Improving neighbourhoods job-one for east-end community associations

In February 2012, members of the Gerrard East Community Organization (GECO) hosted a meet and greet session with Little India merchants and restaurateurs in an effort to get area residents to learn more about and support their local business community.

Not so long ago, the strip of Gerrard Street East from Greenwood to Coxwell avenues was a place young families weren’t known to enjoy hanging out.

“Nobody walked around. The (local) economy was really struggling. There was nothing here,” said Belynda Blyth, an involved community member who has lived in the area since 1991.

“Little by little change came and new people started moving in. Now, it’s hard to keep up.”

Blyth credits this turnaround to three active neighbourhood groups: The Ashdale Village Residents Association, The Gerrard East Community Organization (GECO) and the recently-formed Bazaar Residents Association.

These community organizations in partnership with the businesses of the Gerrard India Bazaar Business Improvement Area (BIA), Friends of Greenwood Park (FROG), The Riverdale Hub, The Pop-Up Collective as well as local faith groups/churches and schools among others are the reason why Little India is on its way to becoming one of Toronto’s most vibrant neighbourhoods.

“It’s really super cool to be a part of it,” said Blyth, a local realtor who serves as the co-chair of both GECO and FROG.

“It started with the Ashdale Village Residents Association then the Gerrard East Community Organization formed from that. Initially, we met on old tree stumps at Roden Public School. It’s very grassroots,” she said.

“GECO came about because the BIA was seeking more support for the business community and they invited residents to get involved.”

Prior to that, neighbours came together in a big way to fight for better and safer traffic into the community at the Upper Gerrard Street East and Fairford Avenue intersection.

This spring and summer, local community groups are working together on a number of exciting initiatives notably the creation of a new stage space outside the Gerrard/Ashdale Library.

Several fun, family activities are also in the works in the coming months for the skating path and covered rink at the nearby Greenwood Park.

From a real estate point of view, she said the Gerrard East/Little India area is really the last affordable pocket left in the city’s east end.

“(This area) is hugely turning around and fast, really fast. We’re one of the last first-time homebuyers’ neighbourhoods in Toronto,” Blyth said.

Just east of the Little India neighbourhood at Gerrard Street East and Woodbine Avenue is an engaged community represented by the Beach Hill Neighbourhood Association (BHNA).

Founded and chaired by long-time area resident Kate Tennier, the BHNA aims to support the continued rejuvenation of the local commercial district by fostering a “shop local” attitude to sustain a walkable and thriving neighbourhood.

Since its creation in March 2012, BHNA members have been involved in scores of community initiatives including local business promotions, spring clean-ups, bake sales/contests, among other things.

”We’ve been doing a lot of beautification,” said Tennier, adding at the end of May community members will once again come together to plant thousands of dollars worth of flowers in Beach Hill.

“Our goal is to make (Beach Hill) a more enjoyable place.”

Another community group making waves in the Beach community is the Greater Beach Neighbourhood Association (GBNA), a non-profit umbrella organization encompassing seven community groups in the Greater Beach Area from Coxwell to Victoria Park avenues, Lake Ontario to the railway corridor south of Danforth Avenue including the Beach Triangle Residents Association, Kew Beach Neighbourhood Association, Toronto Beach East Residents Association, Friends of Glen Davis Ravine, Norwood Park Residents Association, Beach Waterfront Community Association and Balmy Beach Neighbourhood Association.

The main focus of the GBNA, which was formed in February 2012, is land-use planning.

“Residents associations on their own face huge challenges,” said the group’s president/director Jan Hykamp, pointing to complicated development and land-use planning processes as well as expensive Ontario Municipal Board battles.

“All of the groups work within GBNA to take a more thorough long-term approach. Our focus is on building a good rapport with the city and the province to make sure our views are heard and that we have good, open discussions.”

While the GBNA works throughout the year on a range of land-use issues, one area where it makes its views especially known is during election time when the topic of Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) reform is brought to light.

“That’s a major election issue. We’ve reached out to (Beaches-East York MPP) Michael Prue’s office and to other umbrella groups,” Hykamp said.

“Our goal is to develop a unified voice.”

Most recently, the GBNA has had a very active role in two condominium developments at the intersection of Queen Street East and Woodbine Avenue.

The organization has also been heavily involved in the creation of the Queen Street East Urban Design Guidelines, which are aimed at ensuring thoughtful, appropriate development along Queen Street East in the Beach.

The City’s planning department is currently studying the proposed guidelines and is expected to report its findings sometime this summer to Toronto and East York Community Council.

Beaches-East York Councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon has been involved in countless community groups over the years, long before her life in public office began.

“I’m a crazy community activist. I can’t sit still,” chuckled McMahon, who grew up in a family where both parents – aside from working full-time – volunteered heavily in their community of Collingwood, ON.

McMahon first got involved in her Danforth East neighbourhood when her two children attended Gledhill Public School.

McMahon then got involved with the Danforth East Community Association (DECA) where she was a founder of the popular East Lynn Farmers’ Market as well as a member of DECA’s tree and bike groups.

Among other things, she was also involved in the East Toronto Climate Action Group, a local advocacy groups that works on issues related to climate change.

“To me it’s easy to start a group, empower people and be the change you want,” she said.

From the perspective of a local politician, McMahon said community groups and neighbourhood associations are essential in the good operation of the city.

“The city can’t be everywhere. We don’t know the neighbourhood like you do,” said McMahon, who has recently created a community Leaders program to bring together and celebrate neighbourhood groups in Ward 32.

“There’s a huge benefit to the city. The value of community groups is priceless. You can never have too many,” she said.

By  Joanna Lavoie