Toronto's Chinatown needs heritage designation, community advocates tell city

·4 min read
Amy Go, the president of the Chinese Canadian National Council for Social Justice, is one of many advocates seeking a heritage designation for Toronto's Chinatown. (CBC - image credit)
Amy Go, the president of the Chinese Canadian National Council for Social Justice, is one of many advocates seeking a heritage designation for Toronto's Chinatown. (CBC - image credit)

Advocates are calling on the City of Toronto to designate Chinatown a heritage site to help protect the historic neighbourhood from the pressures of the pandemic, rising racism and downtown real estate development.

It follows a call from Chinese community leaders across the country to create a national action plan to help Chinatowns recover after COVID-19. The rise of anti-Asian racism and discrimination have also brought additional challenges for residents and businesses of Chinatown, they say.

Amy Go, the president of the Chinese Canadian National Council for Social Justice, has lived in Toronto for more than 30 years. She's one of the many community leaders seeking a heritage designation for the neighbourhood.

"It really symbolizes the resilience, resistance, and solidarity of the community regardless of the challenges, hardship and racism we face," Go said.

Advocates like Go say such a designation would also help Chinatown push back against threats such as encroachment from developers and a lack of affordable housing.

Representatives of Chinatowns in Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary, and Vancouver asked the federal government for an action plan in June. The Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations, which is based in Montreal, is spearheading the initiative.

WATCH | Community advocates call on City of Toronto to make Chinatown a heritage site:

Go recalls another time when the neighbourhood faced an even greater threat. It was back in the 1960s when the city's original Chinatown had to move west to Spadina Avenue and Dundas Street West to make way for construction of the new city hall and Nathan Phillips Square.

Further development in the downtown core in the 1970s also added pressure to an already beleaguered neighbourhood.

"With the development of Eaton Centre, businesses, real estate prices, the Chinese community had to survive and push to the west and develop here," Go said.

Since then, Chinatown has seen waves of immigrants from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore, but it's also home to many newcomers from Southeast Asia and East Asia, and it's a popular hub for international students.

Go says more than half a century later development is again the most significant issue threatening Chinatown's survival. She thinks a heritage designation will help preserve the neighbourhood along with its architecture, businesses, and its community.

"We want to further ensure that new developments, real estate, housing, high-end high rises are not going to come in here," Go said.

Evan Mitsui/CBC
Evan Mitsui/CBC

"We want to ensure people in Chinatown who live and work here still have the financial, economic, and social opportunities regardless of their immigration status."

In June, Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante recognized calls from local Chinese leaders, saying the neighbourhood had significant cultural and heritage value worthy of protection.

Montreal announced it was taking action following extensive consultations with community members.

They include increasing pedestrian access to the area and improving access to downtown and Old Montreal, adding green space, supporting business owners with the creation of a merchants' association, and developing social and affordable housing units.

Go would like to see a similar response from Toronto Mayor John Tory.

"I think it would be great to have our mayor in the city of Toronto coming up with a plan to develop in an affordable and sustainable way for people who work and live here," she said.

"We need all parties, all levels of governments, giving migrant workers the right to work, the status to work, preserving jobs, preserving nature, and the social fabric of the community."

City 'worse off' without Chinatown, councillor says

Coun. Mike Layton, who represents University-Rosedale, the ward where Chinatown is located, says there are a number of reasons why it's important to underscore the historical significance of neighbourhoods like it.

While he admits neighbourhoods change naturally, he says it's a shame when change is forced on them by gentrification, development, or a lack of affordability.

"We can't let that happen. We can't let the drive for profit force people from those communities and take that historic soul out," Layton said.

"The city will be worse off," he added.

City of Toronto staff are evaluating a possible "cultural district plan" for similar neighbourhoods, including Little Jamaica.

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press
Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

However, the city does not have any "protective mechanisms" in place right now, Layton said.

"Our heritage powers at the city and province don't protect the cultural elements of a space, they protect the physical building," he said.

"Some planning powers can help manipulate what buildings look like, how they're read, and how big some spaces are, which can impact the affordability of it, but it gets less specific with tenants, types of businesses, etc.," Layton continued.

"I think it's important to try to shift our focus."

Layton also recommends looking at what other municipalities are doing to preserve districts like Chinatown.

"We've got to look for new rules, even if we don't have them, doesn't mean we should try to find them."

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