Without more help from the provincial government, Sharon Walker fears her salon and other businesses in the Eglinton Avenue West community of Little Jamaica will go out of business, having taken a double hit from Crosstown LRT construction and the COVID-19 lockdown.
“I am afraid of what is going to happen to us in the future on Eglinton,” said Walker, owner of Shahnor Hair and Beauty. “The lockdown has really crippled us also. Even though we are getting a little bit of support, that little bit of support is not enough to maintain our business.”
She was speaking Dec. 14 at a virtual press conference held by Toronto-St. Paul’s MPP Jill Andrew in support of Andrew’s proposal to the provincial government for a Little Jamaica small business and community wellness strategy, including compensation of up to $30,000 for affected businesses in the area.
Andrew is demanding that Premier Doug Ford “step up” and help save Little Jamaica, which she says is on the verge of extinction after nearly a decade of uncertainty due to both the pandemic and construction that has blocked business entrances, slowed traffic and reduced parking.
In earlier times, “everyone came to Little Jamaica to shop, to see community, to see family, to see friends, to eat great foods, and now you can barely get parking in Little Jamaica,” Andrew said.
“Many of the stores, many of the small businesses that make Little Jamaica what it is, they’re boarded up,” she said. “This has meant a gross, gross loss in revenue.”
Casual Beauty Salon owner Jason McDonald, who also joined Andrew in the press conference, called Metrolinx’s Eglinton Crosstown LRT construction an invasion of Little Jamaica’s territory.
“Metrolinx has been more of a hinderance on my business than COViD,” McDonald said.
Toronto city council recently recognized Eglinton Avenue West between Marlee Avenue and Keele Street as the “Little Jamaica” heritage hub. The commercial strip is known for its restaurants, barbershops, hair salons and specialty shops that have been celebrating Caribbean culture for over 30 years.
It’s been estimated more than 140 businesses in the area have been shut down since LRT construction began in 2011.
The city’s designation of Little Jamaica should ensure future city plans consider the area’s identity, but it does not directly help with the current state the area is in.
In addition to her request for financial help for businesses that are currently suffering, Andrew is requesting a task force be mandated to “ensure transparent communication between Metrolinx, the Ministry of Transportation and Little Jamaica businesses.”
The motion would also benefit the residents of Little Jamaica and calls for “more community benefits,” Andrew says.
“We need to prioritize inclusionary zoning, [so] that people can live and stay in the communities they grew up in and shop from the store owners they’ve known for decades,” she said.
Andrew also proposes the historical designation of Little Jamaica which could prevent mass construction and demolition in the community.
Affect on Black youth
Ndija Anderson-Yantha, author of What Are You Gonna Do with that Hair?, says shutting down businesses like McDonald’s and Walker’s has more than an economical effect.
“It is imperative for Black hair salons to stay in business to service the needs of people of African descent and to continue our age-old hairdressing traditions,” Anderson-Yantha said in an interview.
Not to mention the effect that Black business ownership has on the next generation of young Black Torontonians, she said.
“Our Black youth ought to see business owners who look like them, thriving and contributing to our society at large, to let them know that they too can start their own enterprises and also become community leaders.”
The fight to save Little Jamaica in one that Anderson-Yantha believes must be won as the community is a part of Toronto’s black history.
“We cannot allow Little Jamaica to be eradicated by gentrification. The Black hair salons and the other Black-owned businesses on Eglinton West form a vital part of Toronto’s cultural heritage as well as the Black community’s economic legacy.”
The area is a “forgotten gem,” according to Shane, an employee at one of Little Jamaica’s specialty shops who did not want to give his last name.
“The gentrification is happening so, we are just here for the process,” he said. “It’s survival of the fittest.”
Business owners on Eglinton West have been fighting to stay open for almost 10 years, but some are continuing to lose the fight due to new lockdown restrictions, he said.
He hopes future entrepreneurs learn from the current owners’ misfortunes.
“This has to be an eye-opener for our generation, and younger, to realize how we can learn from this and better our situation,” he said.
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