When I was young, a trip to Gerrard Street was a day-long venture. My Dad would park near the school on Hiawatha Road and we would walk down to Gerrard Street from there. Usually we were there to meet some family or friends, have some lunch or dinner, run a few errands along the strip, and then we would walk back to our car. Once or twice, we found our tires were slashed.
Although our visits were few and far between, Gerrard Street itself was an experience for me: it was old, it was noisy, it was confusing, it was usually crowded. We never called the Gerrard strip running between Coxwell and Greenwood, “Little India” or “India Bazaar”. To us it was simply “Gerrard Street”. “India Bazaar” itself is a misnomer. There are far more Pakistani and Afghan businesses.
“Little South Asia” sounds a bit clunky and might also be a misnomer. I suppose India is more marketable and more easily commodified than other brown countries. I wonder how people would perceive a neighborhood called “Little Pakistan”. (Here, I will refer to the area as “Gerrard Street”, “Gerrard Street bazaar”, or “Gerrard/Coxwell”.)
Heritage Toronto Walks Down Gerrard
Heritage Toronto offers walking tours in neighborhoods across the city as a way of sharing local histories and narratives that people might not otherwise know. When I heard that Heritage Toronto was hosting a tour of the Gerrard Street bazaar, I decided to take my Dad. I thought it would be exciting for him to hear about the history of the neighborhood, how it has changed, and also to share some of his own memories.
The tour started out great. Someone affiliated with Heritage Toronto and from the neighborhood gave us a quick historical overview of the people who settled in the area in the early-to-mid 20th century — mostly working class people employed in the brickyards, with the TTC [Toronto Transit Commission] or at local factories.
We stopped in front of the former Ulster Arms, one of the oldest taverns/hotels in the area dating back to the late 1800s. It is now a rooming house. Across the street, there were indications of change: a new community and employment center complete with a rooftop community garden.
At this point, the head of the Gerrard India Bazaar BIA took over the tour and unfortunately, the remainder of the walk turned out to be less about the history of the neighborhood and its buildings and businesses, and more about South Asian cultures.
Our guide was fielding questions not about the Bazaar itself, but about culture and customs. Rather than engaging the spaces around us, our guide became a walking Wikipedia page on “South Asians” (as problematic as that sounds). He also didn’t really have much insight on the Bazaar’s layered history, which I think, is much more interesting than talking about saris.
The Beginnings Of The Bazaar
I was a little disappointed because I thought the walk would allow us to unpack the neighborhood’s history and evolving streetscape. The Bazaar itself sprouted around Naaz Theatre (now a condo project), the first movie theatre in North America to exclusively showcase South Asian films.
In 1972, Gian Naaz saw the growing need for a space for the local South Asian communities to watch their movies. Before Naaz, films were shown in church basements or school auditoriums. Naaz Theatre became a gathering place for the Toronto area’s South Asians, and soon people from all over the country and even the States began making trips out to Gerrard Street.
Seeing a movie on Gerrard Street was a day-long venture. The movies themselves were long enough, but people also wanted to have a meal with their families, meet up with some friends and shop around. This tradition lasted for years.
As the theatre became more established, restaurants began popping up too. The stories and experiences of immigrants along Gerrard Street, including business owners who have been in the area since the 1970s, have been collected in the oral history project “Big Stories, Little India”, by the South Asian Visual Arts Centre (SAVAC) and [murmur].
Many second and third generation brown folks in Toronto have a story about Gerrard Street. The Bazaar is a part of our communities’ nostalgia in this city.
“Toronto The Bad”
While the walk began with a brief preface about the neighborhood’s roots, we didn’t talk about the initial friction between the residents and the emerging South Asian community at Gerrard/Coxwell. There was no mention of the growing hostility against people of color that swept through Toronto in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and was certainly was very visible in the Gerrard/Coxwell area.
This article on torontoist.com provides a pretty thorough overview of the Naaz Theatre and tension with the local community. Moviegoers lining up outside the theater were subject to racial taunts and harassment by local residents. There were physical attacks, there was vandalism and there was racist graffiti. We didn’t hear about any of this on our walk, something I feel is a huge part of the neighborhood’s history.
In the late 1970s, The Toronto Star extensively covered the alarmingly high number of incidents and attacks against immigrant communities of color (and may have fueled the issue with the coverage). The era saw the image of Toronto change drastically — from “Toronto the Good” to “Toronto the Bad”.
City-wide racially-motivated attacks against brown people were just a part of that picture. Verbal abuse was commonplace too. It didn’t matter if you were Tanzanian, Guyanese, or Pakistani — you all met the same fate of “Paki bashing”. Many of the more serious incidents occurred on the TTC with white youth swarming and beating brown people and sometimes throwing them onto the subway tracks.
A number of incidents involving anti-Black violence also sparked concern. The racially-motivated murder of a 16-year-old Black teen in 1975 pointed to a growing number of white supremacist activities in Toronto, one group located in close proximity to the bazaar at Gerrard/Coxwell.
In the Gerrard/Coxwell area, the violence became so unsettling that the local South Asian community organized a 24-hour emergency hotline for people of color to call if they were being harassed or if they got attacked. The people running the hotline would respond by dispatching a few of their own, armed with baseball bats and the like to, as my Dad put it, “beat the hell out of the racists”. Pretty badass, I think.
Even in 2014 on our Heritage Toronto tour, this happened: while we were standing in front of the former Ulster Arms, a young man approached our group and started yelling at us to get off his property and that if we didn’t have permission to be there, he was going to call the cops. He also offered to “knock each every one of [us]” if we weren’t gone within five minutes. An older man who appeared to be a volunteer with Heritage Toronto assured him we’d be gone and tried to calm him down, to which the young man yelled: “Fuck you, n*****! I’ll knock you out too!” An uncomfortable interaction, a few awkward glances, and that incident was soon swept under the rug.
Unpacking Everything & Collective Memory
I think the premise of the Heritage Toronto walks are fantastic and so crucial for sharing local histories outside of the downtown core. I’m not sure a more radical “tour” would have attracted the same demographics. Although this walk had a pretty good turnout, most people appeared to be in their 40s or 50s. Of the 30 or so people, there were about five people of color (the second guide included).
I appreciate the efforts of Heritage Toronto, but when we’re talking about history, we need to engage not only the good, but the bad and uncomfortable as well. In Toronto, we should celebrate our diversity. But that also means recognizing when our city presents us with injustice.
When we’re telling stories about our city, we need to unpack everything. This is a part of the process of remembering a space/place. This becomes a part of our collective memory of Gerrard Street East, and of the city.
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Sunjay Mathuria is an editor-turned-urban planning student living in Toronto, Canada.