 707, its history and social context challenges its right to the city through a defiant beginning. These experiences and history shape the function of public space, shaping its norms and values, impacting a sense of one’s place. The performativity of each market shapes these norms as well. Active and passive surveillance manages access and restricts public space. This action changes what groups are welcome.

Analysing the public realm through the lens of street vendor culture raises important questions pertaining to the understanding and use of public space. In this paper it has been established that the lifestyles associated with dominant positions of class have spatial practices that can exclude certain rights of the other inhabitants in the city. Can a large-scale non-fetishized version of Stackt Market exist without this exclusion and convey spatial practices similar to Market 707’s?

I argue that large-scale street vendor development is inherently fetishized. As soon as a community-based development is copied, there is an immediate risk of fetishization since it is difficult to imitate a physical form and function while simultaneously fully understanding the context in which it was created. Even if a deep understanding of the historical and social context is acquired, it cannot be enacted into public space the same way. It will always be an imitation that may not have the same norms and values in mind. Street vendor culture is rooted in community based social causes and expresses itself through a naturally occurring collective right to the city within the public realm.

A new form of development needs to take place for the possibility of a large-scale project similar to Market 707 with a development strategy organized solely by community leaders. Only from within the community can the context truly be understood. Soja emphasizes this point by discussing the importance of the interplay between social and spatial processes. We can better understand the complex relationship between space and society, and work towards more equitable and just spatial arrangements (Soja 211). Only by analysing the processes behind a spatial narrative can we understand the relationship between fetishization, gentrification, and the public realm.

James Lee

James Lee is a recent graduate in Environmental Design who exudes an unwavering passion for the world of architecture. To him, architecture transcends being a mere necessary art form; it embodies a profound study of time, etched into stone, and shaped by the intricate interplay of social, economic, religious, and political forces throughout history. James is driven by the belief that this narrative within architecture holds the power to redefine our built environments, continuously adapting to our ever-growing needs. His goal is to establish new architectural standards that foster the advancement and improvement of our society.

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