Can Little Jamaica survive, or will gentrification get the better of the vibrant neighbourhood?

Local retailers say Crosstown construction and higher rents are taking a significant toll on the fabric of the community

Owners of surviving businesses in Little Jamaica are quick to point out the vacant storefronts along Eglinton Avenue West, from Allen Road to Dufferin Street, which are, for some, ominous bellwethers of the changes to come.

According to Nick Alampi, chair of the York-Eglinton Business Improvement Area (BIA), roughly 100 businesses in the area have shut down since shovels broke ground for construction on the Eglinton Crosstown Light Rail Transit project in 2011. Since then, barriers have been put up in some places, eclipsing entire stretches of Eglinton, including a slew of record shops, barbers and Caribbean grocery stores.

“There’s nothing to see now because it’s all blocked up,” said Sharon Walker, who co-owns the Braiding Store at 1666 Eglinton Ave. W.

Walker said the strip is going through some tough times. She’s noticed a drop in pedestrian traffic, reduced parking has taken a toll, and she is constantly sweeping up dust that blows into her salon from the construction outside.

“It does affect your business in many ways, but, you know, you just have to go out there and do your thing — advertise and stuff like that,” she said.

However, Walker said Little Jamaica likely won’t be the same when all the construction is over, “Maybe a small piece [will remain], but not what it was.”

Mike George of 2000 & 1 Hair Studio on Eglinton Avenue West

Mike George has operated 2000 & 1 Hair Studio at 1621 Eglinton Ave. W. for the past eight years and said he understands construction on Eglinton West is necessary. What he doesn’t get is why he’s lost parking in front of his salon 24/7.

“I know that the work has to be done, but after six in the evening … and on weekends, if there is no construction going on, my customers should be allowed to park,” George said.

He’d like to see an exemption that would let customers park near his storefront at certain times each day.

“We’re losingbusiness big time, and we shouldget compensated."

“We’re losing business big time, and we should get compensated. This is a rich country, man. You’re not in the Caribbean.… Why can’t they compensate the business people?” he said.

If business doesn’t pick up, George suggested he may have to close up shop. Claudine Harris, a stylist who works alongside George, said the stress and uncertainty has made her ill.

“Where am I gonna get money to pay my bills?” Harris asked.

Last month, Mayor John Tory and councillor Josh Colle, Ward 15, Eglinton-Lawrence, held a press conference in Little Jamaica to announce parking discounts for the area and a planned cleanup of the strip.

However, Alampi isn’t sure exactly how those measures will play out.

“At the end of the day, we want to thank the mayor, we want to thank Josh Colle for what he’s done,” Alampi said. “[But] we’re not getting a clear understanding of how these [changes] are going to be, and how it would work.”

The York-Eglinton BIA has already taken its own steps to spruce up the area. One initiative involves putting up old photos of the area in vacant store windows.

“If people are going for a stroll, it’s entertaining — it’s just not empty store, empty store, empty store. So what we’re hoping to do is at least make the area more pleasant, more inviting,” Alampi said.

Diana Petramala, a senior researcher for Ryerson University’s Centre for Urban Research and Land Development, said the LRT will bring other challenges too.

Toronto City Council has already ushered in bylaw exceptions to allow mid-rise buildings fronting onto parts of Eglinton Avenue West.

Petramala said the resulting potential for development in the area is sure to drive prices up.

“Transit increases land values wherever you go,” Petramala said, noting higher land values bring more expensive rents. “The gentrification has already started, from my own observation … from just north of St. Clair along Oakwood itself. It will eventually get to Eglinton.”

A 16-storey, mixed-use condo building has already been proposed for the southwest corner of Eglinton and Oakwood Avenue. The Hub Condos, by developer Empire Communities, was the first big proposal to come forward.

As construction continues, Alampi said many businesses are finding creative ways to try and survive until the dust settles on the $5.3 billion infrastructure project that is expected to wrap up in 2021.

“They’re diversifying and adopting partnerships, whether it be in their facility — the mortar and brick — or whether it be through mobile services,” he explained.

At Bobbi Jo Quigley’s shop, you can grab an Americano or stock up on angora yarn. Her business, Porch Swing Yarnsomniacs, 1568 Eglinton Ave. W., began as a knitting-supply retailer. But to help cover the rent, she added a modest café to the store a year ago.

“We wouldn’t have been able to pay for rent. We would’ve been screwed,” Quigley said.

Although the café has helped business some, Quigley still doubts she’ll be able to renew her lease when it expires in the fall.