On the corner of Oakwood and Eglinton avenues in a historic pocket of Toronto, Vernal “Jamall” Small can be found hard at work in his tailor shop.
Four decades ago, his shop, Jamall Caribbean Custom Tailors, would be busy with patrons wanting two or three suits tailored at once.
But these days, Small spends his time sewing for customers who never show up.
“Traffic just can’t come, and once traffic can’t flow then nobody comes, they’re just scared of it, they cannot park,” he said. “At this point, I would say (my revenue) has dropped 60 per cent.”
His story is echoed throughout this stretch of Eglinton Avenue from Allen Road to Keele Street, known as Little Jamaica. Giant construction hoardings, bulldozers and cranes line this cramped corridor, snarling traffic on streets and sidewalks.
Empty storefronts also line this stretch, the remnants of what didn’t survive the project now tunnelling through this community: the Eglinton Crosstown light-rail transit (LRT).
But before Little Jamaica became a construction site, it was a safe space for hundreds of thousands of Caribbean migrants, including Jamaican restaurant owner Horace “Rap” Rose.
“When we come in from Jamaica, it’s just us. It was lonely. (So) when you come to Eglinton, you see people who can talk patois, say ‘Wah gwaan bredren!'” Rose remembers, laughing.
“That what brings the community… and not just Jamaican but West Indian community together — it’s Eglinton.”
WATCH: City of Toronto responds to concerns over Little Jamaica disappearing due to LRT construction. Kayla McLean reports.
Rose was among a wave of pioneering Jamaicans who migrated to Canada in the 1960s and 1970s. According to historian Natasha Henry, many would set up shops in Toronto along Eglinton Avenue West, laying the groundwork for what would become one of the largest Jamaican expatriate enclaves in the world.
“(Little Jamaica) was a place of familiarity and a place of comfort… that sense of community, belonging, being able to go somewhere and find familiar foods and products,” said Henry.
“Their children could experience a little bit of that Jamaican culture and tradition — going and purchasing bun and cheese and patties and jerk chicken… maintaining those connections to home, back to the islands.”
Keeping those connections alive was Rose’s mission when he opened Rap’s Restaurant on Eglinton Avenue, just east of Oakwood Avenue, 37 years ago. Then, the area’s record shops and recording studios drove a thriving global reggae scene, second only to Kingston, Jamaica.
Visiting musicians would stop for a bite to eat, oftentimes in Rose’s iconic restaurant.
“Down here you would see Jimmy Cliff when he comes to town, Bob Marley when he comes to town, Burning Spear, Leroy Sibbles, Lord Tanomo, Toots,” Rose lists them off. “They all come down to Eglinton to enjoy the camaraderie and the friendship and the basement parties, the food… but now, not so much.”
Not so much, Rose laments, because many of the independent businesses inextricably tied to this community’s sense of identity and history are disappearing.
The $5.3-billion, Ontario-funded transit line now being built through Little Jamaica is one of the largest construction projects in the country. Once the route is completed in 2021, Eglinton Crosstown light-rail vehicles will traverse a 19-kilometre stretch between Mount Dennis and Kennedy Station.
Five of the line’s 25 stops are slated to bring rapid transit and patrons to Little Jamaica.
But six years of noisy construction, road closures and scaffolding obstructing storefronts have taken a toll. According to the York-Eglinton BIA, 40 to 45 per cent of businesses from Marlee Avenue to Dufferin Street have closed down or relocated since construction began on the transit project.
For Rose, the lack of foot traffic has slashed his bottom line in half. To keep his business afloat, he says he’s had to get creative.
“I have to turn to Uber Eats and Skip the Dishes to make up the difference… those of us that are not gone yet are on our way out… because they just can’t make ends meet anymore.”
In April 2018, the city announced measures with the hopes of providing businesses with some relief.
Among the initiatives, a $6 discount code for Green P parking, a cleaning blitz along the corridor and $100,000 investment in online support programs for local businesses.
Metrolinx, the province’s regional transportation agency, also stepped up, launching ad campaigns and funding event fees for BIAs and community events.
But Ryan Mallough, director of provincial affairs with the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB), told Global News more needs to be done.
“Ultimately, with major projects, this means financial compensation,” said Mallough. “If you’re going to disrupt business as usual, you’ve got to help them out… In Montreal, business owners have access to a pool of money when they’re disrupted that they can apply to… We’d like to see something like that in Toronto.”
Metrolinx says while it’s worked hard to come up with a construction mitigation plan for businesses, financial compensation is not something it can provide.
“Things like tax breaks… building affordable housing so you can protect the communities as much as possible… are really city-based policies, not within the control of Metrolinx,” said Metrolinx spokesperson Anne Marie Aikins.
This leaves businesses to suffer without financial compensation, Mallough says, sometimes for years on end.
“Disruptive construction projects are bad enough… it’s even worse when you start having major delays or problems that come in and make the time extend even longer,” said Mallough.
The Crosstown project has already been hit with delays. In 2015, Metrolinx changed the Crosstown LRT’s opening date to fall 2021 — a year later than expected.
In Little Jamaica, proximity to the new transit line will also mean good news for condo developers, but Mallough says the news is not so good for the Caribbean businesses.
“Once (the project) is done, oftentimes they are looking at a property tax hike,” said Mallough.
“If those areas get zoned for condos and they are currently one-storey businesses, well, they’re starting to pay condo taxes. We really need the city to look at its property tax system and work with the province to find a way to treat those businesses fairly.”
Local Coun. Michael Colle agreed, saying a motion is before city council to reform the system — but he says local businesses will also need to mobilize.
“I need small-business people not only here on Eglinton but across the city to join in this battle to lower property taxes when there is construction,” said Colle. “The problem is that the businesses have never gotten together to fight for that because they are so busy trying to survive.”
As for what Little Jamaica will look like in 2021, Rose is leery. Like many vendors along this strip, he says he has felt out of the loop from the get-go when it comes to Crosstown — and how his community will be reshaped.
“They should make sure that us guys, the business guys, are included in their decisions,” said Rose. “They can’t sit at a table and decide for us, you know. They should bring us in.”
Rose wouldn’t be short on suggestions. When it comes to preserving this space and keeping Little Jamaica intact, Rose says recognizing the area as a heritage site would be a good start.
“Rename the area Little Jamaica officially. Put the signs up… and they’re afraid of that, I don’t know why,” said Rose.
Henry agreed. The historian, who also heads the Ontario Black History Society, which hosted walking tours through Little Jamaica this past summer, says the desire to learn more about the community is there.
And it could also boost tourism.
“Recognize the historical heritage and cultural significance of Little Jamaica… that is a process that the city could take,” said Henry.
“People do want to learn a lot more about the Black experience and Black contributions to the city of Toronto and so I think that is… an important step to ensuring that this area remains as intact as possible.”
Colle says steps are being taken to preserve Little Jamaica’s heritage in Crosstown’s Oakwood Station, which is currently under construction at the intersection of Eglinton and Oakwood avenues.
“We are trying to retain the heritage of this area through its music history, for instance, and we have created Reggae Lane,” said Colle. “Reggae Lane’s mural and art will be transferred over to the new station… on the wall as you enter.”
The Reggae Lane to which Colle refers is the mural commissioned by the city in 2015 behind some of the shops along Eglinton Avenue West. The mural was put in place to commemorate the contributions of the area’s local and international artists to reggae music.
But some worry it could soon become a monument to a community that no longer exists if more isn’t done to save Toronto’s Little Jamaica.
“Pretty soon, there will be no Little Jamaica (because) there won’t be much of the West Indian businesses around,” Small said one recent afternoon. “(Crosstown) is going to change it completely. I don’t think some who want to stay will be able to afford it anymore.”
Rose echoed the same concerns.
“We deserve some sort of recognition that we were here, you know?” he said. “That my grandson can say: ‘My dad used to be there. … The least they could do is rename the area officially.”
— With files from James Morrison-Collalto