Saving Little India

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The graveyard silence permeating the streets of Little India is broken only by a fluttering kit of pigeons, whose wings cast shadows on the façade of what once was the Naaz Theatre.

It’s morning on a weekday in fall, and most of the merchants are hibernating. I’m told the streetscape is liveliest in summer, when the air is heavy with the scent of incense and spices. In winter, the streets and shops are nearly as bare as the trees. Weekends offer an interlude of somewhat steady activity, enough to encourage storeowners to remain.

Some, though, have taken flight from this historic strip on Toronto’s Gerrard Street East, between Coxwell Avenue and Greenwood Avenue. Ten to 15 empty storefronts serve as a glaring reminder that things are not what they used to be. Rents have gone up, and without a reliable stream of customers, many businesses have taken a beating, says Subbu Chintaluri, the BIA manager of Gerrard India Bazaar. But even at the height of prosperity, he adds, five or six stores were usually unoccupied.

This worrying trend of decline has been on the minds of its denizens, who have endured waves of hardship, brought on by intervening events, such as SARS and 9/11. These days, however, it’s competition from shops in Brampton, Scarborough and Mississauga that has them concerned. The city’s outlying areas are where many South Asians reside and, out of convenience, where they shop.

“But,” Chintaluri insists, “this is still the only place you can say represents the entire subcontinent.”

While the concrete stretch where Little India and Little Pakistan were formed does reflect the diverse cultures of South Asia, it has also been a second home. Here, people once flocked to catch the latest Bollywood films in the 1970s at the Naaz Theatre. The influx spurred commercial development as businesses sprang up to cater to South Asian tastes. Gian Naaz, the enterprising forefather of the bazaar, worked to create a space where the community could gather. In 1982, the City of Toronto designated the area as the Gerrard India Bazaar.

Before then, the bazaar had been a working class neighbourhood, home to English, Irish and Scottish immigrants, and later Greeks and Italians. Gerrard Street was lined with hardware and electronic stores, grocers and cinemas.

Naaz arrived in 1972 when the area was in an economic slump. Initially, he rented the abandoned Eastwood Theatre.

Neighbourhood demographics from the 2006 census tracts reveal that Chinese top the list of visible minority groups living north and south of Gerrard Street. Even business owners, who once lived above their shops, have fanned out to live in other neighbourhoods. Some make the commute all the way from Brampton.

What keeps business owners tethered is a nostalgic sense of the area’s resemblance to bazaars from their ethnic homeland. The plazas in Brampton, Scarborough and Mississauga, they assert, lack the requisite atmosphere to make them destinations for a little shopping and a lot of eating.

While the plazas may be convenient for shoppers because they’re close to home, “I don’t think [shoppers] have fun there,” says Jasbir Singh, an avuncular fellow, with a hearty laugh that belies his struggles. Jasbir Singh and his wife have been running Miss India Fashion & Jewellery for six years now.

Vacant shops draped with Indian textiles or paper are not the only telltale signs that business has changed. Some families have cut back on the number of people they employ, or now run the business without any outside help, relying instead on family members to contribute.

“The same restaurant that used to employ people before, I now see their own family working in the kitchen, working as waiters, at the cash register, doing the dishes,” observes Chintaluri. “That’s how you cope. South Asian family networks are very strong, it’s kind of a bondage, and they try to chip in to some extent.”

The precipitous decline in clientele over the years has meant Jasbir Singh can’t afford to hire a clerk to tend to the store. “If I have to pay her in the evening,” he says,  “what am I going to take home?”

Just the sight of people bustling through the streets may spark curiosity and attract those unfamiliar with Little India, said Jasbir. “Why do people go to Spadina or the Chinese bazaar? Because they see people roaming about, people coming and going.”

For that to happen, you need to give people something to talk about, to get excited about, says veteran storeowner Kanweljit Khorana.

Khorana, who was a community organizer, witnessed the neighbourhood’s cultural transformation from a rundown area rife with racial and ethnic tensions to its present state, where a creeping gentrification has left others behind. New condo developments are slated to replace old buildings and newer businesses are coming in.

Times were tougher back in the mid 1960s. Vandals targeted the area’s businesses, while the Ku Klux Klan focused on Dundas East, scouting for recruits and distributing hate propaganda.  A hotline for reporting attacks was initiated by an anti-racist group, according to a Ryerson University study.

“We had to contact the police because we wanted to make this area much better,” recalls Khorana. “We didn’t have enough co-operation from the city, police department and local residents. We made a small association and tried to argue with [the police and the city].” It took time, but the situation eventually improved.

For Khorana, today’s struggles are an internal crisis. He contends that the emergence of other markets is not responsible for the bazaar’s fading attraction. “A businessman has to see what’s going wrong. We have to make it more vibrant.”

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Parking regulations have also discouraged people from making the journey, observes Vivek Neelam, the gracious proprietor of Sangam Silk Store. “People are saying the plazas are better for them because they don’t have to pay for parking. The city should be a little more flexible with the parking hours—at least make the street parking free after six o’clock, rather than at nine.”

To survive, Neelam makes concessions when customers try to haggle with him for the sale of a sari. “I’m trying to be more flexible with the prices…Now it’s like a fish market,” he says dryly.

What’s missing from the streets of Gerrard Street, Khorana and Jasbir Singh say, are lights and decorations to enliven the street. A fresh coat of paint, updating the signage and the façade, and spacing out the festivities are some other ideas that the BIA manager and its members have floated. Last year, artists Alexa Hatanaka and Patrick Thompson completed a mural project to embellish the street with a wild palette of colour and design.

The upkeep and beautification of the area are top priorities for Chintulari, but sometimes a little bit of nudging is required to convince everyone to pitch in. “Slowly,  [storeowners] are coming around. But still, some have the mentality that people will come [anyway],” he says.

Celebrations such as Diwali, the festival of lights in early November, and the Festival of South Asia in July, pull people from different communities into its orbit, but the buzz fizzles once winter hits.

“November to April are very critical months. Many people don’t come here for Christmas shopping. People usually go to malls for that,” says Chintaluri.

As noticeable as it is that the crowds are not what they used to be, not everyone is feeling the pinch. Ethnic groceries such as Kohinoor Foods and Toronto Cash & Carry have maintained their standing in the community as a source of hard-to-find ingredients.

“We’re not as crazy-busy as we used to be, but we still attract people from out of town,” said Azim Popat, who was born in Uganda and immigrated to Canada at 18. He has considered relocating to where former customers migrated, but decided it was best to stick around. “We’re so entrenched here. I didn’t see any point in starting a new store—it would require a lot of family manpower.”

Business for Sarab Singh, the amiable owner of Chandan Fashion, is also doing relatively well. (On the day I visited her, she had four employees overseeing special orders and doing alterations.)

The market for saris as everyday wear has slumped, but demand continues for tailored garments for weddings and special occasions. “Brides’ tastes have changed. They want Indian embroideries, but the cuts are Western,” said Sarab. Sleeves are out, shoulders are optional, but white is not a colour. They still go for red, maroon, pink or peach, she says.

“We had a tough time, too, but we came out of it,” Sarab says. It helps to have a daughter and son who can pick up on clients’ tastes and have custom designs made in India, she adds.

The next generation, it seems may help rejuvenate the strip, as they decide to approach things differently.

Rang Home Décor, a one-of-a-kind shop, is carefully curated to jive with the modern sensibilities of the younger South Asian generation, and to infuse a little of that Indian accent into the homes of other Canadians. Owner Trish Mahtani makes yearly buying trips to India, fetching candy-hued textiles and hand-painted figures from Jaipur, Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore.

Though Mahtani’s wares attract a broad clientele and her store could easily succeed in other neighbourhoods, it made sense to her to set up shop here. “People come to the area because they want to experience something South Asian,” she says. “My dad’s business is across the street—I have a little bit of an attachment to this area.” Her father, Govind Mahtani, opened Nucreation, which has carried wedding wear since the 1970s.

The arrival of new cafés, an art gallery, a pet supply store and condos in place of the storied Naaz Theatre are once again remaking the area’s character. The old guards cling tenaciously to the belief that Little India will never fade from the landscape, even as they embrace the new tenants moving in.

“The area is a family community. I know a lot of the owners personally. We always try to help each other out, send customers here and there,” says Mahtani. “You want everyone to do well.”

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