On Thursday, Toronto City Council will consider a motion to protect Little Jamaica, the strip along Eglinton Avenue West that has been the hub for the city’s Black communities for half a century. It needs the help: Black-owned businesses have been punished by a decade of Eglinton Crosstown construction.
This is good news. But we need to ask: What took so long?
In recent years, heritage planners at City Hall have been busy – too busy. Since 2017 they’ve quietly begun a “heritage survey” of the city. Its most visible component has been the heritage listing of more than 1,000 buildings on “main streets,” meaning long-established commercial strips. In other words, places similar in character to the barbershops, restaurants and record shops of Little Jamaica.
But not including Little Jamaica.
Now Councillor Josh Matlow’s motion asks city staff to make a “comprehensive survey” of the Eglinton West strip. It has support from non-profit group Black Urbanism TO. “Heritage is not the only tool we need here, but it’s definitely a key piece,” said Romain Baker, chair of BUTO. “This has been the gathering place for Jamaican and other Caribbean peoples, and later other African Diaspora peoples. It’s a physical manifestation of culture, of cuisine, of art.
“We need to recognize that this place is worthy.”
Mr. Matlow needed to step in to make that argument because city staff had not. In a public meeting last month about Little Jamaica, senior manager of heritage planning Mary MacDonald said that the built form of the Eglinton strip didn’t seem to warrant heritage protection.
And yet, earlier this year, the city listed more than 50 sites in Leslieville, mostly homely commercial buildings that “support the historic context.”
Why the inconsistency?
This work is subjective. The Ontario Heritage Act allows several different kinds of rationales for heritage. But as Toronto heritage staff have become more proactive in their work, they’ve focused (along with other city planning efforts) on some of the wealthiest neighbourhoods in the city. North Toronto. Leaside. The Danforth. Now Leslieville.
This is an old pattern in the world of heritage preservation. That discipline was essentially born in the 1960s, and its loudest proponents were educated people – gentrifiers, we might call them today – trying to protect the old house neighbourhoods they’d moved into. That influence continues today. It has to be actively combatted.
Maps of heritage-listed and designated places in Toronto: pic.twitter.com/sZyqvtqxn7— Alex Bozikovic (@alexbozikovic) April 7, 2021
As for the main-streets heritage listings: They have problems. Heritage planning is an awkward tool to save what’s good about those places and their small, inexpensive and old retail spaces. And city planning, in its wisdom, has targeted many of those same main streets to be bulldozed and replaced by mixed-use buildings. This is happening in Little Jamaica.
What’s the solution? In a fast-growing city, what does an equitable approach to heritage planning and development look like?
Toronto deserves credit for its new approach to Little Jamaica, studying the area’s “cultural heritage” with a co-operative and inter-departmental approach. It’s 10 years late. But it’s promising.
Meanwhile, wealthier neighbourhoods should get less protection. “We need to think about making the kind of city that will welcome people,” says Tura Cousins Wilson, an architect who has advocated for protecting Little Jamaica. “We don’t do that anymore.”
Black immigrants who have moved to Etobicoke or Ajax “aren’t allowed to turn their basement into a barbershop,” he points out, because of tight suburban planning laws. The immigrants who landed in old Toronto in previous generations had that freedom. Mixed-use neighbourhoods are economic development tools, and their own kind of heritage.
While the city figures all this out, it should work hard to prevent the displacement of Black residents and Black-owned businesses from the Little Jamaica area. And civic leaders need to ask why this hasn’t already happened.
“The history of Black peoples in Canada is one of displacement and erasure,” Mr. Baker said. The task now, he said, “is about recognizing that pattern and being intentional about stopping it.”
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