This article is part of Next, The Globe's five-day series examining the people, places, things and ideas that will shape 2013.
Next to Bombay Chowpatty’s cheerful neon storefront on Gerrard Street East, a string of festive lights are slung across several empty storefronts, a plugged-in Christmas tree propped up on a barren, tiled floor.
At the boisterous Indian street food restaurant, Bollywood music blares from a mounted TV and visitors can choose between a delicious plate of crumbled samosas buried in chutney, kulfi popsicles frozen onto a chopstick and DVDs at $3-a-piece – all frenetic symbols of the colourful South Asian culture that has drawn people to this strip’s various shops, restaurants and street festivals for decades.
But the darkness of its neighbour’s windows – the seasonal decorations are meant to spruce up the building as it awaits its transformation into apartments – tell the more troubling side of the complex neighbourhood transition taking place here: A curious mix of decline and revival, gentrification and older inhabitants moving on.
“The new generation, they’re not into saris,” says Inder Jandoo, the 68-year-old owner of the enormous Sonu Saree Palace, which he and his wife have run for 33 years but will be closing down shortly. “I don’t foresee that the bazaar will disappear. Some people will definitely get hurt. But others will make some money.”
The strip, which starts around Highfield Road on Gerrard Street East in Toronto’s east end and stretches to Coxwell Avenue, is still unabashedly cheerful: Some restaurants have barbecues out front for spiced corn on the cob, and Lahore Tikka House, with its party tent and reputation for kebabs, lures big crowds who pose for pictures with the colourful auto-rickshaw out front.
But while some new South Asian businesses are popping up, and local businessmen are happy to see a new types of tenants move in, many of the area’s large buildings are now up for sale. Gentrification is nothing new to immigrant communities in large urban areas, but in so-called Little India the pace of change seems to be speeding up dramatically, and it is unclear – in cases such as Sonu and Bombay Chowpatty – how much of the neighbourhood’s South Asian culture will survive the urban transition.
Mr. Jandoo, a large man with gold-framed glasses and a baritone voice, has been selling saris here since 1979, coming in to work from his home in Richmond Hill. Sonu Saree Palace has served as the backdrop for several films’ Indian wedding scenes, as well as the odd music video. After renovating the store in the 1990s, installing thick brass plates on the tall wooden doors, Mr. Jandoo is retiring this winter and the ‘palace’ will become a medical centre. There is a bit of nostalgia in his voice, but he does not sound sad.
“Come spring, this store will be gone,” he says flatly. “There’s a time for everything in life. [Even] Eaton went.”
In a way, Mr. Jandoo – like immigrant-merchant Timothy Eaton before him – embodies the prosperity of a distinct era, and is now part of an ongoing urban transition in the community. The first changes came in 1972, the year Gian Naaz opened his Naaz Theatre to show South Asian movies that had previously been projected in school halls and auditoriums. After the theatre started to pull people into the working class neighbourhood, Mr. Jandoo’s first generation bought up the surrounding properties for as little as $30,000, and some lived upstairs at first. The formerly desolate streets developed an outsized reputation, pulling fashion designers and tourists from New York, Buffalo, Detroit and Florida for fabrics, clothing and other goods from the subcontinent.
But the Naaz theatre, hobbled by satellite TV and movie theatres showing Bollywood flicks in Brampton and Mississauga, is now boarded up, awaiting its own transformation into condos. Many of the larger commercial buildings in the area have “for sale” signs up. Young families continue to move into north-south streets on either side of Gerrard, pushing strollers into Lazy Daisy’s Café at Coxwell Avenue, for brunch and coffee. Down the street, a new row of townhomes labelled “East Village Leslieville” is being built right on top of a Coffee Time – the quintessential last holdout before gentrification really hits. Mr. Jandoo foresees the neighbourhood continuing to shift upscale over the next 10 years, with “high-end restaurants, high-end stores.”
And therein lies the complexity. The first generation Indian businessmen who helped transform it in the 1970s are now welcoming the newcomers – such as the café and the new condos, but also Furballs pet supply store and the Swag Sisters’ “premium, high-quality” loot-bag business; that’s partially because owners are selling buildings they bought on the cheap for about 40 times what they paid for them. It’s also because they genuinely hope these new businesses and denser residential properties will sustain and grow foot traffic between the big street festivals – or even between weekends.
Sitting as Gerrard Street East does, roughly halfway between the more popular Queen Street East and more well known Danforth Avenue, it could use the attention: for every meticulously maintained restaurant, such as Tipu Chowdhury’s popular Gautama, there is dive, host to an awning nest of pigeons. Mr. Chowdhury points out that there are good and bad building owners in the neighbourhood: Some have allowed long-time tenants to miss rent payments during the community’s more recent hard times, while others have evicted or locked out long-time renters, only to see the storefronts sit empty for a year or more. “You can see how many stores are closing ... rent it, instead of leaving it empty,” Mr. Chowdhury says as his waiters bustle ahead of the dinner rush. “I’m doing very good. I wish everyone would do good.”
Kanweljit Khorana, a 70-year-old owner of another sari shop, is a first-generation colleague of Mr. Jandoo’s who set up here slightly earlier in the 1970s. Even if he’s a bit sour on the state of the bazaar’s present, he’s not exactly misty-eyed about its past. He arrived here after working with his father’s import-export business in Japan, and remembers the racist hooligans, the broken windows and the police, who he – and others – felt ignored the problem. The Ku Klux Klan opened an office on Dundas Street East, and there were community protests against them in the 1980s. “When we came, it was a very hard time,” Mr. Khorana says. “It was a slum.”
He takes a minute to bag some fabric for a woman who works as a crossing guard nearby, and refuses to take her money. “Take this one as a Christmas present,” he says, pushing her coins back across the counter before returning to his main point: Things have been better and things have been worse and people move on.
Many of the new apartments will still have commercial units on the ground floor, so it is a possibility that entrepreneurs like Mr. Chowdhury will open more South Asian businesses. But many of the area’s Indian shoppers have never lived here, and the growth of stores catering to South Asian communities in suburbs such as Brampton or Scarborough has further drained the appeal of trekking here, even as gentrification has raised the local rents, explains Nuzhath Leedham, who has worked in the community since 1991.
But even though Mr. Khorana will likely close his store in a year or two, it’s not as if his kids and those of others would have stood behind these counters their whole lives like the first generation did. Mr. Jandoo’s son is a dentist. And in an era when one of the Gerrard Bazaar’s problems is the rise of online shopping, Mr. Khorana’s son has already moved the family business online.