Inside-out; Little Jamaica and the survival challenge — a conversation with Black Urbanism Toronto

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Second session of the consultation series that took place at Sankofa Lounge with Black Business owners and residents on Eglinton Avenue West. (Photo: via Open Architecture Collaborative Canada)

COVID-19, the eternal talk of the world ver. 2020, has severely impacted businesses, households, governments and even socially impact driven organizations such as OACC. We have struggled, acknowledged and ideated solutions for the issues of working collaboratively with each other and approaching our prime stakeholders who make up the community that we work with. However, since we have always been interested and looked forward to the process of work and ethics adopted by our peer organizations around the world, we wanted to know how they had been coping with the impact of the pandemic on their organization and the problematic situations that they faced while working on their projects.

For the last seven months, OACC has been collaboratively working with Black Urbanism Toronto, on a project in the Little Jamaica neighborhood in Eglinton West of the York district of Toronto — “A Black Business Conversation on Planning For The Future of Black Businesses and Residents On Eglinton Avenue West”. BUTO partnered with Open Architecture Collaborative Canada, Black Business and Professional Association (BBPA), Urban Rural & Suburban Architecture (URSA), and the Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust, to host the two-part Black Business Conversations consultation series in February 2020. Our purpose, through this series was to connect with and understand the challenges and struggles faced by the Black business owners and residents living in Little Jamaica due to the construction of the LRT on Eglinton Avenue West. We were able to facilitate many business owners and residents who came together to envision a more equitable future for the community.

As OACC, we thoroughly enjoyed working with BUTO and considered this collaboration a great opportunity to get an insight into how they, as Black Urbanism Toronto, had been dealing with the effects of COVID-19.

Romain Baker and Dane Williams, the two founders of Black Urbanism Toronto, were kind enough to devote an hour of their Sunday evening to a conversation around the execution of their strategic path during the pandemic, and stayed with me to discuss the challenges faced by BUTO in maintaining its mission and the viability of the organization.

A Zoom conversation with the founders of Black Urbanism Toronto: (Left) Romain Baker (Right) Dane Williams

Priyasha (P): Thank you again for doing this, especially when the weather is so amazing outside. To start with, can you please give a brief about BUTO and your mission and vision regarding the organization?

(Both Romain and Dane chuckle at the obviousness of the first question)

Dane(D): That’s a good question, Romain what do you think?

Romain (R): So, the mission of BUTO is to engage our Black Community, in conversation around the needs of the neighbourhoods that we live in, and us coming together and putting together a plan to address those needs. And the things that we are trying to achieve are our cultural, social and economic advancements. We provide information so that the community can make an informed decision on issues and topics at hand and create opportunities for our community to be involved.

P:It sounds great! So what exactly happened when the pandemic happened, how did it affect you as an organization?

D: I think it put a lot of the things that we were hoping to do on hold. We have to understand that in terms of accessing Black communities, a lot of the work has to be done through physical contact or face to face. For the stores operating in these communities, their tension has to be towards their business which is their main source of income, and as an organization we want to understand that and accommodate them. And a lot of the times we have to be at their physical location while they are doing work, to strike up conversations, and due to COVID-19 and the whole thing with physical distancing, a lot of businesses that were not considered as essential services had to be shut down.

So, it was difficult for us to have one on one conversations with those shut-down businesses because a lot of times their contact information wasn’t valid. And our organization and Romain and I might not have personal relationships with those individuals, even though luckily we do have 15–20 businesses that we have relationships and interactions with. But in general, when it comes to the masses, it has been difficult for us to understand what they as a collective have been facing during this time.

But the great thing is that as an organization, we have been able to take a step back during this pandemic, and look within internally in terms of how we want to reposition ourselves moving forward and identify what we want to accomplish here, goals, mission and strategies, and what our one year plan looks like and how do we execute that.

So far, we have done a really good job in identifying that and any pitfalls that we might have had and really make sure that what we accomplish is really the key deliverables that some of these black businesses are looking to achieve, and we can be prepared to present them.

Natty B’s Trea-Jah-Isle, is one of the last bastions for the reggae community in Toronto. The store sells reggae vinyls while acting as a recording studio, juice bar, and Rasta accessories shop to keep up with the rent. (Image shot by photographer Jon Blak for Inside Toronto’s “Little Jamaica” by Anupa Mistry for The Fader)

“And a lot of the times we have to be at their physical location while they are doing work, to strike up conversations, and due to COVID-19 and the whole thing with physical distancing, a lot of businesses that were not considered as essential services had to be shut down.”

P: Nice….since you are saying that you have to be physically there to interact with them about their work management, and during this pandemic, the most efficient way that everyone has found to communicate with each other is through virtual means. So do you think that the inaccessibility towards the online platform by these businesses posed as a barrier in what you are trying to achieve?

R: Ya, one hundred percent! For example, the city has this digital main street where they try to onboard these small businesses online and they provide the tech support but even then they (the Black business owners) still need the equipment, and two, someone who can maintain it. This is one of the barriers seen by the business owners in the long term so they don’t even bother engaging with the program. The LRT has created a lot of financial burden, so they are already struggling to cover their existing costs. The whole experience anyway includes the in person coming in and engaging with the culture…

D: Yeah It’s a good thing that Romain added, the cultural ramification of how we as people congregate what we are used to which is in-person interactions, that’s our comfortability. physical contact, that’s something that we thrive from as a culture so, those two things that we combine culturally, the feeling that you have when you interact with someone and how powerful it is.Because we are very emotional people, we need to be feeling the vibe and go back and forth like YEA YEA YEA YEA….THIS THIS THIS THIS! And I’ll tie that to what Romain said, the technical barrier, maybe not feeling too comfortable and tech-savy, to not being able to operate that kind of machinery, and feeling more resistant to say that they don’t really see any benefits from it right? And it is potentially coming from the fact that it is something really difficult to manage and in their head they are thinking “Well, I’ll have to hire someone” and the trouble of having to go through that. So it’s not just Stage 1 of hopping on the options or kind of the assistance that the city has provided, but it’s 1,2,3,4,5,6,7 for these businesses so it’s too much to tackle. So it makes more sense for them to not use this (the virtual platform) entirely and operating just how they are.

A business owner outside his store in the Little Jamaica neighbourhood in Toronto (Image shot by photographer Jon Blak for Inside Toronto’s “Little Jamaica” by Anupa Mistry for The Fader)

“So it’s not just Stage 1 of hopping on the options or kind of the assistance that the city has provided, but it’s 1,2,3,4,5,6,7 for these businesses so it’s too much to tackle. So it makes more sense for them to not use this (the virtual platform) entirely and operating just how they are.”

P: So you said that your projects have been put on hold and that is kind of a setback. But considering the other outcomes, you have been conducting physical interactions with the business owners. How did that affect your projects? Did it increase the momentum of going forward with your work or are you still lagging behind in terms of your purpose of supporting them?

R: I would say, in one aspect, lagging behind. A part of the “Growing in Place” initiative that we are working on right now that we had consultation for in February, we were intending to do a very broad survey of all of the businesses, to collect very critical information about where they are, changes that have happened in the last couple years, and to get a good speed of what’s happening. Like who owns the buildings that they’re operating in and who’s leasing, in order for us to strategize not only for ourselves but share this information with other organizations, with the city, confronting them about black racism and so forth. That survey process was intended to be in person. In our community we have very high emotional intelligence. It might be oppression or needing to be aware of your surroundings at all times, being able to read people’s body languages etc. So when you pick up the phone and call someone like “Hey you know, I am from Black Urbanism To, just have a couple questions…” people are gonna be like…

D: “…..who are you?”

R: Yeah, even though I have met you (the business owners that they call to), have visited your store, shaken your hands… the second I pick up the phone asking you for the information, it’s like “no”.

P: So basically they are pretending not to know you?

R: It’s just… I mean even if they do know, they are not comfortable. They’ll find an excuse like “I am busy right now”, “Call me back later” and it just never ends up happening right? So we definitely thrive off of in-person interactions, and we took a step backward, rethinking how we are going to operate as an organization, and what things we have to plan for, given COVID. And I don’t think the impact of it is going to go away, in terms of how we navigate and do stuff going forward.

D: And I want to hop on what Romain said about emotional intelligence. I think it’s because we’ve been done so wrong for such a long time and the way they have kind of felt over the years. I think they need to be on their heels, and for them physical appearance is really important, as through the interactions they can see the genuineness, and the intentions you have through the discussions. We walk into the store and we intend on being there for five minutes and we are standing there talking to the business owners for an hour, two hours because you get to know the things that have transpired through the community, and it’s through that genuine interaction of them seeing our face that this guy, this big fore-headed guy here (Dane humorously points at his forehead) is super interested and so they know me as the ‘big forehead guy’. And that is also like the visual because they’ll say that “Ohh the big forehead guy right there” and they’ll know me through that recognition that “ohh heyy, big forehead guy, wassup?”

So it’s really important because that’s a part of your character and in our culture, when we are engaging with the people and we are vibing, that’s when the jokes will start and you’ll have a nickname through that interaction and they will recognize you with that. So we build in-person relations with them to make them comfortable and have that nickname. The moment you walk up to the black business stores, they already know what you want, and that’s what our organization thrives off, the in-person interactions and that is very crucial for us. Because we genuinely care for the people there and tell them that ma’am, my sister, my brother, we are here for you. We really want to hear what they have to say and that is something that has to be done in person.

P: I completely agree with you. I believe physical interactions are way above the virtual ones because the kind of empathy you gain towards the community is not authentically gathered through the tools of technology.

So, this answers my next question regarding the Little Jamaica project, with it experiencing the pressure under the present situation. But have there been any real estate issues that caused you not to have any collaborations in the future with the stakeholders? In addition to what you just discussed about the cruciality of having those in-person interactions with the business owners.

R: We want to support the cultural reclaiming of the area, and that would’ve been through events. In the summertime, especially the month of August, that is when the Caribana is going through July, we had already started to make connections with the people that are affiliated with Caribana. They were supportive of bringing other localized things to the area. But those conversations have stopped because we heard that everything is cancelled throughout the summer. The ability to bring people into the area, the foot traffic that the businesses need, have been impacted. The essential partnerships that we could’ve had but we likely won’t in the future now.

Barbershops are also places where a local community group conducts workshops on Black fatherhood — and still now, continue to be places that bring the broader black community of the metro Toronto area together (Image shot by photographer Jon Blak for Inside Toronto’s “Little Jamaica” by Anupa Mistry for The Fader)

“The moment you walk up to the black business stores, they already know what you want, and that’s what our organization thrives off, the in-person interactions and that is very crucial for us. Because we genuinely care for the people there and tell them that ma’am, my sister, my brother, we are here for you.”

This stimulating conversation did not just end here.

We had this chat in June when justice for George Floyd was being vigorously sought after and the protests for Black Lives Matter had unleashed themselves globally. Amidst that, I noticed a lot of people that I followed on social media, starting to support Black Businesses all around the world. Hence, it piqued my interest to know if this movement garnered any support to BUTO’s initiative and brought them closer to their mission. And what Romain and Dane, as the empathetic and contributive members of the Black community, had to say about it.

Read the rest of this conversation with Black Urbanism Toronto, in our next story in the “Impact Lens” section of Impact Bite.

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