Gerrard Street is changing, but the area hopes to maintain its Indian culture.
At the corner of Coxwell and Gerrard is Lazy Daisy’s Café, run by Dawn Chapman.
Chapman moved into the neighbourhood in 2006, and opened her cafe in 2011. During that time, she would walk by “really beautiful” sari shops along Gerrard Street East, and then see empty storefronts with “for lease” signs, dusty and dirt-caked windows, and pigeon droppings along the sills.
While Chapman said the spaces looked like they hadn’t been cared for by anyone for a long time, it wasn’t that bad.
“It’s not like it was old Buffalo or Detroit or anything,” she said
Little India has absorbed the bumps of gentrification with urban-revitalization efforts underway in the neighbourhood, and could become one of the city’s next trendy neighbourhood.
Current State of Little India
Chandan Singh is a second-generation business owner of Chandan Fashion, a mom-and-pop boutique that opened its doors at the corner of Gerrard and Ashdale in 1986.
“My friends went to Gerrard Street when I was younger,” Singh said. “I was born and raised on Gerrard Street.
“If I needed to take a nap? I didn’t go home to take a nap,” he said. “My mom would put down saris on the ground behind the counter and she would make a pillow out of fabric and I would sleep there to take a nap.”
Singh said Gerrard Street was the mecca of anything South Asian in North America, including fashion, food, grocery, and entertainment.
He is now one of the board members on the Gerrard India Bazaar BIA Board of Management.
There are currently 125 businesses along the Gerrard India Bazaar strip, including 22 non-South Asian businesses.
“The vacancy rates are falling down,” Tasneem Bandukwala, BIA manager for the Gerrard India Bazaar, said.
The current vacancy rate in the bazaar is five per cent.
“I think the vacancy rate’s pretty stable there,” Councillor Paula Fletcher (Ward 30, Toronto-Danforth) said. The ward she represents covers the north side of Gerrard Street East until Coxwell Avenue.
A historical survey, Toronto’s Little India: A Brief Neighbourhood History, released by Ryerson University in 2010, mentions cracked sidewalks, insufficient lighting, litter, and parking problems among the concerns that surfaced as early as the 1980s.
Tension between local residents and businesses grew as cars were parked on private lawns and driveways. There was even a proposal to close Gerrard Street between Woodfield and Gerrard to automobile traffic during the summer months or on weekends, the report said.
“Tell me which part of downtown doesn’t have parking issues,” Bandukwala said.
There are two Green P parking lots nearby. One of the lots is at Rhodes Avenue and the other at Ashdale Avenue. However, they are not directly part of the BIA.
Bandukwala said the Gerrard India Bazaar BIA is currently in talks with the Toronto Parking Authority to evaluate parking and have made a request to make it free after 6 p.m., which is expected to encourage more visitors.
The Gerrard India Bazaar BIA, which was approved by the City in July 1982, announced new street lighting and suggested Roden Public School for parking during the 1980s. The BIA had spent about $120,000 to improve the area, including installing new lights, putting up new signs, and doing some general landscaping.
The Gerrard India Bazaar BIA spreads across Coxwell and Glenside avenues on Gerrard Street East.
In 2016, the BIA spent $133,386 on improvements to the area, which includes streetscaping, marketing, festivals and events, and capital projects. This year, the BIA has a budget of $154,730 to work with.
The strip contained about 100 South Asian shops and restaurants by the 1980s, and an estimated 100,000 tourists visited the area in 1984, according to the report.
Fast forward a few decades and the South Asian culture has expanded into Toronto’s suburbs such as Scarborough, Brampton, and Mississauga, where grocers, restaurants, traditional clothing, and movie and music shops are serving their communities.
A resident living in the suburbs may decide to walk, drive, or bike to the nearby plaza on Derry and Airport Road in Mississauga, or Albion and Islington in Etobicoke, to pick up daily supplies from a local supermarket and have a dinner-and-a-movie night, rather than drive downtown, fight through the traffic, and pay for parking on a weekend.
With more access to South Asian programming on television and online, people can find entertainment within the comfort of their own homes.
“In the late 90s, we had a little bit of a lull where the market started to dip, and the suburbs started becoming extremely popular,” Singh said.
But families standing outside a shop running through Bollywood classics while waiting for their roasted corn to be coated in lemon and spice, is a nostalgic memory that connects with many members of the community.
“We want to reposition the bazaar as a place for the youth,” Bandukwala said. “Yes, it will still have nostalgic values.”
“Ever since gentrification has been going on, we’ve only been seeing an upswing in the area,” Singh said. He said the new businesses entering the strip add a lot of character to the area, and that a lot of the businesses that ended up shutting down were “really obsolete.”
“The reality of the situation is that the neighbourhood is not South Asian,” Singh said. “If you look at the neighbours that live in the side street on the Gerrard Street strip, most of them are Caucasian or they’re not of South Asian descent.”
He said having more different cultures coming into the bazaar will strengthen the Canadian roots and heritage.
In 1968, Gian Naz (often spelled Naaz), immigrated to Toronto with his family from India. He started renting and showing Bollywood blockbusters inside the then-defunct Eastwood Theatre in 1972. According to the report, Naz “wanted a place where Indians could meet socially and where women would have a reason to wear saris at an establishment close to downtown.”
The success ended up allowing Naz to purchase the 750-seat theatre by 1974, naming it Naaz Theatre. It drew movie-goers from across the city, and from even as far as Niagara and Montreal. But with easy access to Bollywood blockbusters on VHS, business began to slow down, as the family eventually shut their theatre in the mid-1980s and sold the building by 1985, as previously reported by Torontoist.
The old Naaz Theatre has been leased by the city, and it it currently home to Red Door Family Shelter while their permanent home is being built on Queen Street East.
Around 5,110 people people of South Asian descent live within a three-kilometre walk of Little India, which is a small number compared to the area’s 110,965 residents.
Chapman remembers her real estate agent not wanting to show her the house she now lives in and trying to convince her to move to an area that was a little more upmarket.
“We could buy something much smaller and renovated in a different area,” Chapman said.” We chose a house that needed work in a neighbourhood which was close to parks, schools, and near a culturally rich high street.”
She loves the feeling of being abroad. What attracted Chapman to the neighbourhood is being steps away from a place that blossoms with the sights, sounds, and tastes of South Asia.
She remembers walking down Gerrard Street East one summer night and seeing lots of South Asian families eating corn, women dressed in saris, and the strong smell of different spices such as cumin, which drew her to walk into BJ Supermarket. She wanted to buy ingredients to make homemade curry.
“What I didn’t realize was that they were just so, so spicy,” Chapman said. “We were trying to make our own Indian meal, and it burned our faces off,” Chapman said, laughing. “We couldn’t finish eating it.”
According to the 2011 census of Ward 30, there was a 0.9 per cent (53,290) population increase from 2006. However this wasn’t the case between 2001 and 2006 when there was a significant population loss of 6.4 per cent, while the city overall saw a population increase.
Ryerson’s report said the neighbourhood’s housing characteristics were likely linked to the population loss, including the local housing stock being relatively old and smaller than elsewhere in the city.
“As the space-demands among average Canadian families have increased over time, local families tend to be smaller and more households are occupied by singles and couples without children. Thus, fewer individuals now live in the area than in the past,” the report said.
There was a 2.7 per cent increase (57,365) in population between 2006 and 2011 in Ward 32, according to the 2011 Census of Ward 32 Beaches-East York. But between 2001 and 2006 there was a population loss of 0.8 per cent in Ward 32.
In 2006, an average of 2.3 people lived in Ward 30 per household in 2006 and and 2.2 people in Ward 32, compared to 2.5 in the City of Toronto. Meanwhile in 2011, the size of the average in the local household remained below the City of Toronto average of 2.46. The number of people living per household in Ward 30 was 2.33 and 2.25 in Ward 32.
There have also been concerns with litter and people feeding pigeons, both of which have attracted rodents. The City sent bylaw officers to the area spoke to the BIA about the problem, and the group plans to distribute some education flyers to business owners, Councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon (Ward 32, Beaches-East York) said.
“We’re not sure who is doing it,” she said. “It could be residents, tourists, or passerby.”
The ward she represents covers the south side of Gerrard Street East.
“There are some naughty residents in every neighbourhood,” Bandukwala said when asked whether litter in the area is a concern. “We’re trying to deal with them. As a BIA manager, my responsibility is to represent the businesses, and I have been talking to the businesses.[Businesses] don’t just rely on the garbage picking. Each and every business have a private garbage company who comes and picks up the garbage.”
The City’s Vacant Unit Property Tax Rebate Program for commercial and industrial buildings does reward landlords for keeping storefronts empty. Landlords can apply for a tax rebate that refunds 30 per cent of the property tax for vacant commercial space and 35 per cent for vacant industrial space with a number of conditions to qualify for the refund, including the building being in a state of good repair and the landlord being willing to rent it out. The rebate was introduced in 2001 as a way to subsidize property owners in tough times. On average, the City rebates amount to $45 million annually to qualifying property owners.
“That would be a good kick in the pants for property owners to do something with their property,” McMahon said.
Mayor John Tory put forward plan in November 2016, and said he supports “straightforward” and “sensible” tax reforms to produce additional revenues to address the gap in the City’s operating finances.
“Of course, we’re trying to make sure that’s [vacancy tax rebate] gone, so people aren’t just sitting around with empty units,” Councillor Paula Fletcher said.
The City subsidized property owners to the tune of $367 million between 2001 and 2013. Almost 50 per cent of those payments have gone to the owners of empty spaces in the downtown core.
“It has rewarded building owners who keep their space vacant, while watching their property values rise,” Tory said in January.
“Unoccupied commercial properties have a negative impact on neighbourhood health,” he said. “They are unpopular with residents. And empty storefronts impact the liveliness of Toronto’s main streets.”
McMahon says it’s more of a geographical fight than a cultural one. She says there is frustration from South Asian and non-South Asian businesses, but that their frustration really stems from where they’re located.
“We have a good balance right now,” she said. Retaining the South Asian identity, culture, language, and food is something the city wants to do.
Gerrard India Bazaar BIA meetings are held monthly to discuss the current state of things in and around the bazaar.
McMahon said there is frustration about whether events that are being hosted are benefiting every business on the street. At the BIA meeting held on March 15, she said there was a concern that a lot of the funding is going towards the annual two-day South Asian festival, but most of the action takes place along Coxwell and Gerrard streets and the other side is not receiving as much crowd attention.
As with any BIA, there’s always conflicting views and opinions, McMahon said. But the new businesses coming in and concerns about gentrification have caused tension on the board.
Singh said the fact that there is frustration is “amazing” because for many years there was no frustration, emotion, or passion.
“The prior BIA [board members] did their best,” he said. “They basically maintained the status quo…Finally we have some new blood on the board.”
In a long strip like Gerrard Street East, it makes sense to put the main stage in the centre so everybody gets a view, and that’s what they’ve been doing, Bandukwala said
“For the upcoming festival, my solution is that if we want to have a stage, we have one stage in the centre and two side stages on both sides,” she said. “So, we have the crowd divided throughout the street.”
But due to budget issues, Bandukwala said they couldn’t afford three stages last year.
“I don’t want all of the crowd to be right in the centre because it becomes difficult to manage in terms of security,” she said.
Also discussed at the March 15 meeting was the plan to have a mini chess parkette to attract more visitors to spend more time in the bazaar, Bandukwala said. It would be part of capital projects where the City would pay half of the approved cost. Capital projects include streetscaping projects.
The bazaar has 21 tree boxes, and has received permit to paint all of them, because these tree boxes attract graffiti and vandalism, Bandukwala said.
The BIA is proposing a live street-art competition to beautify the concrete tree boxes while abiding by City’s regulations. The competition will have a curator and a City-approved theme.
Bandukwala said the BIA also in talks to make the bazaar a Wi-Fi zone to attract younger people.
“Why do you find [young people] at Starbucks for so long with one coffee?” she said.
The Gerrard India Bazaar BIA is also in the process of submitting a formal request to have all hydro infrastructure underground which will make the bazaar look uncluttered, Bandukwala said.
“The BIA is working on repositioning the Gerrard India Bazaar, not taking away its ethnicity and culture that is the essence of a multicultural city like Toronto, but to add elements that also reflect modern India,” Bandukwala said.
“Given the diversity of cultures, traditions, religion, it is Bollywood, cricket, and music that bring citizens together as Indians. Don’t be surprised if you hear about gully cricket match being organized in the bazaar during summer,” she said.
The bazaar’s two-day, flagship annual street festival, which is in its 15th year, attracts about 50,000 to 100,000 visitors who spend more than an estimated $2 million, according to the Ryerson report.
But, according to Bandukwala, that number of festival visitors has been 200,000 over the past few years.
“People still come. It is still a very thriving tourist spot,” she said.
Bandukwala said the City has been very supportive of all efforts by the Gerrard India Bazaar BIA to preservice and promote the bazaar.
“One of our major costs is the street closure fees. A waiver/consideration on these fees will help us channelize the resources for the production of the event. The event is growing larger every year and with rising costs, funding/grants from the city will come as great support,” Bandukwala wrote in an email.
Street-closure fees cost the BIA approximately $16,000 which Bandukwala said is almost 10 per cent of their total event expenditure.
While the BIA has have many ideas when it comes to streetscaping, Bandukwala said they have very limited resources.
“The City has been supporting us by way of capital projects in which they pay half of the approved project costs. We hope that the City continues this support and helps us preserve this heritage site.”
Bandukwala said a laneway project is possible at the bazaar and that the BIA hopes the City will consider it.
Some members of the BIA have been frustrated by businesses not listing hours of operation on windows. If a customer comes to a restaurant and it’s not open, the customer is not going to come back.
Having mandatory hours of operation is a good thought Bandukwala said, but you can’t enforce it, mainly because the target audience for each business is different, and some stay open past midnight.
Gerrard Street East has two different identities, one in the morning and the other at night, Bandukwala said
“It is that strong vibrant culture that pulls everybody,” she said.
CORRECTION: JUNE 5 1:25 PM: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that Dawn Chapman walked along Gerrard Street before opening her cafe in 2011.
CLARIFICATION: JUNE 5 3:06 PM: The photo captions in this article have been updated to indicate when the photos were taken.
CORRECTION: JUNE 5 3:24 PM: The article has been updated to reflect where Dawn Chapman saw empty storefronts and how those storefronts looked. Torontoist regrets the errors.