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Toronto’s Little India: Integration and Gentrification

Toronto’s Little India: Integration and Gentrification

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction 3
  2. Transnational Identities & Ethnic Communities 4
    1. Transnationalism, Social Inclusion, & Integration 4
  3. Little India’s Gentrification 7

3.1. Brief History of Little India 7

3.2. Recent Gentrification and Its Impacts 10

  1. Conclusion and Limitations 15
  2. Works Cited 17
  1. Introduction

Ethnic communities act as a central hub which bring together geographies of transnational immigrants, fostering social inclusion on an urban scale. Important everyday practices—such as food—are prominent in ethnic communities, helping new immigrants feel more at home and thus, assisting in their integration process. For the South Asian diaspora in Toronto, Little India serves as this central hub, bringing together transnational South Asian immigrants. However, practices of gentrification threaten ethnic communities as they aim to please the middle-class, often cleaning-up or removing the existing culture. The main question this paper seeks to explore is: ethnic communities help immigrants in their integration process, so what are the consequences of the gentrification of an ethnic community, like Toronto’s Little India, for immigrants? In order to explore this, this paper must first briefly look at the ways in which ethnic communities, such as Little India, through food and other culturally relatable mechanisms, promote social inclusion thus, easing the process of integration. After providing this framework, only then can it focus on examining the ways in which gentrification of Little India results in a loss of community ties and social networks, threatening the integration process ethnic communities provide. By linking ethnic communities to positive integration, this paper aims to examine the negative consequences of gentrification of these ethnic communities on the integration process of immigrants—using Little India in Toronto as a case study.

The methodology used to explore the effects of Little India’s gentrification on South Asian immigrant integration will include an analysis of multiple newspaper articles between 2015-2018 that address gentrification in Little India. Using narratives of South Asians in Toronto, and existing literature, the paper will aim to assess the ways in which the qualities of Little India aided social network formation and integration, arguing that the recent gentrification of the ethnic community affects South Asian immigrants. It will use social inclusion and gentrification discourses and existing literature to further unpack the long-term consequences gentrification has on immigrant integration.

  1. Transnational Identities & Ethnic Communities

In order to understand the consequences of gentrification of ethnic communities on immigrant integration, a clear link between ethnic communities and positive integration experiences must first be made.

2.1 Transnationalism, Social Inclusion, & Integration

Many new immigrants undergo multiple processes and tensions when they migrate to a new country. They usually must deal with the difficulties of adapting to a new spatial geography, new institutions, new people, new cultural norms, and much more. One important way in which new immigrants ease their integration process is by using cultural practices as ways retain their cultural identity whilst also building networks with other immigrants in Canada. Cultural food is essential to our sense of identity because its unique to each culture and therefore, losing traditional culinary practices is paralleled with losing ties with culture, community, and even religion (Vallianatos & Raine, 2008). According to an Arabic woman, the lack of parsley available to her when cooking when she arrived in Toronto, made her feel far from home because it is considered “needed in every Arab home” (Vallianatos & Raine, 2008, p. 365). Other South Asian and Arab women complained about the lack of access to halal meat, making them feel isolated from their ethnic identities. Thus, food is often used by new immigrants to preserve culture and resist assimilation in a new country while at the same time finding a way to adapt to it (Koc & Welsh, 2002; Vallianatos & Raine, 2008). Food and other cultural practices represent and highlight transnational identities of new immigrants since it connects across time and space, maintaining connections to home countries despite residing elsewhere.

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Since food is so closely linked to ethnic identity, it, along with other every day cultural practices are used to assist in integrating in a new land, like Toronto. In fact, according to Lessa & Rocha (2009), food is used as an intermediary in which immigrants can develop relationships with their new surroundings and ease their settlement process. This is because it assists in the formation of familiarity amongst and within other immigrants, strong social networks, and valuable and relatable bonds that are essential in feeling socially included, leading to successful and easier integration in society (Ashutosh, 2011; Clark, 2007; Zhuang, 2015). Often times, ethnic communities, such as Little India, are formed to create a central hub representing specific communities. When examining the roots on what exactly a ‘community’ is, it is important to note that the term has undergone changing views. Clark (2007) tackles this with an overview, highlighting the defining factor of a community as “common needs and goals a sense of the common good, shared lives, culture and views of the world, and collective action…[including] interlocking social networks of neighbourhoods, kinship and friendship” (p. 3). In a community, people are motivated by common morals and beliefs and have a collective sense of loyalty and commitment to the group.  The shared sense of belonging and identity fosters social inclusion, allowing new immigrants to integrate easier into the society. Social inclusion is vital in integration as it allows members of the community to feel welcomed and valuable. This is because new immigrants are able to form meaningful networks and social ties, participate in society, and experience environments that are similar to their transnational identity, reducing feelings of isolation and fear of the new.

In this way, ethnic communities, such as Little India, serve as a geographic space catering to transnational individuals who can form a network of people from similar cultures and similar ethnic tastes. As a newcomer, there remains an ongoing search for familiar ingredients and food practices due to the desire for a connection to home and possibilities of finding pieces and memories to the homeland (Ashutosh, 2011; Lessa & Rocha, 2009; Zhuang, 2015). Therefore, ethnic communities become a geographical space containing shops, restaurants, and activities that immigrants can then relate to. For instance, a young woman from Singapore argued that Little India makes her feel as if she is in a part of Singapore because the different dishes, colours, and smells remind her of home. She even mentions that walking around Little India as better than an air-conditioned mall” (Varma, 2017, par.13). She implies that it is the entire culture of Little India that makes her feel at home. Zhuang (2015), reiterates this when she describes ethnic landscapes, including ethnic business, places of worship, festivals and architectural features, to create a sense of identity.  So, one can see that ethnic communities allows immigrants to feel as if they are in a little part of their hometown, causing them to feel welcome. In this way, a diasporic healing process takes place, bridging distances and feeding memories while “sooth[ing] nostalgic longing and offer[ing] hope for recreating the familiar in a strange land” (Lessa & Rocha, 2009, p. 151).

Little India and easy access to cultural food and activities also plays a role in passing down or teaching cultural practices and traditional origins to second or third generations of immigrants who may not be as linked to the homeland as the initial immigrant/parent. A Pakistani woman highlights that experiencing Indian food, traditions and festivities allows her to feel as if she is passing the culture to her children who never experienced them. She emphasises that her children should know their roots and that “they did not drop out of the sky” (Lessa & Rocha, 2009, p. 153). This is interesting, especially when noting that Little India, though called ‘Little India’, actually encompasses an overall South Asian vibe. In this way, social inclusion is further promoted, perhaps even teaching South Asians about more cultures than that of just their origin countries. Moreover, Little India contains shops and restaurants from all over South Asia, including places of Pakistani, Singaporean, and Sri Lankan origins. Traditional food knowledge is one of the several cultural ties at risk of fading in homes due to increased cultural homogenization and urbanization (Kwik, 2008). Therefore, ethnic communities include two aspects of integration. The first is for the primary immigrants, usually the parents who miss home and long for familiarity. The second is for children of immigrants who may or may not have experienced their home country, to learn about their ethnic origins, and to feel less isolated and excluded while managing and maintaining their transnational identities (Ashutosh, 2011; Zhuang, 2015). Infact, in “Little India: Village of Dreams”, a documentary about Little India, there are even multiple examples of second-generation, westernized children adapting and reshaping family businesses in hopes to ensure they succeed in the 21st century, while learning about and sharing their roots.

  1. Little India’s Gentrification

The remainder of this paper will focus on Little India specifically, discussing its history in short, but focusing majority of its attention on the consequences the recent gentrification of Toronto’s Little India has had on immigrants. In this way, the first part of the paper was used to provide a brief literature background, linking ethnic communities to positive integration processes, allowing the second part of the paper to examine the repercussions of changing or removing aspects of ethnic communities.

3.1      Brief History of Little India

Toronto’s Little India houses the Gerrard India Bazaar, labelled North America’s largest South Asian Ethnic Market (Neighbourhood: Little India, n. d.) is currently located on Gerrard Street East, between Greenwood Avenue and Coxwell Avenue. It includes textile shops, furniture stores, jewellers and art from South Asia, and its biggest attraction, South Asian food. Little India actually developed somewhat by mistake in 1972, when Gian Naaz an immigrant from India, opened a movie theatre featuring Hindi films. He reportedly said that he “wanted a place where Indians could meet socially and where women would have a reason to wear saris at an establishment close to downtown” (Bauder & Suorineni, 2010, p. 19). Interestingly, the location of this theater was not chosen due to potential interests around the community, but rather, due to the low rent costs at the time. There remained a “dissonance between residential and commercial identities” (Hackworth & Rekers, 2005, p. 212). Still, the theatre served as a geographical space where Indians and other South Asians could come together and build social networks.

Naaz Theatre, 1981

(Bauder & Suorineni, 2010)

The development of the theatre paved the way for other South Asian businesses selling traditional clothing, paan (South Asian snack), and other establishments. By the 1980s, Little India contained around 100 South Asian shop and restaurants and received over 100,000 tourists in 1984. In fact, one restaurant owner reported selling $700 worth of food to a family from Detroit who took the food home for a wedding reception (Bauder & Suorineni, 2010, p. 20). By 2000, the area was even attracting visitors from Buffalo for South Asian lunch. In this way, Little India became an ethnic spot where South Asians were able to experience a community and food that reminded them of their homes. Tourists from all over were attracted to this cultural hub. In this way, immigrants were able to from relatable social bonds with other South Asians visiting Little India, as well as with South Asian business owners operating in Little India, which fostered positive social inclusion. Little India allowed new immigrants to embrace and enjoy their transnational identities, helping their new settlement and integration experiences—even if that meant coming from far away.

Little India Shops and Restaurants in Their Heyday

(Bateman, 2014)

3.2. Recent Gentrification and Its Impacts

There is a vast body of literature on gentrification and its impacts on communities, including its effects on social cohesion and personal networks. Gentrification is generally defined as “the process of neighbourhood changes that results in the replacement of lower income residents with higher income ones” (Kozey, 2015, p. 16). This includes repairing and rebuilding homes and businesses in a deteriorating area. However, it is coupled with increased housing and business costs, resulting in the displacement of earlier, usually poorer, unstable residents (Betancur, 2011; Hackworth & Rekers, 2005; Kozey, 2015; Murdie & Teixeria, 2011). Though the area surrounding Little India began to undergo gentrification in 2008 onward, Bauder & Suorineni (2010) predicted that residential gentrification would have little impact on ethnic businesses in Little India, because it was not very dependent on ethnic residents and neighbours compared to other ethnic communities. This is especially because as mentioned before, Little India’s residential population was not majority South Asian and thus, non-local visitors remained the main consumers of the ethnic community (Hackworth & Rekers, 2005).

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However, in the case of Little India, gentrification ended up affecting the businesses quite substantially. Suburbs such a Brampton and Mississauga have become magnets for the South Asian populations, with smaller ‘Little India’s opening across the GTA. Movie theatres, such as Cineplex actively play Bollywood movies, and South Asian restaurants are common as well (Bauder & Suorienei, 2010; Subdhan, 2015). This meant that many South Asians who used to enjoy Toronto’s Little India found fragments of back home elsewhere in the GTA. Further, racial and religious profiling since the attacks of September 11, 2001 caused a downfall in non-local tourists visiting the Gerard Bazaar (Bauder & Suorienei, 2010). With this in mind, it becomes clear how gentrification of the businesses and shops in Little India became a wider project in 2015 onwards. “Transforming Little India: Businesses Struggle to Stay Afloat Amid Demographic Shift” and “Urban Shift Threatens to Swallow Little India” discuss the success of Lazy Daisy Café, Pet Stuff, a yoga centre, art gallery, and dog day care—all shops that threaten to shift the community from primarily South Asian businesses, to non-South Asian (Subdhan, 2015). Still, knowing that from Little India’s genesis to its current gentrification, the residential make-up is not entirely what kept business booming (Bauder & Suorieni, 2010; Hackswoth & Rekers, 2005), this gentrification has left some business owners in Little India confused about the future of their own businesses and whether they can compete with new, hip, and modern shops and restaurants.

Pizzeria on Gerrard Street East

(Grief, 2017)

For many business owners, the gentrification has led to increased business and rent costs, resulting in closing down shop. In 1974, Naaz was able to purchase the theatre property for $10,000 meanwhile now, units are selling for about 20 times that. One business owner stated it costs him over $2,500 a month to rent his store space (Bauder & Suorieni, 2010; Subdhan, 2015). Mr. Chowdhury, an owner of a busy restaurant notes that many shop owners who can no longer afford the rent end up leaving or being evicted, whilst building owners are unable to find people to rent stores at the current prices, resulting in empty storefronts (Marlow, 2018). Little India is only barely still a cultural hub for South Asians and with the rate of gentrification, it will likely be beaten by non-South Asian businesses in the next few years.

Increasing rent costs and lack of affordable housing caused by gentrification also threatens immigrant newcomers’ ability to remain in inner cities because they usually have low incomes and cannot yet afford to move to the suburbs as many do once they are properly integrated in the social and labour markets. Murdie & Teixeria (2011) argue that in Toronto, many newcomers are forced to relocate to old high-rise buildings that are usually lacking basic services and are impoverished. Undoubtably, with poor housing and minimal incomes, the integration process of new immigrants is hindered as there are multiple barriers preventing them from succeeding. Even well-established new immigrants often choose to reside in inner cities due to the easy access to transportation, labour market opportunities, diversity, and desire to build relatable, valuable social networks. However, the gentrification of ethnic communities results in price increases for surrounding areas as well, causing a chain reaction of displacement.

Still, by removing and cleaning up aspects of South Asian culture from Little India, residents and businesses are not the only ones being displaced. In fact, “the symbolic representations of people and their activities are [displaced] as well” (Krase, 2005 as cited in Murdie & Teixeria, 2011, p. 64). This is because gentrification results in the significant loss of ethnic and racial identity due to disruption of social networks, ethnic retailing, religious institutions, and community organization. These different types of social bonds are used to induce social inclusion and result in positive integration in a community (Clark, 2007; Kozey, 2015). But, by gentrifying an ethnically-packed area, there is an increase in commercial and industrial displacement which leads to less ethnic places for new immigrants to enjoy. For regular Little India visitors, they have set routines with preferences for certain grocers, restaurants, shops, etc. (Varma, 2017). The displacement leads to confusion for both integrated and integrating visitors. Further “retail gentrification” (Lees et al., 2007, as cited in Murdie & Teixeria, 2011) or the beautification of shops usually aims to target the tastes of gentrifiers, often ignoring the demand of the immigrant working-class. Due to this, conflicts also arise between professionals in the area whom are trying to maintain businesses appealing to the original ethnic clients, versus the new, upscale ones. This can be observed in Little India as well, as the original clientele is no longer able to find or develop relationships with new, non-South Asian owners. So, this results in a lack of relatable and valuable network formation causing a disruption and destruction of systems of support and social fabric that many residents who visited the area relied on. Regardless of the income of the individuals, by sharing a common environment, visitors of ethnic communities such as Little India were able to develop relationships with each other and business owners based on social reproduction, common values, social goods, and place of identity (Bentacur, 2011). With new, non-familiar shops and cultures, an important socially inclusive community is displaced or destroyed, resulting in difficult integration for those who relied on the cultural hub as an inclusive space in their new country.

Earlier in this paper it was shown that many new immigrants used aspects of ethnic communities, such as cultural food, to feel more at home and access foods that they may not be able to find elsewhere. Little India’s main attraction remains its extensive variety of food (Neighbourhood: Little India, n. d.). By offering favourite traditional foods, Little India transformed the Toronto home into “a distinctive space that exists in the present but also in the re-lived experiences of the homeland” (p. 155). These experiences allow immigrant families to move beyond feelings of loss and longing and can develop a positive association with their new home. Unfortunately, sharing a space that was once considered ethnic with affluent, usually White-middle class members also results in racial discriminations and feelings of unwelcome and isolation. For instance, when the city of Chicago underwent major gentrification, racial differences and hierarchies between Black and White residents were perpetuated and caused a lack of trust and tolerance within the groups. Blacks and Latinos often felt as if White gentrifiers were unfriendly and intolerant. In fact, Whites often reported being uncomfortable with neighbourhood celebrations and ethnic festivals (Betancur, 2011; Murdie & Teixeria 2011).

Similar tones of disapproval between ethnic communities are prevalent in Little India. One new business owner even argued, “I don’t think any business neighbourhood can survive when it only services one clientele. We need diversity to keep it a surviving strip” (par. 29), highlighting the desire to no longer keep Little India as a cultural hub and rather, modern shops are what will keep its economy booming. In the case of Little Portugal’s gentrification, community members reported feeling resentment arguing that newly arriving gentrifers contain an “elitist alien group” (Murdie & Teixeria, 2011, p. 78) whom favour a white-collar world, treating the remainders as from another world. That said, similar to those in Little Portugal, new immigrants in Little India will be unable to feel their connection with their homelands, and better integrate into their new city, feeling constant disapproval, competition, and exclusion by the gentrifiers. Without access to paan at 2am, fresh beef briyani, or even an area where they can buy halal food, cultural groceries, and traditional clothes in one day, new immigrants are likely to feel bored, unwelcome, isolated and increased stress—resulting in overall difficulties integrating.

  1. Conclusion and Limitations

Since food is so closely linked Since food is so closely linked Since food is so closely linked Since food is so closely linked

Works Cited

  • Ashutosh, I. (2011). South Asians in Toronto: geographies of transnationalism, diaspora, and the settling of differences in the city. South Asian Diaspora, 4(1): 95-109.
  • Bateman, C. (2014, November 20). What Little India used to look like in Toronto. blogTO, Retrieved from
  • Bauder, H. & Suorineni, A. (2010). Toronto’s Little India: a brief neighbourhood history. Toronto: Ryerson University.
  • Betancur, J. (2011). Gentrification and community fabric in Chicago. Urban Studies, 48(2): 383-406.
  • Beveridge, N. & Hart, P. (Producers), & Beveridge, N. (Director). (2017). Little India: Village of Dreams [Video file].  Retrieved from
  • Caidi, N. & Allard, D. (2005). Social inclusion of newcomers to Canada. Joint Centre of Excellence for Research on Immigration and Settlement.
  • Clark, A. (2007). Understanding Community: A Review of Networks, Ties and Contacts. Real Life Methods Working Papers. 1-39.
  • Grief, A. (2017, March 18). New brewery means more changes coming to Little India. blogTO. Retrieved from
  • Hackworth, J., & Rekers, J. (2005). Ethnic packaging and gentrification. The case of four neighbourhoods in Toronto. Urban Affairs Review, 41(2): 211-236.
  • Kozey, K. N. (2015). Collective efficacy, threat, and urban change: examining social control forces in areas of gentrification. UMI Dissertation Publishing:1-149
  • Kwik, J. (2008). Traditional food knowledge: A case study of an immigrant Canadian “foodscape”. Environments 36(1): 59-74.
  • Koc, M. & Welsh, J. (2002). Food, identity and immigrant experience. Canadian Diversity 1(1):46-48.
  • Lessa, I & Rocha, C. (2009). Nourishing belonging: food in the lives of new immigrants in T.O. Palassio, C. & Wilcox, A. (eds) The Edible City: Toronto’s Food from Farm to Work. Toronto, ON: Coach House Books. (pp. 148-153).
  • Marlow, I. (2018, May 10). Urban shift threatens to swallow Little India. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from
  • Murdie, R., & Teixeria, C. (2011). The impact of gentrification on ethnic neighbourhoods in Toronto: a case study of Little Portugal. Urban Studies 48(1): 61-83.
  • Neighbourhood: Little India. (n.d.). Retrieved December 7, 2018, from
  • Subdhan, A. (2015, January 25). Transforming Little India: Businesses struggle to stay afloat amid demographic shift. National Post. Retrieved from
  • Vallianatos, H. & Raine, K. (2008). Consuming food and constructing identities among Arabic and south Asian immigrant women. Food, Culture & Society 11(3):355-373.
  • Varma, A. (2017, January 8). Don’t change Little India to make it tourist-friendly. The Straits Times. Retrieved from
  • Zhuang, Z.C. (2015). Construction and reconstruction of ethnicity in retail landscapes: case studies in the Toronto area. Journal of Urban Design 20(5): 677-697.


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