Toronto's Little Jamaica shouldn't have to save itself, but it may need to

OPINION: In the midst of construction, the pandemic, and looming gentrification, Little Jamaica deserves better
By Melissa Alice - Published on Dec 22, 2020
Since the start of Eglinton Crosstown LRT construction in 2011, more than 140 businesses have closed according to a report by Black Urbanism Toronto. (booledozer/Wikipedia)

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The first Jamaican and Caribbean immigrants established themselves in Toronto’s Eglinton West neighbourhood in the late 1950s. By the ‘70s, the political turmoil that Jamaica and other Caribbean islands faced created a wave of immigration to Toronto that firmly established Eglinton Avenue West as a Jamaican cultural hub and a refuge for Black Torontonians of Caribbean descent.

50 years later, Toronto’s Caribbean community has been forced to combat the triple threat of ongoing LRT construction, COVID-19, and gentrification and its effect on their businesses. Since the start of Eglinton Crosstown LRT construction in 2011, more than 140 businesses have closed. Noise, drilling, blockades, and the shuttering off and on of utilities drives valuable foot traffic and regular customers away. Those that do brave construction chaos are faced with storefront entryways that are blocked, or, more confusingly, redirected. This all amounts to drastic drops in revenue for these local businesses. When you factor in the inevitable gentrification and erasure of the unique neighbourhood culture that follows major infrastructure buildouts, it’s hard to imagine Eglinton West’s fate. 

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Then came COVID-19. According to the York-Eglinton BIA, which represents 186 storefronts, only 47 businesses deemed essential remained open throughout the pandemic. The rest were closed during the three and a half months of lockdown from March to June, and, after slowly reopening over the summer were forced to close down again in the fall

Now, in advance of an upcoming provincewide lockdown which begins on Boxing Day, many businesses in Little Jamaica must remain shut well into January 2021 at the very least.

So, as Ontario enters its second provincewide shutdown this year, it must at the same time propose supports for businesses that are suffering under the almost 10 months of closures, lockdowns, and physical-distancing guidelines. It’s not only the right thing to do, but it could prevent hundreds of millions of dollars in potential lawsuits, such as the one a consortium of business owners along St. Clair considered filing after suffering the impacts of their own LRT construction between 2005 and 2010.

Fortunately, we are beginning to see a shift in the public’s awareness of the issues facing Little Jamaica. As local politicians, watchdog organizations, and the community are no longer able to ignore the neighbourhood’s dire situation, they are taking action.

Currently, there are several community initiatives aimed at preserving the culture of this Eglinton West strip, as well as supporting the small business owners that line this western corridor. B.A.I.D.S. (Business Advisory, Implementation and Development Services), a new program launched by the BBPA (Black Business Professionals Association), offers complimentary business planning, marketing, and tax services; and the York-Eglinton Business Improvement Area, an organization servicing businesses and property owners along Eglinton between Marlee Avenue and Dufferin Street, has created the Eglinton West Now petition, calling for the government to increase the city services that more prosperous commercial neighbourhoods in Toronto enjoy.

The local business organizations, along with Toronto’s Caribbean community, have had a strong start in taking Eglinton West’s case to the municipal government: after decades as an established Afro-Caribbean hub, the stretch of Eglinton between Marlee Avenue and Keele Street is now officially called the Little Jamaica Heritage and Innovation Hub, in a motion recently passed by city council. Also included in this motion was a request that Metrolinx, a Crown agency responsible for managing the construction of the Crosstown LRT, compensate these businesses for lost revenue due to the ongoing construction. And, in 2015, the official recognition of Reggae Lane, the alleyway southeast of Eglinton Avenue West and Oakwood Avenue, acknowledged the area for its contributions to reggae music internationally, particularly in the ’70s and ’80s, when it was a prominent music recording hub.

While community outreach has led to actions on the municipal level — and with a ways to go before we see any concrete initiatives from the Ontario government — the Caribbean community and local residents must now look to re-focus their outreach efforts inwards. Government support has the power to change laws and allocate tax-payer money, yet it can be fickle. A new political majority or a reorganization of city council structure can bring a complete shift in agendas that may not align with the priorities that local organizations worked so hard to advocate for. In short, although seeking government support is necessary, equally important is community support. Buying and promoting local and investing in the neighbourhood by establishing diverse businesses and community-led programming not only strengthens the commercial viability of the neighbourhood, but also creates the very sense of community we are all working so hard to protect and enhance.

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