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Mural in Little Jamaica, Toronto
Part One: An Extraordinary yet Common Immigration Story

My grandmother, a gifted seamstress and baker, made considerable sacrifices to immigrate to Canada from Jamaica in the late 1960s. I recall her sharing the story of how our family came to be Jamaican Canadian while she taught me how to make oxtail and black cake as a young woman in my twenties. “I humbled myself and cleaned the floor of a high-ranking judge so I could get a glowing referral letter to come to Canada — God, manners and hard work will take you through the world.” While my worldview is slightly more complex than my grandmother’s, who succumbed to dementia a few years ago, I have always respected her tenacity and have grown to embrace her faith in my own way. A faith that carried her across an unknown ocean to work in a mercilessly hot hotel laundromat while baking and sewing on the side to purchase her first home, which happened to be located on a residential street in Toronto’s Little Jamaica. 

This is one of the reasons I’m proud to be collaborating with the City of Toronto and local community members to lead the development of the Little Jamaica Master Plan, which will become the keystone document for Toronto’s first-ever official cultural district. 

My grandmother’s story is at once extraordinary and common. In 1962, Canada underwent a “liberalization” of the Immigration Act, which eliminated a lot of overt racial discrimination clauses. This change was spurred in part by growing awareness of the pitfalls of immigration discrimination following World War II and the Holocaust, and the country’s growing economic need for skilled immigrants of all races. From the 1960s to the 1980s, Jamaicans were the largest group among all Black immigrants to arrive in Canada, comprising 30 to 40 per cent of this particular newcomer cohort.

Overall, changes to the Immigration Act significantly contributed to creating opportunities for immigrants from countries beyond Europe to build a life and make contributions to Canadian society. However, in the case of newer and long-standing Black Canadian communities, it is imperative to recognize the role the transatlantic slave trade played in forcibly confining and shipping Black bodies to Canada for centuries before the change to the act. This distinction among settler groups is important as the transatlantic slave trade is one of history’s most pernicious place- and policy-based attacks on humanity, and a licentious contradiction of democracy. It created the foundation for legal and quasi-legal urban policy that has perpetuated the continued exploitation of Black labour, restriction of Black bodies and denial of dignified space for Black lives to flourish. This historical narrative cannot be decoupled from an understanding and appreciation of my grandmother’s immigration story. 

It’s a story many people can understand on some level — because most immigrant experiences are defined by varying degrees of systemic discrimination, personal hardship and unrelenting hope. At some point, non-Indigenous people have literally or metaphorically sat at the feet of elders who’ve recounted their journeys across unknown oceans with little more than a suitcase, a few dollars and a fervent desire to create a better life for their families. These aspirations along with a yearning to recreate sounds, tastes and vibrant placemaking rituals from “back home” have catalyzed cultural districts and neighbourhoods in cities across North America. 

Part Two: A Neighbourhood Snapshot and Evolving Municipal Response

The Little Jamaica planning area is located on the traditional territory of many nations including the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee, the Wendat and many Anishnawbe peoples and is now home to newer, diverse populations. It is covered by Treaty 13 with the Mississaugas of the Credit. Pre-colonialization, this territory included villages, campsites, isolated finds, and burials and cemeteries. Most, if not all, have been impacted by urbanization.

Again, Black presence in Canada dates back centuries. Specifically, enslaved and free Black individuals lived in York at its founding in 1793. Later, York was renamed Toronto, which is taken from the Mohawk word Tkaronto, meaning “the place in the water where the trees are standing.” During the War of 1812, the Rebellion of 1837, and all subsequent military conflicts, members of the Black community served as soldiers, militiamen and sailors. Through time, Black people settled in many areas of the city, most notably, the Ward. This is now the site of Nathan Phillips Square and a series of institutional high-rises north and south of Dundas. 

In 1969, a newer Black community was also being recognized. The term “Little Jamaica” was used to describe a cluster of Caribbean businesses on Bathurst Street between College and Dupont streets. In 1978, Randy’s Takeout opened on Eglinton Avenue and less than a decade later, in 1986, a U.S. newspaper used the term to describe the location of Monica’s Hair Salon. Relatedly, in 1995, Eglinton Avenue West between Marlee and Oakwood avenues was described as having “the highest concentration of black and West Indian businesses in Metro [Toronto]”. Over the past several decades, the term Little Jamaica has been popularized, acknowledging the significant Jamaican cultural impact, and concurrently celebrating broader community contributions.

However, due to a lack of municipal investments, insufficient support for small local businesses, and culturally unresponsive planning tools and policy, Little Jamaica’s growth has not kept pace with other urban areas known for their rich cultural heritage. Remarkably, these structural challenges did not impede Jamaican and other equally important Black cultures from establishing an epic Reggae music scene, community-based cultural arts programs, small businesses that double as informal local gathering spaces and community care initiatives. Not discounting power imbalances across various groups in the area, Little Jamaica has always been a site of cross-cultural connections where neighbours from all over the world have peacefully resided, worked and forged beautiful relationships. 

The combination of the Eglinton Crosstown LRT development and COVID-19 — both of which continue to disproportionately impact Black people and other equity-deserving and sovereignty-deserving groups — has also taken a serious toll on what we Jamaicans would refer to as a “likkle but talawa” (small but strong-willed) community. These challenges have been publicly recognized by Mayor John Tory and Deputy Mayor Michael Thompson, but as the principal of a Jamaican-led placemaking practice, I’m compelled to bear witness to the community’s hardship in a manner that situates it within a structural and historical urban development context.

Through my bi-national practice, I’ve had the privilege of collaborating with colleagues and elders working to address the historical and current erosion of a Black sense of place. In Lexington, I have touched original bill of sale records confirming that my enslaved ancestors were sold with chickens and bed sheets. In Detroit, I have paused on the corners of solemn streets listening to the silent yet powerful testimony of beautiful, boarded up homes. In Memphis, I have stood in the rain as my elder explained that the park we were auditing was once a plantation site. And right here at home, I have lost numerous childhood friends, consumed by the insatiable margins at the city’s edge.  

I’ve also spent a significant amount of time researching these and other forms of spatialized anti-Blackness, tethering them to urban design and policy, presenting my findings at academic institutions like Harvard, Cornell and Princeton universities, as well as developing graduate-level courses at institutions like Detroit Mercy School of Architecture and the University of Toronto’s faculty of Geography and Planning. 

Consequently, I’m compelled to underscore that the challenges faced by Black residents in the Little Jamaica community are neither new nor distinct. They constitute the ongoing enactment of spatialized anti-Black racism dating back to segregation laws, racist housing covenants and early anti-vagrancy ordinances lodged deep within the foundation of all North American cities. For me, the Little Jamaica Master Plan development process is not simply about “preserving” or “commemorating” Black culture in a planning area, it’s about modelling a new approach for redressing spatialized anti-Blackness and place-based discrimination of all kinds while co-creating a community where everyone belongs. 

While I understand the audacity of the aforementioned objective and complexity of planning processes, the City of Toronto has taken important steps in the right direction. An unprecedented interdivisional team including 12 City divisions has been formed. Recently, the City secured FedDev Ontario funding, directing $1 million to support Black economic development, and investing over $600,000 in the Little Jamaica neighbourhood. The City has also initiated a feasibility study for a Community Service Hub and Affordable Housing Development at 20 Shortt Street.

As a collective, we understand what is at stake and are asking courageous questions and finding new ways of working on a daily basis. For example, when I articulated the concern that many community members have about developments already in progress — which may not be prioritizing an equity-based placemaking approach — I was immediately supported in creating an equity-based placemaking screening tool that will be applied to all new developments and developments in-progress in the Little Jamaica planning area. It is my hope that this, along with other bold and consistent actions, will mitigate the erasure of Black culture and Black people in the neighbourhood. However, no singular planning tool or document has the power to address all of the budgetary demands, competing interests and complex socio-spatial challenges inherent in urban development processes. As I get to know City staff more and learn about the immense professional competencies and passion they bring to this work, I feel assured that there is a genuine openness to being more responsive and continually earning trust to navigate the complexity of this initiative alongside all stakeholders within the Little Jamaica community. 

Part Three: Co-creating an Equitable and Expansive Master Plan

A master plan is a dynamic, non-statutory document comprised of urban design guidelines, zoning analysis and policy recommendations among other content for guiding the future growth and development of a community. In fact, the master plan is sometimes referred to as the “blueprint for the future” as it guides the technical work of urban design professionals and developers while being accessible enough to facilitate an ongoing discourse with communities whose desires and priorities should ideally be clearly translated to the built environment. 

The Little Jamaica Master Plan will respectfully build upon years of individual community engagements, reports offering constructive critique, motions put forward by city councillors and community advocacy. In addition to cultural commemoration and main street retail, the planning framework will include additional priorities like the provision of dignified and diverse housing options, physically and psychologically safe streets, vibrant green spaces, gender-responsive design approaches that consider LGBTQ2SIA+ individuals and sustainability using an environmental justice lens. Understanding the intricacies of these and other elements that must be prioritized, and working in collaboration with the City of Toronto, I’ve developed a master planning framework that will: 

  • Honour the Indigeneity of the planning area; 
  • Centre the contributions of the Jamaican community, while embracing a Pan Africanism lens that will recognize Black placemaking contributions more broadly; 
  • Create space for all Little Jamaica residents, businesses and organizations to participate in the process.

While a large number of individuals will be pleased to see this comprehensive, deeply equitable approach, I understand that some individuals may feel that the master plan framework is attempting to respond to competing interests and/or “special” interests. Something that I often remind people is that there is enough space, joy and justice for all of us. This has rarely been realized throughout the history of urban growth; however, each placemaking project provides us with the opportunity to do better. 

Learning how to share and even cede space to those who’ve been relegated to geographic, economic and imaginative margins is essential for building communities, and equally important, a shared humanity. Co-habilitating in one of the most racially and culturally diverse cities in the world provides us all with a distinct privilege of coming together — to not just tolerate, but truly celebrate our differences. Whether spilling into the streets to express home team pride for our Raptors basketball team, enjoying arts performances across cultural venues, jumping up during Caribana and PRIDE or attending neighbourhood festivals, encouraging the patronage of hyper-local businesses — Torontonians truly live up to our global reputation when we come together. Establishing new, equitable ground for recognizing all of our cultural contributions and building increased pathways toward prosperity, is advantageous for everyone. Our communities become safer, public discourse becomes more compassionate and urban dwellers become more unified. 

This idea of unity is an underlying principle guiding the Little Jamaica Master Plan development process. City staff have united across divisions and professional expertise. Together, we’re building a bigger, more unified vision that recognizes retail, residential and public spaces. We’ve begun talking about building an urban policy toolkit that considers urban planning, heritage, culture, economic development and more. And best of all, we’ll be conducting this work alongside local experts who will be included on the community engagement team. Unifying professional disciplines, a wide range of people and place types is sometimes daunting. But then I remember that I am co-leading this work with an exceptional City staff team and community members, and that I am the granddaughter of a woman who thrived on the other side of an unknown ocean. 

Jay Pitter, MES, is an award-winning placemaker and author whose practice mitigates growing divides in cities across North America. She also shapes urgent city-building conversations through media and academic platforms. Jay was recently the John Bousfield Distinguished Visitor in Planning by the University of Toronto and shortlisted for the Margolese National Design for Living Prize. Her forthcoming books, Black Public Joy and Where We Live, will be published by McClelland & Stewart, Penguin Random House Canada. She is currently the Planner-in-Residence at the University of Waterloo, a Visiting Fellow at University of Windsor’s Law Centre for Cities and a Senior Fellow with the Canadian Urban Institute. To learn more about the Master Plan for Little Jamaica, get in touch with Jay Pitter and Sipo Maphangoh at engage@jaypitter.com

Lead Image: A shot of Reggae Lane by Assumedform via Wikmedia Commons.

A Big Vision for Little Jamaica

Placemaker Jay Pitter reveals a unified, equity-based approach for the creation of Toronto’s first ever cultural district.

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