From Cultural Critique to Community Engagement: An Introduction to the Kensington Market Soundscape Study by Farzaneh Hemmasi

The Kensington Market Soundscapes Study (KMSS) is a community-engaged team research project investigating the presence of amplified music and other human-produced sounds in the KM neighborhood’s public realm. I am an ethnomusicologist in the University of Toronto Faculty of Music; as project PI, I direct the study and a team of seven graduate and undergraduate students from ethnomusicology, anthropology and urban planning who work together on almost every aspect of project planning and implementation, including participant-observation, interviews, survey design, soundscape recording, and more. The study involves a formal partnership with the Kensington Market Business Improvement Area, an association of more than 200 commercial property owners and tenants in the Kensington neighborhood and the organization responsible for organizing the summer Pedestrian Sundays Kensington (PSK) festival. We also regularly consult with KM residents and KM community organization leadership on our research design and implementation.   

Panorama of a Latin band at the May 2022 PSK. Photo by Dennis Lee.

The KMSS builds on the Ethnography Lab’s Kensington Market Research Project (KMRP) initiated by Joshua Barker in 2015. Envisioned as a longitudinal qualitative investigation of Kensington Market, the project is open to multiple researchers working from multiple angles on the effects of rapid urban development on a single downtown neighborhood. When I encountered the Ethnography Lab and the KMRP in 2017, student training and team ethnography were already built into the project design; individual researchers’ data would also be archived in a single repository to be accessible to other scholars and – potentially – to community members as well. KMRP researchers had good relations with some of the many community organizations in the neighborhood, and while community engaged research was not yet part of the project, it seemed possible that this could materialize. I asked Joshua if I could lead a team of student researchers to investigate sound and music in Kensington, and he was supportive. 

With Ethnography Lab resources, under the KMRP umbrella ethics protocol and with the support of Joshua and the Ethnography Lab’s successive KMRP Coordinators, our small team began researching neighborhood music scenes, the Pedestrian Sundays festival, and the so-called “vanishing [music] venues” crisis of that moment. I drew on this preliminary research and methodological experimentation to create a SSHRC-IDG proposal called “Toronto Music City: The View from Kensington Market,” which was funded in 2018. In 2020, I applied for Connaught Community Partnership Research Award to fund an ethnographic project called “Keeping Kensington ‘Kensington:’ Value, Affordability, and Culture in Toronto’s Kensington Market.” Anthropologist and Ethnography Lab Senior Researcher Andrew Gilbert also made major contributions to the proposal before he relocated to Germany. This project brings together university researchers and two community organizations, the Kensington Market Business Improvement Area (KMBIA) and Friends of Kensington Market (FOKM). After pandemic interruptions to in-person research, we began in earnest in 2021 with a new team and a new set of concerns emerging from conversations with community members and community partner organization membership.  

KMSS researchers Dennis Lee (left) and Nil Basdurak (right) take decibel readings at the May 2022 PSK. Photo by Esther Wade.

The Kensington Market Soundscape Study is addressed towards understanding two interrelated community concerns. The first concern is a community-described increase in public sound and noise during Toronto’s pandemic lockdowns. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, KM’s human-generated soundscape (acoustic environment) was boisterous and diverse: streets were animated by patrons of the neighborhood’s many restaurants, bars, and cafes; tourists, shoppers, residents, and visitors enjoying the scene and small green space in centrally located Bellevue Square Park; and people playing live and recorded music in all of these spaces. While lockdowns quieted many urban neighborhoods around the world (c.f. Hornberg et al 2021; Steele and Gustavino 2021), KM community members report their neighborhood became louder than ever as visiting and permanent community members played live and recorded music audible in KM’s public realm. Some found the increase in sound reasonable, while others describe it as detrimental to their personal and neighborhood well-being. We are investigating how lockdown-era changes in the use of Kensington’s public space affected its soundscape; how hearers relate sonic changes to social, cultural and economic factors; and what steps various constituents take to shape neighborhood space and sound.  

The second community concern is the summer 2022 re-introduction of the Pedestrian Sundays Kensington (PSK) street festival after a two-year pandemic hiatus. PSK began as a grassroots community festival and is now organized by the Kensington Market Business Improvement Association. On PSK days, the neighborhood’s central commercial streets are closed to cars, open to food and art vendors and – most relevantly to our research – live music and performance. PSK’s return has been welcomed by some business owners and residents and resisted by others who object to the event because, among other things, of increased music and sound in the neighborhood on PSK days.  

Our research on PSK includes interviews, surveys, and participation in festival planning and community meetings about sound and noise to better understand how different community members understand the PSK festival’s positive and negative contributions to the KM neighborhood and often conflicting preferences for how KM public space should be used and how it should sound. By attending community meetings and studying municipal codes, we attend to how law, policy, and City officials mediate KM community members’ needs and expectations. To gain insight into the pragmatics of festival, and to contribute to the KMBIA’s capacity to work with the larger KM community, research team members have also helped with festival traffic control, set up PSK community mural projects, and more. Both Kensington community members and the KMBIA have been very generous with us throughout the research process, sharing time and resources as we learn about the neighborhood’s successes and challenges.   

Preparing to enter the throng. Drum circle at July 2022 PSK. Photo by Nil Basdurak.

The Kensington Market Soundscape Study is a major thematic and methodological departure from my prior research on Southern California’s extensive postrevolutionary Iranian expatriate popular music and media industry, social imaginaries, and the politics of transnational cultural circulation (read more here). My doctoral work in ethnomusicology, and then my eventual published work as a professor of ethnomusicology, emerged from traditional “on the ground” ethnographic research in the “Tehrangeles” (Tehran + Los Angeles) scene and analyses of songs, videos, television talk shows, and other mass mediated popular culture produced in Iranian Southern California. I was the sole researcher and author, and my research resulted in traditional academic outputs – monograph, conference papers, peer-reviewed articles. While I enjoyed many aspects of this work, I was eager to try more collaborative experimental, and community-engaged methods of research.  The research projects in Kensington have provided an entrée into all three. 

 In addition to learning about our “actual topic” of sound, music, and noise in Kensington, I’ve learned a lot from experimenting with the team on aspects of ethnographic research convention I hoped to avoid going forward. For instance: while sociality is so much the focus of anthropological and ethnomusicological research, it had always struck me as strange that contemporary academic ethnographers overwhelmingly research and write alone. I think well with others – I learn and teach best through conversation, debate, and jokes – and looked forward to experimenting with those predilections in research design and implementation.  “Top tier” anthropology and ethnomusicology programs do not always offer hands-on training or opportunities for collaborative work; the Ethnography Lab and the KMSS project have been spaces through which we can address that dearth. Finally, it is immensely satisfying to work with community members on practical issues that matter to them. This a switch from ethnographic research as cultural critique and/or fulsome representation of social complexity and contradiction I have long performed in my written work. I am happy to be moving from identifying the problematic to apprehending the problems – though I don’t promise anyone solutions! The research team and I are only able to attempt these modes of engagement because of the generosity and openness of our interlocutors and partners in Kensington.  

KMSS team blog posts in the following weeks will discuss other aspects of our research and process. Stay tuned!

Prof. Farzaneh Hemmasi volunteering at Pedestrian Sundays, May 2022. Photo by Shamez Amlani.

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