Small business owners in Little Jamaica are struggling to make ends meet, and now that there’s yet another delay in the projected opening of the Eglinton Crosstown LRT, the situation looks even more bleak.
The neighbourhood, which stretches along Eglinton from Allen Road all the way west to Keele Street, has been overwhelmed by the light-rail construction project since 2011, leaving many sidewalks closed and foot traffic profoundly reduced. It’s had a significant impact on the businesses in Little Jamaica, many of which depend on walk-ins.
“There’s nobody coming here. There’s nothing really going on. You look out, it’s like a ghost town,” said Jason McDonald, barber and owner of Casual Beauty Salon. “It killed the business.”
McDonald’s salon sits on the corner of Eglinton Avenue West and Oakwood Avenue, which is next to a future LRT station. But right now, his window looks out on hoarding and construction equipment.
“When I go out, I just see what I’ve been seeing from 2013,” said McDonald. “Same construction blocking the business, blocking the sidewalks.”
McDonald also said he rarely comes into the salon anymore, unless someone calls.
“I don’t really come here because there’s absolutely no walking traffic.”
One of his most loyal clients is J.R. Thomas, who’s been getting his hair done by McDonald for the last 25 years. Now, with the construction and parking commotion, coming to the barbershop is difficult.
“This is where everyone comes to sit down and get their groom done right, and it’s truly inconvenient,” said Thomas.
140 businesses closed
The 19-km light rail line was initially supposed to be finished in 2021, but last week, Metrolinx announced the completion date has since been pushed back to sometime in 2022.
City councillors for the area, Josh Matlow and Michael Colle, held a news conference Tuesday at Jerusalem Restaurant, acknowledging the impact and encouraging people to shop at the stores on Eglinton.
“Many of [the businesses] are going to be shutting their doors because they won’t be able to survive unless we go and be customers there and support them,” said Matlow.
Approximately 140 of those doors have already closed and the councillors are asking the province to help compensate the businesses that are still open.
“If the Ford government says it’s for the people, then the question is, which people? Here’s a bunch of people who are struggling to make ends meet,” said Matlow.
An invitation to join the new conference was extended to the Ontario Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney. She did not attend.
The Ministry of Transportation also forwarded questions from CBC News to Metrolinx. The regional transit authority said it will continue to support the businesses, but said they can’t financial compensation.
Preserving the culture
A couple of not-for-profits are working on addressing the impact the construction is having on the community.
Romain Baker co-founded one of the organizations, named Black UrbanismTO. He lives in the neighbourhood and started noticing businesses were closing down in the last few years.
“I saw there was a huge gap in knowledge,” said Baker, referring to the lack of information the owners were receiving on how the construction would affect them.
“I saw that as a barrier for business owners to be able to prepare themselves for additional burdens.”
Baker looked to bridge that gap. He and two others from the community founded their organization in 2018 with a focus on encouraging the community to “play an active role in how the neighbourhood develops.
“Unless the city is intentional in reaching certain demographics, that level of engagement doesn’t happen,” he said.
So far, they have held consultation sessions with the local business owners to brainstorm ways to support each other as the construction continues.
The LRT project is also expected to raise prices in the neighbourhood once it’s finished. But McDonald is worried he may not stay open to see it.
“We don’t know if we’re going to be here … The way they’ve gentrified the area, they’re really forcing us out.”
Black Futures on Eglinton, another not-for-profit organization responding to the impact of the construction, is focusing on making affordable housing a priority for the neighbourhood.
They have been holding cultural events in the community, including a reggae night.
“There was a big message from the community,” said Cheryll Case, founder of Black Futures on Eglinton.
“Availability of affordable housing and keeping businesses open is key to preserving the culture.”
Both organizations have been in talks with the city and hope to see more support to the community.