Group says Black business in “Little Jamaica” need to be protected

By Lincoln DePradine

All across the City of Toronto, government and corporations are investing millions of dollars in construction projects such as building condominiums and expanding the subway system. The trend, however, has many worrying that when all is said and done, some neighbourhoods may become so gentrified and exclusive that there

From Left: Romain Baker and Dane Williams

wll be few – if any – ethnic minority residents and business owners, including people of Caribbean and African descent.

Romain Baker and Dane Williams, two young Jamaican-Canadians, are co-founders of an organization that’s trying to ensure the continuation of a viable black presence in neighbourhoods like “Little Jamaica’’ – the area from Marlee Avenue along Eglinton Avenue West to Keele Street.

“It’s now 2020 and we have Black planners. We have Black architects, we have people who are in policy and there is absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t be able to come together and organize ourselves and be able to influence the changes that we want to see,’’ Baker told The Caribbean Camera at a community meeting, on Eglinton Avenue West, of Black Urbanism Toronto (BUTO).

BUTO was established as a non-profit by Baker and Williams in 2018, with a mission to “engage Black communities in re-envisioning our neighbourhoods to support our social, economic and cultural advancement’’.

“Little Jamaica’’, since the 1960s, has been a popular destination for members of the Caribbean Diaspora, especially well-known for businesses such as Caribbean restaurants and groceries, barber shops and hair salons.

However, infrastructural development in “Little Jamaica’’ is threatening to displace many who have called the area home for decades.

Some stores have shut, others have reported plummeting sales, with ongoing construction of the Eglinton Crosstown LRT, which has caused traffic restrictions and congestion and limited parking in the area.

The $5.3-billion transit line, whose first phase is scheduled to open next year, is being paid for and built by Metrolinx, a provincial government agency, and will be operated by the Toronto Transit Commission.

An additional concern is the high possibility that private sector investors would purchase empty properties, tear them down and replace them with larger, more expensive structures.

“Most certainly, there is a risk to the neighbourhood identity,” Aalida Valiallah, co-ordinator of the York-Eglinton Business Improvement Association, publicly commented last December.

She said a lot of businesses in “Little Jamaica’’ have been closing due to the LRT construction. Those replacing them are “not necessarily Caribbean businesses’’, Valiallah added.

Baker, who also is chairman of BUTO’s board of directors, said the organization is holding a series of meeting to identify the community’s needs, which will be submitted to councilors and planners at City of Toronto. The aim is to influence the city on the way neighbourhoods, where “Black people live in high concentrations’’, are developed, he said.

“We will advocate for the needs of our community and we will work with our community to bring the issues to the forefront,’’ promised Baker, who is employed in the public sector as a policy advisor.

“We elect politicians to serve us and we aren’t being served how we should. And, if it was any other community, it would not be tolerated. And, other communities have ways and means of ensuring that their needs are met. And so, it’s about us actually using our democratic rights and holding the people in power to account.’’

Baker, who has an undergraduate degree in political science from Brock University and post-graduate certificate in public administration from Humber College, moved his wife and two daughters from Brampton to take up residency in the Eglinton West community.

He said BUTO is looking for partnerships with “people in high places within the Black community’’.

“We’re going to look for these partnerships and we’re going to engage the community as much as we can to ensure that the community’s voice is heard. We really need to use the leverage that we have from within our community,’’ he said.

Many in “Little Jamaica’’ have been renting property for decades, while some owners have had to sell, said Baker.

“If they could have bought, we believe that they would have. So, obviously, there are barriers. We need to identify what they are and learn from other cities that are facing this,’’ he said.

“Toronto isn’t unique in this. All across the United States, Black people are getting pushed out everywhere. But, what they’ve been able to do is to be creative and form things such as community land trust, which is a non-profit-type of organization that can access funding in order to buy property, whether it is commercial spaces or residential spaces, but it’s community-owned. That’s something we’re definitely interested in exploring.’’

Williams, whose grandmother lives in the Vaughan Road and Oakwood Avenue area, met Baker when the two were at Brock University. Williams graduated with a degree in sports business.

He said he’s been “excited’’ about the work of BUTO, ever since Baker contacted him and asked him to look at proposals he had developed for “Little Jamaica’’.

“I took a look and I was a hundred percent in, because I thought that this place needed to be recognized; there needed to be a landmark and an appreciation within Toronto that Jamaicans and people of Caribbean and African descent have played a huge role in the development of Toronto and we needed to be recognized by the city,’’ Williams said. “We’ve contributed so much to the city. This project is dear to my heart.’’

Baker said the ideal goals for the community will include having cultural events, thriving Black businesses and affordable condo units along the Eglinton West strip.

“Ideally, Black businesses would be able to stay where they are; or, if they have to vacate a building for a specific period of time, that they’ll have the opportunity to come back,’’ he said.

“We’ll like to see cultural events; that there will be murals on the walls and art, so that when you step off of that LRT, you should know exactly where you,’’ Baker explained. “When these new condos are being developed, there are policies that the city has in place to ensure that a certain percentage of it is affordable. So, we need to be using those things to ensure that this neighbourhood continues to be home for Black people in this part of the city.’’