Big news for Little Jamaica, Toronto
Kwabena Yafeu and his wife Christine
Enclave carved out by Jamaicans in major North American city to be preserved as cultural district

In the 1960s Jamaican immigrants to Toronto, Canada, carved out a settlement for themselves, and proceeded to transform the space into what the Globalnews.ca magazine calls “a global hotbed for reggae culture”.

Little Jamaica is what the migrants named their newly acquired neighbourhood which runs from Oakwood Avenue and Eglington Avenue West in Canada's largest commercial city.

“The churches were there, it was a real community site…You could speak your language, you could speak the Jamaican creole or the patois, it was a place where you could just exhale,” said Jamaican-Canadian historian and long-time resident, Afua Cooper.

“You'd see multigenerations in Little Jamaica – grandparents, parents, children, cousins, everybody,” Cooper, a professor of history, sociology and social anthropology at Dalhousie University, was quoted as saying by Globalnews.ca.

“And if we think of it, you know, the jerk chicken, the music (reggae is international, of course), then you can see some of the contributions that Little Jamaica has made to global mainstream culture,” Cooper said.

But for decades, Little Jamaica has waged a tough struggle for survival, as modern construction projects threatened to obliterate the Jamaican cultural vestiges of the neighbourhood. Now, however, things seem about to change.

The Toronto City Council has just approved a motion moved by area councillor, Josh Matlow to study the neighbourhood to become a Heritage Conservation District — which under the Ontario Heritage Act would give the city and province powers to put restrictions on demolition.

This, in short, means that the Toronto building plan would officially preserve and recognise Little Jamaica as Toronto's first cultural district, thus saving it from otherwise certain extinction.

The city of Toronto will also look at “supporting black-owned and -operated businesses and preserving the cultural heritage of Eglinton Avenue West's Little Jamaica”, the motion said.

Jamaican-born school principal, Kwabena Yafeu said if followed through, the development could be very positive for Little Jamaica and the Jamaican-Canadian community as a whole.

“Jamaicans are a significant part of the cultural fabric in Toronto. Our indomitable presence in the cultural landscape is evident in simple things like the fact that the Jamaican patty is eaten by all races across the city… And Toronto colloquial street talk is imbued with Jamaican slangs like 'man dem' and 'shout outs',” Yafeu told the Jamaica Observer yesterday.

“As a people, Jamaicans continue to seek equity, but we are in all level of governments, businesses and industries over the last four decades. Even with our overall presence in the Greater Toronto, Little Jamaica is a space we have claimed in the last fifty years – with our West Indian grocery stores, barber shops, tropical restaurants and bars, record shops, tailors, seamstresses, hair and cosmetics stores.

“It was the spot where thousands of Jamaicans rushed to gather and celebrate when we defeated Japan in the 1998 World Cup Soccer tournament,” recalls Yafeu who migrated to Canada in 1980 and is now a highly regarded educator.

He said many Jamaicans were mourning the eminent loss of that area of the city that is now undergoing a massive developmental change, which some viewed as “a total re-gentrification of a cultural and iconic part of our city”.

“They believe that with the enormous rise in real estate value and the building of the new passenger train (LRT) station, some Jamaican entrepreneurs feared they would have been locked out of this once-beloved cultural space.”

That is, until Matlow and community grass roots organisers like Black Urbanism TO started working to build a plan to protect and preserve Little Jamaica's rich cultural heritage.

“There is a real fear that these businesses will be displaced and once they are displaced, Little Jamaica as we know it…goes with it,” Matlow argued fervently before the city council vote to approve the motion.

“There is a shameful history in North America and around the world that whenever major infrastructure projects or gentrification is approaching, black communities are usually the first to be displaced,” said Matlow.

Globalnews.ca said that one measure being explored was commercial rent control, with the city looking to the province to introduce legislation that would protect existing black businesses on the stretch from being priced out.

Other priorities include exploring measures to provide financial relief directly to businesses, developing a strategic plan that focuses on affordable housing and work-live spaces and creating more opportunities for black ownership, it said.

The motion also directed an inter-divisional team of city staff to develop a 'Cultural District Plan' for the neighbourhood, 'using an equity lens' and reporting back with a final report by October 2021.

As part of this initiative, staff are directed to consult with the community to investigate ways to rebrand the area in a way that “reflects the Jamaican-Caribbean history” — markers that are noticeably absent on the streets of Little Jamaica today.

“I'd like to see the words Little Jamaica on the signs,” Matlow said. “I'd like to see more done to reflect the identity of Little Jamaica in the public realm, in the streetscape of Little Jamaica, along with just making it aesthetically beautiful.”

In addition to this, the motion also directed staff to consult with community members to “bring back previous, and develop new, culturally focused events and initiatives that will celebrate the Jamaican and Afro-Caribbean cultural heritage of Eglinton Avenue West, before the end of 2021”.

Compiled by Desmond Allen and Ken Wainwright

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