A Brief History Of Toronto’s Little India Neighbourhood
Toronto’s Little India is one of the most unique enclaves of the city, particularly when it comes to its origin story. Anchored by the Gerrard India Bazaar located on Gerrard Street – between Greenwood and Coxwell – this colourful community has grown substantially in character and in size since it came into being almost 50 years ago.
What is most noteworthy about how Little India evolved is that the businesses and amenities were not established because a large South Asian community had settled in the area; rather the businesses were established there because of favourable commercial conditions, which in turn drew the community in. This is generally the reverse of how most of Toronto’s other ethnic neighbourhoods were formed, which is what makes tracing Little India’s roots so fascinating!
While it’s likely that many factors were at play when Little India began to form, the impetus is rooted in Toronto’s economy and real estate market; rents in this particular enclave were very affordable 50 years ago, which provided the perfect opportunity for savvy South Indian entrepreneurs to build their businesses. One businessman in particular – and the local movie theatre he bought – would eventually become the beacon that drew this community together.
The Naaz Theatre, 1980. Photo by Erin Combs. Courtesy of Toronto Public Library & The Star Archives.
How The Naaz Theatre Built A Community
In the early 1970s, South Asian businessman Gian Naz acquired the Eastwood Theatre, which reportedly was the first place in North America to exclusively screen Bollywood films. Naz recognized the lack of a cultural centre for Toronto’s many South Asian immigrants and felt that the theatre would provide a much-needed meeting place in which the community could come together and celebrate their culture.
The Naaz Theatre was the jumping off point for that community that blossomed around this landmark in the decades that followed. It eventually became a huge draw to the area for Indo-Canadians, and businesses catering to the South Asian community began popping up in proximity to the theatre.
Funnily enough, Naz reportedly only chose this venue because it was the cheapest rental he could find!
Muqaddar Ka Sikandar (1978)
The Naaz Theatre did not immediately take off as a roaring success, but owner Gian Naz was determined to see his plan through. He chose the venue because it was the cheapest one he could fine. He raised capital to fund the venture by literally going door to door amongst the community and gathering investors. It was a family business in the truest sense of the word, with his wife working at the ticket counter and making snacks to sell to moviegoers. Their children were in charge of marketing and advertising, doing wide distributions of flyers to fill their seats at the cinema. Their efforts paid off, and soon it was common to see long lineups of people waiting to get in to screen the latest film. They offered a good selection of Bollywood genres, from action to romance to drama.
An outing to the Naaz theatre would be a day-long event, including taking in some excellent Indian cuisine either before or after the show at neighbouring restaurants. The theatre became so popular that in the late 1970s, big Bollywood stars would attend screenings to give autographs!
As his success grew, Naz sent a portion of his revenues back to his Punjabi village, helping to build a school and improve infrastructure.
Seeing the draw of numerous Indo Canadians from around the GTA to attend screenings at Naz’s theatre, more and more Indo Canadians began to open up shops to serve this particular demographic when they came to visit the neighbourhood. Indian grocery stores, clothing stores and sweets shops began to emerge. Consistently over the decades and into current day, most of these stores are ‘mom and pop’ family run shops, giving the area an authenticity and flavour of a village!
Image courtesy of Toronto Public Library Archives. Gerrard, West of Ashdale, 1981. Peter Scott.
The Naaz theatre eventually closed in the mid-1980s, as traffic dropped steeply with the release of VHS entertainment (remember the Beta & VHS Videotape war?). It was revived temporarily in the 1990s, but it was eventually converted to a mixed use building with stores and apartments.
In the 30 years that followed after Naz opened his theatre, 72 per cent of area businesses had some connection to serving the South Asian community.
If you’d like to read more about the theatre and its influence, here’s a great piece by the Torontoist, called, “Historicist: Nights Out At The Naaz Theatre”.
Little India BIA
In the early 1980s, many of the area’s business and property owners collaborated to establish the Gerrard India Bazaar BIA. The active BIA was successful in marketing the vibrant neighbourhood to Indo Canadians in the GTA and beyond. Over the years, the BIA has sponsored physical improvements and has hosted major cultural events.
A wander through the Gerrard India Bazaar today is the ultimate main street village experience, with art and culture walks (there are some incredible murals!) and purveyors of a wide variety of South Asian food and products.
Much of the area business is in the hospitality industry (particularly with restaurants favoured for lunch by those working in the nearby film district). There are also a number of apparel shops too that provide Indo Canadians with what they need to preserve their religious and cultural traditions.
*Image courtesy of Marc Smith of Marc My Travels
Check out this West Jet article for recommendations of where to dine and shop when in Little India: “Where to Shop and Eat at Gerrard India Bazaar in Toronto“.
It’s interesting to note as well, that despite this sustained and consistent growth of the commercial component of Little India, the residential demographic has not followed suit along the same ethic trend line – and that’s even given the fact that the Indo Canadian community has welcomed a sizeable portion of Canadian immigrants to the GTA. This is just another way in which this commercial area is unique compared to other retail villages in Toronto.
Check out this documentary on the history of Little India and the Gerrard India Bazaar, called “Little India: Village of Dreams“.
Toronto is the City Of Neighbourhoods and this is one of our favourites. What’s yours?
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