Three years ago, when the news broke that Honest Ed's department store would be torn down and turned into residential buildings, most of the stories focused on that store and its history. Honest Ed's is an icon, to be sure, but in the process another part of Toronto's history was glossed over.
For over 150 years, the Bloor and Bathurst neighbourhood has been a hub for Black immigrants who not only lived there but also built successful businesses, such as A Different Booklist, Mascoll’s Beauty Supplies, Too Black Guys, Joyce’s, and Wong’s restaurant.
"Sometimes we conflate the Black history of Toronto to be the history of recent immigration. And that is not the case,” says Chinedu Ukabam, curator of Blackhurst, an exhibition on now that commemorates the contributions of Black immigrants to this Toronto neighbourhood.
One of the first to settle there is believed to have been a woman named Deborah Brown, who arrived in the 1860s. A former slave, she escaped the United States through the Underground Railway and lived in a house on Markham Street.
“I think it’s important to know that we have belonged for a very long time,” says Ukabam. “And I think it’s very affirming for young people to not feel like outsiders but to feel that Canadian history includes the history of Black people going back this far.”
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Bloor and Bathurst was also home to Contrast, the paper that called itself the “Eyes, ears and voice of Canada’s Black community.” Founded by Al Hamilton in 1969, the publication was a place where noted Black journalists and writers got their start. Celebrated names such as Austin Clarke, Jojo Chintoh, Cecil Foster and Royson James all appeared in its pages.
“Contrast was the first Black community centre in Toronto,” recalls Royson James, now a veteran political columnist at the Toronto Star. “When I started working there in 1979, it was a hangout. People showed up off the streets. The phone rang constantly with Black folks asking for directions, telephone numbers, contacts, advice and general information.
“On an almost weekly basis," he goes on, "young men came to the Contrast office to show their injuries they claimed came from beatings at the hand of police. I wrote several of those stories and took pictures of the victims.
It wasn't just a centre for publishing, James explains. “Activists often met at the Contrast office to plan strategy and future campaigns against police brutality or racism in the advertising industry.”
The Blackhurst exhibition comes at a time of transformation for the neighbourhood, as Mirvish Village is slated for redevelopment next year. One of the businesses soon to be displaced is the aforementioned A Different Booklist.
When Itah Sadu found out that she would have to move the business she owns with her husband, Miguel San Vicente, she says she panicked, but she now feels that the change has created an opportunity.
“Here at 746 Bathurst Street,” she says, “over the [past] 21 years, people have come and redefined and defined a space. And now we have outgrown these borders … This change forces us to grow.”
Sadu hopes that the city ensures there are still affordable and subsidized spaces in the redeveloped Mirvish Village — the kind of support that helped the artists and marginalized people who made the area what is.
She also hopes that the existing community is part of the redevelopment process. “I think that [the responsibility] of government and the city [is] to ensure we’re at the tables, where the discussion is taking place,” she says. “This is an exciting time where all kinds of diversity, all kinds of voices and all kinds of expertise … should be at that table framing those discussions.”
James says there are several ways the city of Toronto can commemorate the history of the area.
“Signing would help. Naming of parks. Plaques,” he says. “Bathurst subway station was the original hangout. I recall [when] the TTC put up 'No Loitering' signs and had a police presence there to move along the gathering of Black folk. It was natural. Black kids from Central Tech walked to the station after school and it became a gathering place.”
Known as the Black Eaton’s, Honest Ed’s is set for demolition by the end of the year.
"Welcome to Blackhurst Street" is open Thursday to Sunday (12-6 p.m.) through Nov. 27, at Markham House, 610 Markham Street.