Posted on July 27, 2010

Big Dreams for ‘Little Ethiopia’ Dashed

Natalie Stechyson, Globe and Mail (Toronto), July 26, 2010

In the soft tones of his traditional Amharic language, Samuel Getachew orders lunch–flatbread and a minced-beef dish–from the waitress at Wazema Restaurant.

He gazes out the window of the Ethiopian eatery at the shops and restaurants lining the intersection of Danforth and Greenwood avenues as he waits for his meal.

“We say Toronto is diverse,” he said with a flip of his hand. “But we don’t even have an area named after an African country in the entire city.”

Toronto, a place where half of the population was born outside of Canada, is sometimes called a city of neighbourhoods. Italian, Greek, Korean, South-Asian, Chinese and Portuguese people all have pockets of town to call their own. Even Malta–a small island country off the coast of Italy–has a few blocks named after it in the Junction.

Mr. Getachew, 33, has been fighting the biggest Business Improvement Association in the city for more than a year to designate four blocks for Ethiopians. He has met with city councillors and the mayor to no avail. He’s collected nearly 600 signatures on a petition he started in January. He’s even running for city council this year to gain support for a so-called Little Ethiopia, which he proposes would stretch from Greenwood Avenue to Monarch Park.

At this point, he’d settle for a street sign, he said. Anything to give Toronto’s approximately 11,000 Ethiopians a sense of place.

The Danforth-Mosaic BIA says that place is not at Danforth and Greenwood. Patricia Silver, the executive director, insists it would be unfair to rebrand the 500 multicultural businesses in the Danforth-Mosaic under a single country. She said it is important to honour all the businesses in the BIA.

There are 11 Ethiopian restaurants in the area that Mr. Getachew is proposing to rename. There are also a number of other ethnic eateries: four of them Moroccan; one Spanish; one Middle Eastern; seven Italian; 25 Asian; five Greek; and one Irish pub.

Like the name suggests, the area is a mosaic. And in keeping with that idea, one country cannot stand out.

“It’s not little anything,” Ms. Silver said. “It’s grand everything.”

In order to rename an area, or even get a street sign, an area’s BIA must approve the proposal and recommend it to city council. Usually, the neighbourhood has one predominant culture. Ms. Silver said Mr. Getachew’s heart is in the right place, but the BIA will never vote to turn such a multicultural neighbourhood into Little Ethiopia.

“You can walk the whole world in our four kilometres, and we think that other areas in Toronto really can’t offer that.”

John Kiru, the executive director in charge of Toronto’s 68 BIAs, agreed.

“I think he’s pushing up-river here,” he said.

In Wazema Restaurant, Mr. Getachew and his friend, Tewobros Kassa, tear off strips of sticky Ethiopian flatbread and scoop spiced minced beef and lentils from the platter in front of them.

Mr. Kassa, who has lived in Canada for 21 years, said he’s been wishing for a Little Ethiopia since he was a young boy. He can vividly recall driving into Los Angeles on vacation and seeing a sign for Little Ethiopia on the highway.

“You feel like you’re home,” he said.

Mr. Getachew said feeling at home is something worth fighting for.