By 5:30 on a Saturday afternoon, Grossman's Tavern teems with life and memory. Much of the crowd that packs in to see The Happy Pals, the seven-piece jazz band that has occupied the Saturday set for over three decades, has been frequenting the legendary Spadina Avenue watering hole for over 40 years – long before the area was Chinatown.
"It's an island; it feels the same as it always felt," says David Goldberg, a regular since the 1970s, and the photographer whose portraits of customers and musicians line the walls – as much a staple of the bar as the band.
Inside, Grossman's is undeniably steeped in tradition. But several weeks ago, manager Tonny Louie, whose parents purchased Grossman's in 1975 after emigrating from China, renovated the facade, replacing the mint-green aluminum siding – a vestige of the 1970s – with pristine ceramic tiles.
"People used to walk by and think it was some kind of shed," explains Mr. Louie, who was elected director of the Chinatown Business Improvement Area, now in its second term, last fall.
His effort to modernize Grossman's is part of the BIA's campaign to raise the profile of the area altogether, which encompasses the Spadina Avenue strip from College Street at the northern border to Sullivan Street in the south, and Beverly Street in the east to Augusta Avenue in the west.
"We want to have a cleaner, safer Chinatown, so people can spend a whole day here, instead of just coming to have a bowl of noodles and going home."
In addition to working with police to target petty crime, the BIA held a 16-week night market along Huron Street this summer, promoting the area as a tourist attraction and vibrant business hub. Through their current sponsorship of the Reel Asian Film Festival, Mr. Louie has encouraged restaurants to increase marketing.
His objective to attract diverse businesses and clientele, "so people have more to buy here than just dollar-store T-shirts," has already yielded success.
In September, a trendy, minimalist-style teashop, One Hour, appeared amid Spadina's knickknack stores, and a swanky Japanese izakaya recently opened on the cusp of the BIA's borders, at College and Robert Street.
City councillor for Trinity-Spadina, Adam Vaughan commends the BIA's initiatives to target illegal laneway dumping and rodent infestation, issues which have contributed to Chinatown's sometimes less-than-savoury reputation.
"No other BIA has taken responsibility and seized obligations with more consistency, vigour and discipline."
However, he concedes that these changes, while welcomed by many, risk changing the profile of the neighbourhood. "You don't want [Chinatown]to grow disproportionately, so that it leaves people behind. You want to make sure low-income families still have a place to shop and find employment. At the same time, you want to make sure the people running those businesses succeed."
Dr. Lucia Lo is a professor of geography at York University, whose research includes Chinese immigration in Toronto.
Ms. Lo says that of all individuals living in Chinatown, about 40 to 50 per cent are likely low-income, estimating that individual annual income in the area falls between $30,000 and $35,000.
"Some people have to live in Chinatown in boarding houses or very crowded conditions. If serious gentrification goes on, then obviously these people will be displaced."
Outside Grossman's, Mr. Goldberg expresses skepticism about so-called improvements to the area, maintaining Chinatown is one of the city's last holdouts against large retail chains and condominiums.
"[If it attracts affluence] it's not going to be a neighbourhood any more. It's going to be like Queen Street – all chains. Once the values go up, these mom and pop stores can't afford to stay here."
With a glance at the new façade, he shrugs.
"It's nice, but there was nothing wrong with the old one."
Heading back into the warm bar, Mr. Goldberg again turns nostalgic.
"It's not upscale, it's still got that old-time feel. It feels like how Toronto always felt."
But One Hour owner Han Shao aspires to a cleaner, more modern Chinatown.
"People usually think Chinatown should have a certain model. I'm trying to change people's minds, let them know we can do something different."
Special to The Globe and Mail