Bathurst Street’s Jewish character is something Toronto city councillors are looking to protect

Bathurst Street, specifically the suburban stretch that runs through the heart of the Jewish community between Lawrence and Finch avenues, could become the next distinct cultural district in Toronto—much like Little Jamaica and Chinatown.

A motion proposed by councillors Mike Colle and James Pasternak and approved by city council in July, asks staff in the economic development and culture office to develop a plan so the street would be included in Toronto’s Cultural District Programs. The report is due in the first quarter of 2023.

“For decades, this area has been the heart and soul of Toronto’s Jewish community. Baycrest Hospital, retail landmarks like United Bakers Dairy Restaurant, dozens of synagogues, religious schools, seniors residences and numerous other cultural institutions have all thrived there,” the motion states.

“However, like other threatened cultural districts in Toronto, this area is at risk of losing the important culture, character and most importantly the services that so many in Toronto rely on.”

In an interview with The CJN, Colle admits that this part of Bathurst Street, lined with small stores, storefront synagogues and condos, is not especially scenic.

“Now you’ve got a lot of single, nondescript buildings, a hodgepodge of things that aren’t very attractive, but behind the doors, the stores are quite unique,” he said. “There’s a lot in there, there are so many synagogues, each with a unique history and so many schools, grocery stores.”

“It will be the job of economic development to try and remind people of the importance and the uniqueness of this area. If you don’t recognize it, you’re not going to appreciate it and you’re going to lose it.”

Changes have already started on Bathurst, Colle said. The city has spent about $10 million resurfacing the roads, reconstructing the sidewalks, and installing new water mains and traffic signals.

Other areas of the city that have been designated as cultural areas have seen distinctive street lights, signs and murals installed. Little Jamaica, a cultural area on Eglinton Avenue West, has a business development office to promote the neighbourhood.

Several new developments are already in the works for the area. Baycrest Centre is undergoing a redesign that will see a more pedestrian-friendly front on Bathurst, as well as the construction of a 14-storey building to care for people suffering from dementia and other cognitive disabilities.

Two new seminaries, one which will have a residence for students, are also planned for the area around Lawrence Avenue.

The cultural designation won’t stop development, but it will encourage ways to beautify Bathurst Street. For example, Colle pointed to a boutique hotel being erected at Glencairn Avenue. The surrounding green space will have public art work tied to the theme of Jewish culture.

The next steps for Bathurst depend on what the city staff recommend for the area. “Unless you have a plan, this framework in place, you can’t do any of this in a comprehensive way. I’m working on a lot of individual projects, but this is going to tie them all together.”

So far, no price tags have been attached to the further improvement of Bathurst Street, because council can’t allocate money until a plan is in place, Colle said.

Bathurst Street is already in the midst of a “revitalization” with many young Jewish families moving into the area, the councillor said.

“Let’s make it something to be proud of for our kids and grandkids so they don’t forget the history and heritage of the area.”