Protecting Toronto’s Black culture in Little Jamaica

A neighbourhood with a rich cultural heritage has been forced to weather years of hardship during this pandemic. Tina Yazdani with the grass-roots movement to protect Little Jamaica on Eglinton West.

By TIna Yazdani and Jessica Bruno

A decade of transit construction and nearly a year of pandemic have taken their toll on Eglinton West’s Little Jamaica neighbourhood, and community members are saying now is the time to intervene to ensure it survives.

“As a long-time resident here, walking along Eglinton West is shocking,” says Bill Worrell, who has lived in the neighbourhood for 37 years. “The economic devastation: so many closed stores. It’s partly gentrification but it’s also the chaos of the construction.”

The Eglinton Crosstown LRT has been under construction since 2011, snarling the neighbourhood in closed lanes, pylons, and holes in the ground. Along with it has come advertisements for new condominiums replacing existing buildings promising transit at their doorstep.

Countless stores, particularly black-owned small businesses, have closed their doors. A report released Thursday, called Black Futures on Eglinton, estimates that between 2009 and 2019, the stretch of Eglinton Avenue West between Keele Street and Allen Road lost about 10 per cent of its Black businesses. It’s a loss felt not only by local residents, the report notes, but by people all over the city who would drive into the area to access its services.

The report says while the Eglinton Crosstown LRT is a factor, the city’s gentrification in general is a contributing force. Tenants have seen their rent skyrocket, says resident Prophetess Reid, who is also a member of a tenant association

“Tenants are actually choosing between food and paying their rent,” she says, “It’s a human rights issue.

The Black Futures on Eglinton study analyzed census data showing that between 2006 and 2016, the Back population in the neighbourhood declined 13 per cent. In the same period of time, the average house value was up 66 per cent.

“In the Little Jamaica neighbourhood, over the past 10 years, the Black population has actually been leaving, at a higher rate than other populations,” says Cheryll Case, an urban planner who published the report, in consultation with community group BlackUrbanismTO.

After a decade of work, the Eglinton LRT is scheduled to open next year.

“The shameful trend has always been that whenever there was an expressway or gentrification coming into a neighbourhood, Black neighbourhoods, Black communities were the first to be displaced,” says local councillor Josh Matlow. Matlow, with support from deputy mayor Michael Thompson, brought a motion to City Hall in December asking the City to provide short-term supports for the neighbourhood while also working on a long-term community vision.

A team of city staff is building a plan. One priority is affordable housing, and the City working with the provincial government to make it a requirement for developers to include such units in their future plans

Matlow says residents don’t want to see Little Jamaica “become another generic, gentrified area of Toronto.”

The Black Futures report found that 82 per cent of people surveyed say preserving the existence of Black businesses on Eglinton is a top priority.

Worrell worries the neighbourhood’s cultural fabric has already been damaged.

“That community was very strong, and that community is now spreading out,” he says.

The study outlines a number of key objectives for the community, including Black residents being involved in the strategic planning of the neighbourhood, Black residents planning, building, and owning retail and housing affordable to Black residents and provided to Black residents, and bringing back cultural programs.

“We see the transition where other cultures are now taking over,” says Reid, “because a lot of the Black businesses were forced out.”

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