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In a city desperate for more transit, for Toronto’s Little Jamaica it could be bad news

"Five years of construction has already taken a toll, now some fear that when the Eglinton Crosstown LRT is finally complete unstoppable gentrification will break up the community."

The owner of Monica’s Cosmetic Supplies Ltd. on Eglinton Ave. West just east of Oakwood Ave., Lewis has operated a business in the neighbourhood for decades. But she says sales at the shop, which is stocked to the ceiling with colourful shampoo bottles, boxes of hair dye, and wigs, have plummeted to next to nothing.“We’re not making any business at all. We just come out here and sit,” she said one recent evening. “I haven’t sold one dollar… And this is how the days are.” Lewis isn’t alone. Vacant storefronts dot the stretch of Eglinton just west of Allen Rd., which is known as Little Jamaica. Some stores that are open are obscured behind construction hoardings heralding the pending arrival of a powerful force that’s already reshaping the neighbourhood: the Eglinton Crosstown LRT.The $5.3-billion transit line is being paid for and built by the provincial government, and is one of the largest construction projects in the country. Although its eastern portion will run above ground, on this part of Eglinton it tunnels beneath the neighbourhood of mostly two- and three-storey mixed-used buildings.Once it opens in 2021, it will provide residents across Eglinton with a quick connection to midtown and the Line 1 subway. Five stations will serve the stretch between Allen Rd. and Keele St., delivering rapid transit to neighbourhoods where median household incomes are as much as 43 per cent lower than the city as a whole.But some in the community worry residents and business owners who make up the area today won’t be around to reap the benefits.

Five years of construction have already been hard on local independent retailers, forcing traffic restrictions and the removal of on-street parking spaces. Some fear that when the Crosstown is finally complete, with improved transit will come gentrification that will break up a community that has been a cultural hub for Toronto’s Caribbean population for generations.“The concept of the community, Little Jamaica, is no longer going to be in existence,” predicted Martin Jeffrey. He’s operated the Pure Vibes Barber Shop near Eglinton and Marlee Ave. for the past eight years, but said he doesn’t know how long he and his neighbours will last. “What we are actually fighting for is to keep the community, under the identity of the Caribbean community,” he said.

It’s easy to see what a city gains when a new transit line is built. But the story unfolding in Little Jamaica poses a different question — what does it stand to lose? There’s no consensus about the precise boundaries of Little Jamaica, but by some definitions the neighbourhood stretches more than three kilometres between Allen Rd. and Keele St. The area has been a destination for members of the Caribbean diaspora since at least the 1960s. According to Natasha Henry, president of the Ontario Black History Society, some of the first arrivals were women who immigrated through the federal government’s West Indian Domestic Scheme, which recruited young, single women to work as labourers in Canadian homes. As Ottawa shifted its immigration policies to accept more people from outside of Europe, over the course of the 1970s and 1980s more than 100,000 Jamaicans came to live in Canada. Many of them settled in Toronto, and Eglinton West became one of the largest Jamaican expatriate enclaves in the world. Independent businesses were integral to the community’s identity. Caribbean-Torontonians across the city would come to the strip to shop for familiar staples like roti, patties, and hard dough bread. For a time the area’s record shops and recording studios made the area second only to Kingston, Jamaica as a global hotbed for reggae music.Although the demographics of the neighbourhood have fluctuated over time, the impact of the Crosstown is expected to accelerate change.First came the construction, that began in 2013 with the erection of headwalls for underground work. Store owners say customers are staying away because of snarled traffic and the lack of parking. According to the York-Eglinton Business Improvement Area (BIA), some retailers have decided to shutter as a result of the work, and others are barely hanging on.

As some of the Caribbean-owned businesses leave, they are liable to be replaced by new retailers able to afford higher rents commanded by close proximity to the new transit line. Residential rates could also rise.There is also the prospect of developers buying up empty properties and tearing them down to build larger developments. Zoning rules endorsed by the city in anticipation of the Crosstown would allow as-of-right mid-rise development along much of the LRT route, which could result in buildings of eight or nine storeys in Little Jamaica.Sean Hertel, a researcher and urban planning consultant, examined the link between gentrification and transit a 2016 paper published by the City Institute at York University. It contended that while investing in transit infrastructure can help alleviate inequality, it can also “trigger forces that can produce injustice.” Residents “with financial means and social status are able to relocate into neighbourhoods to access amenities like transit. Once in the neighbourhood, they reshape it for their needs. It has the effect of displacing existing residents where their neighbourhoods are no longer affordable,” the paper stated.Hertel said the Crosstown could spur that kind of turnover in Little Jamaica. “A lot of the dry cleaners, bakeries, barber shops, etcetera, could have a very high chance of becoming displaced,” he said.

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London, ON, Canada

©2018 by London Transportation Alliance.                   Photography Credit Scott Webb