On Eglinton Avenue, west of the Allen Expressway, the familiar and comforting smell of coco bread and patties is interrupted by the sight of saw dust and heavy machinery. This is the tail end of a neighbourhood that has long been forgotten by the city of Toronto — Little Jamaica.
The disturbed look of owners from behind the smoggy storefront windows don’t reflect the vibrant faces that once palanced down the road for Kiddie Carnival years ago. The painted murals in the neighbourhood offer light in what is now a gloomy neighbourhood where conversations full of Jamaican patois have been silenced by loud construction trucks.
In recent years, as Little Jamaica has made headlines, the focus of the conversation has centred on how the LRT construction, gentrification, and ensuing pandemic have impacted area businesses. However, what’s often overlooked is how years of neglect has led to the demise of a vibrant Toronto neighbourhood that has contributed tremendous economic and cultural value to the city since the ’70s.
Kamala Jean Gopie immigrated from Jamaica to Toronto in the 1960s. When she was the president of the Jamaican Canadian Association in 1979 and 1980, the office was located in the Little Jamaica area, as was her campaign office when she was running for provincial politics in 1981. Gopie says at that time she felt like the Jamaican community was estranged from the city.
“I don’t think Jamaican culture — whether food, fashion, music — was seen as legitimate (in Toronto),” Gopie said. “We were seen as a subculture that was sort of exotic, but somehow the mainstream didn’t make room for us, but we did it anyway, we were still going to be vibrant. And (Little Jamaica) amplified that.”
Gopie points to Toronto’s Patty War of 1985 as an example. “When Kensington Patty Palace started selling Jamaican patties, the (Mulroney) government decided that they shouldn’t be called patty,” arguing only hamburger patties could claim that title. “People had to take them on about that.”
The Jamaican-Canadian influence on the cultural landscape of Toronto — from popular slang, tourism attractions and festivals to Jamaican patties for sale at TTC stations and corner stores — is undeniable. However, despite the diaspora’s immeasurable value to Toronto, there have been several battles to receive support and recognition for Little Jamaica. Only as the LRT construction began making a public spectacle of the impending destruction of Little Jamaica, is when efforts to preserve the neighbourhood began — nearly 50 years later.
In September 2020, Coun. Mike Colle (Ward 8 Eglinton-Lawrence) put forth a motion recommending the city establish Little Jamaica as a heritage and economic innovation hub that recognizes and promotes local Black history and culture of the area. The motion was voted forward by 22 city councillors, with only two councillors, Shelley Carroll and Denzil Minnan-Wong, voting against.
The same week Coun. Josh Matlow (Ward 12 Toronto-St. Paul’s) put forward a plan to address both short- and long-term concerns of Little Jamaica.
Colle told the Star the motion was just a “formal step” as “everybody in Toronto knew that was Little Jamaica,” however, his office did not clarify specifically what establishing the area as a heritage and economic innovation hub would do to preserve it.
The recognition is arguably long overdue, but the oversight runs deeper. Beyond noting an influx of Jamaican immigrants in the 1970s and designating a laneway Reggae Lane in 2015, there is not much on paper about this influential section of the city.
Little Jamaica stretches from Keele Street to Marlee Avenue on Eglinton Avenue West. The area started to take shape following the 1967 Immigration Act, which allowed non-white families to migrate to Canada for a better life.
Decades before, in 1796, the diaspora began setting down roots in Canada when 600 Jamaican Maroons (the descendants of enslaved people who had escaped) were deported from Jamaica to Nova Scotia.
According to Statistics Canada, 44,615 Jamaicans migrated to Ontario before 1980 with over 80 per cent of them coming to Toronto. Later, Little Jamaica had one of the highest populations of Jamaican people outside of the island.
As the area swelled with Jamaicans, mainstay businesses Spence’s Bakery, Wisdom’s Barber Shop, Randy’s Take Out and Monica’s Cosmetic Supplies opened for shop.
For entrepreneurs facing gentrification and displacement, ownership has been a line of defence. Monica’s Cosmetic Supplies and Wisdom’s Barber Shop are two of the few businesses in Little Jamaica that owned their buildings, making it a bit easier for them to preserve their culture in the neighbourhood.
Heritage status would be another form of protection.
Under the Ontario Heritage Act, a neighbourhood that is a designated heritage site is preserved and protected against deterioration.
Little Jamaica is not listed as a heritage district by the city of Toronto. Colle says he believes the delay in any formal recognition was because the focus was on safety in the area.
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“For a number of years, we just fought to keep people safe. And making sure that people could come there safely and live there safely,” Colle said.
Safety issues, however, can be a symptom of neglect. Dalton Higgins, who has lived near Little Jamaica for over 15 years, says that is what the neighbourhood is suffering from. He says that neglect stems from Toronto’s anti-Blackness.
“This type of neglect is not something that you would witness in other neighbourhoods, I would say just the way the city views this neighbourhood, it’s radically different,” Higgins said.
“Anti-Black racism does not exist on a separate island when we’re talking about business preservation and supporting neighbourhoods, and this neighbourhood, in particular, happens to be a Black neighbourhood.”
Throughout the years, despite the neglect, the area has long been a big contributor to Toronto’s economy. But even street signs in the area don’t bear the name “Little Jamaica,” as it’s so affectionately known. Instead, some read “International Market.”
A community initiative report by Black Urbanism TO states that the International Market title is a nod to the neighbourhood’s tourism and economic success over the years — but an inaccurate one.
The York-Eglinton BIA’s 2018 report notes that Little Jamaica specifically is a big draw to the area — even with LRT construction well underway.
Emile Spence, chief representative officer of Jamaica National Bank, said he would like to see contributions from the city match what Little Jamaica has added to the city’s economy.
“Little Jamaica has been home to Jamaicans and other Caribbean nationals for decades. The city of Toronto enjoyed economic benefits,” Spence said. “We would like to see increased interest and investment in social programs in Little Jamaica … These investments would benefit the people of the area and help to improve their lives.”
Yet recent relief from governments and corporations has been reactive — in response to the LRT construction’s impact, not necessarily to help with neglect.
In March, York-Eglinton BIA chair, Nick Alampi said in a media release, “It is small, family-owned businesses that make our streets and neighbourhoods vibrant. We need political leadership from the government of Ontario to launch a financial compensation program to directly support our small businesses suffering from years of financial hardship.”
On the other hand, Nadine Spencer, president of the Black Business and Professional Association, says despite the decades of neglect, the city, along with the BBPA, is working “aggressively” to improve things now.
“People have this perception that the city doesn’t really get involved, and the government moves at a particular pace, however that is a myth where the area of Little Jamaica is concerned,” Spencer said. “The city is so invested, in terms of resources … it’s unprecedented.”
In addition to more financial support, Colle said he wants to approach an economic relationship that instills pride. He believes this can be done through property ownership.
“It would go a far way in preserving the neighbourhood’s traditions if more persons owned the building from which they operated,” Spence said.
But for people like Kamala Jean Gopie, who spent years working in the area, all she knows is that even when Jamaican businesses were thriving and in abundance throughout the neighbourhood in the past, a supportive government was nowhere to be found.
“(Little Jamaica) was like this forgotten cousin,” Gopie said.
“We talk about how we value diversity and diversity is our strength, where do we (Jamaicans) fit into that?”
Danica Samuel is a Toronto-based staff reporter for the Star. Reach her via email: [email protected] or follow her on Twitter: @danicasamuel
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