A review of Islands in the North, a digital exhibit (re)creating the space and place of Black Caribbean immigrants in Toronto, Canada, directed by Marlene Gaynair
Islands in the North
Marlene Gaynair, Rutgers University
Karen Flynn, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Islands in the North is a digital humanities project that (re)creates the space and place of Black Caribbean/West Indian immigrants in 20th-century Toronto, Canada. Created in 2018, the project uses spatial analytic software like Carto and open source software like TimeMapper and Omeka to transform documents such as advertisements, flyers, and newspaper articles into a multidimensional interactive mapping exhibition. This project collects and acknowledges spaces and places with cultural and social significance to Toronto’s Black community, intending to create an accessible archive for general and academic audiences.
Mapping points of interest such as churches, restaurants, nightclubs, beauty and barber shops, groceries, and bookstores traces the development of Black Caribbean communities, along with the dispersal of Black Canadian people and places over time. While businesses and people may disappear, the history and memories of these Black spaces in Toronto live on in the collective identities of Black Canadians in Toronto. Thus, this mapping of Black Toronto highlights and validates a long history of Blackness in the Canadian public sphere, planting roots and belonging in the “Great White North.” By (re)creating space and place in the archive, the mapping of Black Toronto challenges what it means to be Canadian.
This digital humanities project stemmed from a need to visually see the spaces and places significant to historical subjects in my dissertation about Jamaican communities in Toronto and New York City. As I sifted through reels of microfilm from Contrast and Share Magazine, two Black Caribbean newspapers from Toronto, I discovered a variety of small businesses advertised on almost every page. From small to full-page, these advertisements revealed a growing and significant business class that catered to the Black Caribbean community in Toronto. Aside from popular places like Randy’s Patties and Monica’s on Eglinton Avenue West, there were also venues like the Westin Harbour Castle or Maple Leaf Gardens that became “Black” spaces through the presence of Black Caribbean people there at particular times for specific events.
I also utilized many online digital databases through the Toronto Public Libraries and the Toronto Star Photo Collection. Using keyword searches such as “Black,” “Black People,” “Negro,” “West Indian,” and “Caribbean,” the search algorithm found hundreds of photographs of Black men, women, and children walking down Bloor Street, dancing at the Caribana parade, or playing together in a gymnasium. Search results also included snapshots of Whitney Houston, The Jacksons performing on stage, and Black members of the local Major League Baseball franchise living in the city. The inclusion of African American musical artists alongside pictures of local Toronto shows the flattening of Black identities or cultures in the database. Still, from a different perspective, it also demonstrates the connections and continuities of Black cultures and experiences throughout the diaspora.
Ultimately, this digital project aims to memorialize and acknowledge Black spaces and places as part of the many stories and lived experiences of people with African descent in Toronto, Canada over time. As this city exponentially grows and changes, while erasing buildings, streets, and communities, documenting and mapping different Black spaces and experiences resists silencing and erasure. The photographs and advertisements capture a brief moment of the Black Toronto experience that shifted and grew over generations in Canada’s largest city. By mapping and cataloging these locations, I attempt to create a digital archive that contributes to growing scholarship in Black digital humanities, Black studies in Canada, and African diaspora studies.
This project is for the Black Caribbean community of Toronto and anyone interested in learning about it. While Islands in the North serves as an extension of my dissertation research, it also operates as an on-going, accessible, and interactive digital exhibit. The project is divided into three sections: a digital map using Carto, a searchable database using Omeka, and an interactive timeline using TimeMapper. In each section, visitors see over three hundred locations in Black Toronto scattered across the Metropolitan Toronto area, and each site has information such as a street address, the year it was active, and the source. These three different presentations of the data reveal different perspectives on the spaces and places Black lives in Toronto inhabited.
Islands in the North was created by Marlene Gaynair, Ph.D. Candidate in History at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. It was funded through a grant from the Rutgers Digital Humanities Initiative and created with assistance from Rutgers Libraries digital librarian Francesca Giannetti. When I had difficulty thinking my way through the development of this project, Giannetti and the resources through the Digital Humanities Lab gave me the knowledge to find open-source programs, hosting services, and workshops to showcase my project. Last, I reached out to the creator of another digital project, Hannah Griggs, who kindly shared her resources and offered help and advice along the way. While the actual labor of bringing this digital project was mine, I could not have done it without the guidance of other scholars throughout the process.
Marlene Gaynair’s digital project, Islands in the North, funded by the Rutgers Digital Humanities Initiatives, uses Carto, a spatial analysis platform, in conjunction with open source software like TimeMapper and Omeka to “transform documents such as advertisements, flyers, and newspaper articles into a multidimensional interactive mapping exhibition.” Islands in the North is a story of the cultural and social worlds of Caribbean/West Indian immigrants in 20th-century Toronto that identifies, marks, and makes relevant the spaces and places created by Caribbean immigrants. As Gaynair chronicles and reconstructs a visual and spatial narrative of the Caribbean past, she challenges the myth of Canada as demographically and spatially white. Gaynair’s project is part historical recovery, memorializing and reimagining how and why Caribbean spaces/places came to be. The project is also part Black futurities: the hopes, aspirations, and dreams of those who came, sought, and continue to create new futures. This innovative project — most likely the first of its kind — is significant for its visual contribution to the ongoing epistemological and ontological project of writing Blackness into Canadian histories.
The exhibit itself is easily navigable. Once users access the site, they are confronted with an explanation of what constitutes Islands in the North. From there, users have two options to choose from: “Making Space” or “Making Place.” “Making Space” is a collection of sites that have “cultural/social significance to the Black Caribbean/Canadian community in Metropolitan Toronto, Ontario, Canada.” These include, but are not limited to, restaurants, meeting spaces, nightclubs, and churches, and they are color coded for easy access. For example, green signifies grocery stores, yellow indicates restaurants, and grey is “other,” which includes churches. These sites reflect the diversity of Toronto’s Caribbean population. Indo-Caribbean businesses, as well as places of worship for various religious denominations, such as British Methodist Episcopal (BME), African Methodist Episcopal (AME), and Seventh Day Adventists, serve as reminders that the Caribbean population, then and now, is far from a monolithic group.
The other tab, “Making Place,” is an interactive visual timeline of Toronto. Caribbean people have been on Canadian soil since the late 19th century. Black Canadians have been there since the 18th century. Thus, Gaynair begins with the cemetery Necropolis, where the influential late 19th century politician William Peyton Hubbard is buried. It is also the burial site of Thornton and Lucie Blackburn, who self-emancipated and fled from the U.S. to Canada in the 1830s and established Canada as an Underground Railroad terminus. The inclusion of enslaved and free Black people fleeing the brutality of U.S. slavery disrupts the popular and scholarly imaginary that Canada’s Black presence is a recent phenomenon. The timeline provides visual images of institutions that Caribbean people created to ensure their survival, as well as other places meaningful to the community. One such early organization was the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). The UNIA, a global movement developed by Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey, which had chapters in cities such as Toronto and Montreal, allowed Black people to socialize and escape the racism encountered in the wider society. The UNIA Hall was the only Black-owned assembly hall in Toronto. The West Indian Federation also provided support to Caribbean migrants who faced difficulties with the immigration process or needed employment or housing referrals.
Also included is a plethora of original photographs of Caribbean/Black churches, clubs, and restaurants, along with places Black people frequented, such as the Canadian National Exhibition and Nathan Phillips Square. Caribbean people also relied on organizations and institutions to meet their needs, whether by meeting regularly at these locations or using the services they provided. St. Stephen’s Community House and the Church of St. Stephens-in-the-Fields are examples of such organizations. Photographs are supplemented with flyers of restaurants, clubs, and events, including two for the 1967 and 1968 Caribana, an event that remains a mainstay decades later. Influenced heavily by Trinidad and Tobago’s carnival, the Caribbean community organized its own Caribana festival in 1967 as a part of Canada’s Centennial celebrations. Since then, the event has grown into a major, annual summer event that brings people to Toronto from across the globe. The timeline is interspersed with music and audio, including a nice addition of a short audio clip of Jimmy Wisdom, owner of Wisdom’s Barber Shop and Trea-Jah Isle Records. It also features A Different Book List, which is more than a space to purchase books — it is a community hub providing a range of services reminiscent of the West Indian Federation and fulfilling a similar function as community spaces of the past.
Because Black communities can be easily erased, Islands in the North is a timely and much needed project. Indeed, a number of the businesses and organizations that Gaynair included no longer exist, their histories buried and long forgotten. As I write this, “Little Jamaica,” a cultural hub that is home to Trea-Jah Isle Records, is slowly being decimated due to a combination of factors including gentrification. These and other erasures of Black spaces and places reaffirm the relevance of Gaynair’s digital project.