Revisiting Little Jamaica

 Photos by Jorian Charlton

Photos by Jorian Charlton

By Phillip Dwight Morgan

For those of us in the GTA who rely on public transit to navigate the city, crowded vehicles, frequent delays, and high fares are more than just frustrations, they are visceral parts of our daily experience.

Our muscles tense at the sight of a streetcar too crowded to board and our lungs swell before releasing those deep sighs reserved for unexpected delays on the bus ride home.

In this climate, many Torontonians are primed for transit development, desperately seeking relief from their frustration and discomfort. This thirst for change can — and often does — overlook the financial hardship experienced by communities, small businesses, and residents who are located at the centre of large-scale transit projects.

Along Eglinton Avenue West, the Crosstown LRT (a $5.3-billion project slated for completion in 2021) has raised concerns about the socioeconomic impacts of major construction projects on local businesses. Central to these concerns is a debate about whether “Little Jamaica,” an ethnic enclave along Eglinton between Keele Street and Allen Road, exists, remains relevant today, and warrants protection.

In the past few months that I’ve been here, there’s been businesses closing down every month. Literally, you walk down the street and it’s business here today, gone tomorrow.

In August 2015, City Council bestowed the name “Reggae Lane” upon an unnamed laneway near the intersection of Eglinton and Oakwood Avenue. The name, along with a mural in the laneway, was designed to reflect the rich history of reggae music in the neighbourhood. At the time of the naming, some community members expressed concern that Reggae Lane was merely a token gesture and that the City had not taken real steps toward protecting the largest centre of reggae music outside of Kingston, Jamaica. Dalton Higgins, an author and music promoter living in the area, asked “Will a re-naming of the lane do much, if anything, to help with some of the more pressing issues in the community, like economic development, helping to keep the mom and pop shops out there open, given the LRT construction and gentrification creeping in?”

Now, a year and half later, business owners in Little Jamaica have an answer to this question. The sidewalk closures, traffic delays, and decreased parking caused by LRT construction have severely hampered business, with some businesses estimating loses of up to 50%. Horace Rose, owner of RAP’s Authentic Jamaican Foods, which has served the community for 35 years, notes “when working folks have one or two days off, they can’t spend it waiting in traffic. They have to do all of the things that parents do on their day off. So, they say ‘let’s go to Eglinton’, then it’s ‘man, I’m going to be stuck in traffic for four or five hours,’ so [shopping here] gets pushed back, and it gets pushed back. It’s been hard, it’s been really hard.”

Many businesses in Little Jamaica report clientele from the GTA, United States, and even England. Some have served three generations of clients, providing services to not only their clients but also their clients’ children and grandchildren. For these owners, Little Jamaica is not merely a commercial district but, more importantly, a cultural hub.

Natty, of Tre Jah Isle Records, has watched the dismantling of this hub through development. “When we came on the scene [20 years ago] it was a flourishing community; we used to sell a lot of records. Over the time we’ve seen different changes,” he says.

“They [developers] have started to knock down some of the properties west of us here and, with this new Metrolinx, they’ve knocked down a few more buildings. So we really see them trying to change the look of this area.”

Nick Alampi, Chair of the York-Eglinton BIA, sees a different picture. “I think the word everybody’s using is gentrification. That would be the nice thing to say but it’s not that, it’s not that situation. We’re dealing with change. We’re dealing with economic change from the City of Toronto.

“We’re dealing with businesses that have to make the decision of whether they’re going to stay with the struggle or not, stay with the impact or not, stay with success or stay without success. We’re at a crossroads.”

For Alampi, “gentrification” ignores economic pressures like increasing hydro rates and property taxes affecting business owners and landlords alike. Aadila Valiallah, of the York-Eglinton BIA, confirms this. “Until now, the rents have been very affordable — lower rents and, by extension, businesses that are operating at possibly a slightly lower turnover, on average.

“Because of construction and City of Toronto property assessments, property values are going up. But property values are going up and there isn’t an increase in customers because of construction,” she says. “In the past few months that I’ve been here, there’s been businesses closing down every month. Literally, you walk down the street and it’s business here today, gone tomorrow.”

it’s happened before, elsewhere

In 2005, a citizens’ group called Save Our St. Clair (SOS) appealed the Ontario Municipal Board’s approval of the St. Clair streetcar right of way (ROW) project. Their appeal stemmed from several issues including a problematic public consultation process, the legality of the project in light of Toronto’s Official Plan, and fears of increased congestion and reduced business.

SOS’ concerns were widely dismissed as misguided and obscurantist, with #stclairdisaster circulating as a reference to the allegedly overblown nature of the debate.

Since the completion of the ROW, transit ridership has increased, morning commute times have lessened, and property values have increased. However, the project experienced several delays (one of which was a legal challenge from SOS) and it was over budget. Indeed, at the time of completion, some local businesses had closed due to the strain caused by five years of construction.

the economic disconnect

In May 2014, City Councillor Paula Fletcher presented a motion to council that sought to provide “property tax relief for businesses impacted by major construction.”

The proposal distinguished between construction projects that directly benefitted communities (sewer repairs, for example) and those projects where the proximate community experienced little gain or even negative impact. Fletcher’s proposal, entitled “All Pain, No Gain — Property Tax relief for Businesses Impacted by Major Construction,” was voted down in City Council.

While the motion marked an important step in acknowledging the economic hardship caused to major construction projects, it failed to link the financial hardship faced by business owners to Toronto’s broader socioeconomic context.

As the largest infrastructure project in Ontario, the socioeconomic impacts of the Crosstown, both during and after construction, exist on an entirely different scale than the St. Clair ROW. The sheer magnitude of the project and the bureaucratic apparatus that animates it has been an obstacle to community engagement.

Whereas the ROW was overseen by the City of Toronto, and offered clear (albeit unsuccessful) lines of recourse for business owners and citizens, the Crosstown LRT is overseen by Metrolinx, an organization created by the provincial government and tasked with regional transportation planning throughout the Golden Horseshoe.

We’re dealing with businesses that have to make the decision of whether they’re going to stay with the struggle or not, stay with the impact or not, stay with success or stay without success. We’re at a crossroads.

Metrolinx has subcontracted its station construction to Crosslinx Transit Solutions, a group consisting of SNC, Dragrados, IBI group and several other partners. The result of this tangled bureaucratic web is a system where business owners and residents are left with more questions than answers.

Local businesses owners, staff, and the BIA each highlighted a dearth of information, communication, and transparency from Metrolinx. While Metrolinx has held numerous public consultations, these consultations have been ill-suited to the financial and time constraints of the small businesses scattered throughout Little Jamaica. The financial impact of taking two to three hours away from a business already fighting to survive in order to attend a meeting is a major disincentive to engagement.

thinking ahead

Over the last 20 years, the City of Toronto has rebranded itself as a global city, seeking to draw parallels with New York, Paris, Shanghai, and other economic and cultural powerhouses. In the process, the City has doubled down on its claim to being one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world, highlighting its multiculturalism as a basis for capital reinvestment in downtown Toronto. Yet many studies have shown that Toronto’s relentless tide of gentrification and the related affordability crisis have created a downtown core that is largely white, with ethnic diversity relegated to the “ethnoburbs.”

In this context, property tax relief for businesses impacted by major construction will not only lessen financial hardship but also serve as a way of protecting the few remaining ethnic enclaves in the downtown core.

The City of Toronto needs policies that allow for transit development while simultaneously protecting economic and social diversity. Such policies are predicated upon transparent planning and construction processes that remain consistently engaged with local businesses and residents. This is not only beneficial for small businesses but also for a City that prides itself on being a hub of diversity.