City looking at Little Jamaica for Heritage Conservation District

Local councillor and community developing a toolkit to preserve unique area on Eglinton West

Gentrification and runaway real estate prices are threatening a number of neighbourhoods that make up the unique character of Toronto. Areas from Parkdale and Kensington Market to Chinatown and Little India are slowly fading away. The same can be said for Little Jamaica on Eglinton Avenue West, which has the added challenge of combating systemic anti-Black racism.

Local city councillor Josh Matlow and an active grassroots community spearheaded by groups including Black Urbanism TO are making moves to figure out how to save this unique area and, in doing so, could provide a template for others to follow as well.

Nothing is off the table, according to Matlow, including such things as land trusts, which are underway in Parkdale and Kensington Market. The councillor is also actively working toward action items, such as a local farmers market at Oakwood Avenue that would be culturally sensitive, as well as a Caribbean food festival.

“What we are doing could be a model that could be used elsewhere in Toronto, and perhaps elsewhere. Many cities throughout North America are facing similar challenges. But in Little Jamaica in particular, there’s also another priority. The community has made it very clear that we also have to look at this as a project to combat anti-Black racism. Acknowledging that there have been more supports in previous years for other neighbourhoods and other areas, but Little Jamaica has not been receiving the support and the attention that it merits,” Matlow said.

First up, the City of Toronto will study a possible designation as a Heritage Conservation District and other similar planning tools to aid in the preservation and celebration of the area’s character and history.

Toronto City Council recently adopted a motion moved by Matlow to “prioritize a survey of the cultural heritage resources of Little Jamaica in the 2021 and 2022 City Planning Study Work Program as a part of the Council-adopted Little Jamaica Cultural District initiative.”

The motion reads, in part: “The heart and soul of Eglinton Avenue West, which is colloquially known as ‘Little Jamaica’ or ‘Eglinton’ is home to the highest concentration of Black- and Caribbean-owned and operated businesses in Toronto. From the barbershops and hair salons that act as community spaces to the various restaurants that remind many of home, Eglinton Avenue West is an important part of Toronto’s Black history.”

Cherryll Case is an urban planner in addition to working as a tenant and affordable housing organizer in the Little Jamaica neighbourhood. She sees the Heritage Conservation District approach as one of many ways the city can help the community.

“When looking at heritage, it has typically been from a built or building perspective, looking at the building specifically,” she said. “But there’s been a push toward exploring the more social components of heritage and also exploring the more diverse heritage.”

Matlow said, at the beginning of this process, the city did not take the right approach in connecting with the community and hearing their ideas and concerns. That’s changing.

“What we are looking at is a holistic array of tools that we’d like to see in the tool box to preserve the heritage of Little Jamaica. We have a lot to work with, but what is so important — and I said this to council — is that the city be the vehicle for supporting Little Jamaica, but the community is the driver,” said Matlow. “It’s our job to reflect the priorities of the community and help it achieve its goals. So they’ve asked for a Heritage Conservation District study. It’s our job to go and do that for them.”

With the Crosstown LRT ushering in an era of change and big development proposals in the works, it is a race against time.

Article exclusive to TRNTO