Toronto is introducing ‘cultural districts’, but who determines the culture?

The city of Toronto is trying something new with some of its neighborhoods, formalizing them into “cultural districts.”

But for many city planners, the initiative raises an important question: who can determine the culture of a city and legitimize it?

The cultural districts program, first proposed in response to ongoing calls to secure heritage designation and preserve Little Jamaica, was announced at a meeting of the city’s economic development committee in October.

In addition to Little Jamaica in Eglinton West, three other areas are being considered for the program: Church-Wellesley Village, Chinatown, and Geary Avenue, an area that was once known as Toronto’s ugliest street now transformed into a shopping mall in Toronto. art, breweries and restaurants. , fashion houses and music stores.

At the October meeting, Elena Bird, the city’s policy development officer, said the cultural districts program is about examining how to celebrate and empower communities “beyond the current political tool.”

“How can we protect areas from displacement, through possible solutions such as community property?” Bird asked. “How do we avoid the loss of character and identity that provide a safe space and a sense of belonging to communities?”

Hear Danica Samuel talk about ‘cultural districts’

Many of the details of the cultural districts program have yet to be determined, but the city said it will carry out broad public participation through the winter and will look to places like San Francisco, Singapore and Boston to inform what is being done here. The investigation would determine the implementation plan, timelines, resources, governance, and financial and community benefits.

But Jamilla Mohamud, senior urban planner at Urban Strategies, points out that a cultural districts program should not be implemented from the top down, which means that it cannot be the government that determines what is best for underserved communities.

“Who decides what is worthy of receiving that (designation), such as (what) culture is deemed worthy and benefits from the designation and (what culture) does not?” Mohamud asked, adding that it is unclear what the conversations between the city and residents are like.

“It really has to be a community-based initiative,” Mohamud explained, emphasizing that the development of the process, application eligibility, and definitions of a cultural district should be created in collaboration with community members.

“Particularly focused on the needs of communities that have been systematically marginalized – racialized low-income communities, indigenous populations,” he continued. “(We should) think about how we can take advantage of this cultural district designation to make a city more livable, better and more equitable for all.”

When asked how the city will determine the cultural influence of a district, either through the historical presence of a specific group or its current identity, the city said it is identifying cultural districts as “areas of municipal importance that have a Historic legacy of grouping cultural resources, businesses, non-profit organizations and residents, which (when) combined elevates the cultural identity and cultural heritage of the neighborhood. ”

Additionally, Bird said at the city meeting that cultural districts would take what existing business improvement areas do one step further by “connecting businesses, but with residents and with the local community, that kind of cultural community in the neighborhood”.

Glenn Castanheira, CEO of Downtown Montreal, a nonprofit made up of nearly 5,000 businesses in downtown Montreal, has previously spoken with Star about how his city’s urban planning compares to Toronto’s.

Like Mohamud, Castanheira also agrees that who determines the culture could be a concern, but he also believes that the concept of formalizing districts in general may be narrow-minded.

While Castenheira supports the preservation of cultural heritage in neighborhoods, he fears that formalizing a designation for the area through government policies could hamper the natural evolution of culture in a city.

“I think (districts) are mostly what you see in American cities, which is horrible,” Castanheira said.

Whether it’s art, finance, or entertainment, he says, that kind of experience is “much more than just a geographic element. It really has to be organic and spread everywhere. “

Regarding the formalization of cultural districts, Castanheira wonders what happens when a neighborhood full of ethnic heritage and culture evolves organically, not through gentrification, but particularly through migration.

He uses an example from New York’s old Chinatown in Manhattan and his modern one in Queens. He also says the same about the community he grew up in in Montreal, informally known as Little Portugal, where he says there is “a fraction” of the Portuguese community left.

“Little Portugal used to be Montreal’s Jewish Quarter, right. Have the Portuguese erased the history of the Montreal Jewish community? No, each builds on the other and will continue to happen, ”he said.

“What I mean is that the more restrictions you put around a certain area and identify it with a certain cultural heritage, the greater the risk you run of turning it into a ghetto or of segregating it from the rest of the city. There is a real risk there. There is a beauty in the way cities evolve organically. And if it’s done right, it’s to ensure that those communities retain their power and influence in the city itself. “

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