Sinting Fest being held to encourage more visitors to Toronto’s Little Jamaica

Sinting Fest, hosted by the Black Business and Professional Association, is being held to encourage people to visit Little Jamaica as a decade or Eglinton Crosstown construction winds down in the area. Nick Westoll reports.

Construction on the Eglinton Crosstown LRT has heavily impacted businesses across Eglinton Avenue in Toronto for more than a decade, but Little Jamaica has been hit especially hard.

On this end-of-August weekend, there’s food, music, fashion, art, children’s activities and more at Sinting Fest — all in an effort to bring the community together and celebrate the area.

“Sinting means something, a thing, and I wanted Sinting Fest to mean about the business, about coming back to Eglinton West,” Sandra Whiting, who was one of the key planners of Sinting Fest, told CityNews on Saturday.

While fun is a key theme for the three-day festival on Eglinton Avenue West between Dufferin Street and Marlee Avenue, there is also cause for celebration with Eglinton Crosstown fencing and heavy activities almost finishing for good in Little Jamaica.

“It’s gone, it’s finished,” Whiting proudly proclaimed.

“It was horrible. Some of them were behind that barrier for 10 years (and) a lot of businesses closed. It gave the area an awful, destitute look and now that’s changed.”

CityNews has been monitoring the progress of the Eglinton Crosstown LRT project throughout 2022. In the past, officials with Metrolinx — the provincial transportation agency overseeing Crosslinx, the private-sector consortium building the line — told CityNews the target for completion was the end of December.

RELATED: Community doubt rising that Eglinton Crosstown LRT will be done by year-end target

In June, CityNews examined progress on the line. At the time, officials highlighted how COVID-19, supply chain issues and labour union strikes were the latest problems to impact the project. Complex and unforeseen construction-related issues also impacted timelines.

CityNews asked provincial and Crosslinx officials for an on-camera interview in mid-August to ask more about the end-of-2022 goal. Those particular requests were ignored. Instead, a statement was issued and a definitive answer wasn’t provided.

However, in speaking with business owners and advocates in Little Jamaica on Saturday, many said the return of the street to the community was a long time coming.

“I’m really hoping for the better because we’ve been through some tough times, some hardship, and I think now is the time where we’re going to start to see growth,” Carole Rose, the co-owner of Rap’s Restaurant, said.

Rap’s is a 30-year-old institution on Eglinton Avenue West near Oakwood Avenue. Rose said it was founded by her husband, who worked as a producer, for artists who were in search of food around the clock.

“The jerk chicken straight off the drum. It’s like… you’re in Jamaica, you know, and sit and enjoy,” she said.

In addition to dealing with the traffic-related headaches stemming from the long LRT line’s construction period, Rose said the COVID-19 pandemic hit them hard too.

“It was bad in a sense, but at the same time you also have to look at it being good because we prolonged and we made it through it,” she said, noting dedicated customers still ordered through food apps and came in for takeout

“But we have to give God thanks because we’re still here. You know a lot of us weren’t fortunate enough to be in the position where we are today.”

Sinting Fest was organized and presented by the Black Business and Professional Association (BBPA), an advocacy group working to support Black business owners and residents.

RELATED: Protecting Toronto’s Black culture in Little Jamaica

“Little Jamaica is an important part of the Toronto landscape and the Canadian landscape,” Frances Delsol, vice-president of national partnerships, outreach and procurement with the BBPA, emphasized, highlighting how the area has become a destination since the mid-1900s for many coming from Caribbean countries.

“We’re OK with everybody being a part of Little Jamaica … as long as we do not lose what it is, the culture, and who made this community. But we’d like to invite businesses to come in, we need to make rent accessible to businesses coming in, and we need to make sure the landlords who currently control some of the leases here do not drive out the businesses who are currently existing.”

She said continued systemic barriers facing entrepreneurs combined with the COVID-19 pandemic and enduring LRT construction means the area needs special attention.

“Ten years ago we had in excess of 300 Black businesses on Little Jamaica. Today we have a little over 70. So the impact has been great,” Delsol said.

“The Metrolinx construction has imposed severe hardships on businesses and what we’re trying to do is bring that attention to the rest of our community to say, ‘These businesses need to be here, they need to be helped and by doing so we can help them survive.’”

When it comes to the current state of Eglinton Avenue West, she said she hasn’t seen it “look so good” in the past decade.

“It’s neat, you can see from end to end, people feel comfortable walking down the street, all the construction and the barricades are gone. I hope they don’t come back. I really hope they don’t come back,” Delsol said.

Meanwhile, there was a unified message coming out of Eglinton Avenue West on Saturday: Please come back if it’s been a while.

“It’s not just Rap’s on Eglinton. You can come and get your haircut, you can come and buy your beauty products, you can come and go to the convenience store, the West Indian store,” Rose said.

“There are lots of restaurants on Eglinton Avenue and the food is great, and they are ready. They are out, they are setup. Come on, come on down,” Whiting added.

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