Wall celebrating city's reggae musicians recalls cultural past of Eglinton West neighbourhood, where the forces of gentrification are threatening to whitewash an entire community
A 1,200-square foot mural by artist Adrian Hayles celebrating Toronto reggae musicians. It’s an echo of Caribbean culture in a neighbourhood under attack by the forces of gentrification.
1584 Eglinton West (in the parking lot off Reggae Lane at Alameda) in Little Jamaica.
For most Torontonians, Little Jamaica is known as the place where Caribana was born. The annual festival of all things Caribbean used to be held on Eglinton West before it became too big and was moved to Lake Shore Boulevard.
But for those of us who grew up near the area and have had occasion to enjoy the king fish and deep-fried dumplings at one of the many jerk joints along the strip, it’s also one of the city’s best-kept secrets. Where else can you cruise for books on Santeria?
The stretch along Eglinton West between north Forest Hill on the east and the working-class Italian neighbourhoods of Caledonia and Fairbank on the west, also occupies a special place in Toronto history as the home of roots-reggae.
That was recognized in 2015 with the opening of Reggae Lane and unveiling of a mural featuring some of the legendary musicians that marked time in the recording studios and record shops in the neighbourhood – Leroy Sibbles of the Heptones, Jackie Mittoo (aka Donat Roy Mittoo of the Skatalites), the Cougars, Johnny Osbourne, Ernie Smith, Stranger Cole and other artists of the rocksteady era.
It was the 1970s, and the first wave of Jamaican immigrants to arrive in the neighbourhood in the former city of York brought not only their love of food but music, too. And it wasn’t long before record shops springing up along with barbershops and grocery stores in the neighbourhood gave rise to recording studios.
It wasn’t unusual back then to catch the strains of Bob Marley and the Wailers, Peter Tosh and other up-and-coming reggae prophets of the local music scene spilling into the streets. A new chapter in Toronto’s musical lore was born, and the reggae tradition of prophesying the music was also an impetus for the politics of inclusion in music and beyond.
Not as well known – or acknowledged – is the area’s place in the history of political activism in Toronto. Little Jamaica is where the seeds of the struggle for Black equality were planted – first, through groups fighting for the rights of migrant workers and domestics from Jamaica, and later through the Black Action Defence Committee and its work to expose police brutality.
The tradition of activism has continued with the community serving as the backdrop for a seminal moment in the Black Lives Matter–Toronto movement – the blocking of Allen Road over the police shooting death of Andrew Loku in 2015. Toronto Police 13 Division still looms large over the neighbourhood.
Other landmarks also endure. There’s the car wash at Alameda, the barbershops and all manner of churches above storefronts toward Dufferin.
But the eclectic mix of retail that’s characterized the strip is rapidly being boarded up. Where once the area was untouched by the forces of gentrification, the expected arrival of the Eglinton West LRT (and economic fallout caused by the pandemic) has changed everything – and not necessarily for the better.
The disruption caused by prolonged construction has forced the shuttering of many businesses.
Last fall, Toronto council considered whether the area should be recognized with a heritage designation. Some locals say that would protect the area from condofication now threatening to remake one of the last remaining affordable enclaves in the city and whitewash an entire community along with it.
Local councillor Mike Colle is not so keen on a heritage designation. He has a slightly different idea. He’s tabled a motion asking staff to designate the area a cultural hub. Part of the plan includes giving businesses tax breaks and other incentives to help keep them afloat.
But that’s no longer an option for those businesses that have already closed. Meanwhile, the inevitable slow creep of redevelopment is making its way up Oakwood from Rogers as the mostly Italian residential areas surrounding the strip are replaced by young professionals with families.
Where once time stood still, everything is in flux. The music, however, lingers on.
Check out a video about the Reggae Lane mural and Little Jamaica below:
Hidden Toronto is a weekly feature exploring the city’s alternative history through contemporary landmarks. Read it online each Sunday or in print every Thursday.