At the end of her first day of Grade 3, Bertha Clark spotted the crowd of white classmates just outside the school property waiting to harass her – the only Black child – and quickly turned to walk the long way back to her home in the tiny Vancouver neighbourhood of Hogan’s Alley.
It was 1965. The next day, the scrappy eight-year-old, who had just been transplanted from San Francisco, decided to walk straight past the group. The children rained slurs down on her and then a boy punched her in the back of her head, Ms. Clark recalls.
“I had to throw my books to the ground, he had to throw his books to the ground, and we had to fight – [but] I got the best of that young boy,” she said during a phone interview from her home on B.C.‘s Sunshine Coast.
More dust-ups followed and she quickly learned swear words in Italian and the Cantonese dialect of Taishanese from shopkeepers openly hostile to the presence of a Black girl like her. But the four-block stretch Ms. Clark and Vancouver’s Black population called home for seven decades offered respite from the racism that could feel inescapable. During its 1940s peak, Hogan’s Alley had at least 800 Black residents, descendants of Black immigrants from California who had originally settled in Victoria and nearby Salt Spring Island, and also Black homesteaders from Oklahoma and Black railway porters who worked for Great Northern Railway.
But by the time Hogan’s Alley was home to Ms. Clark and her family, the neighbourhood was heading into decline. Only a few Black people remained among a population that included people of Chinese and Italian backgrounds, she said.
“It was always nice to see another Black person,” she said of Hogan’s Alley.
For decades, Vancouver City Hall spent little to no money on the area’s sidewalks or infrastructure, and its industrial zoning made it nearly impossible for its homeowners to get mortgages or home improvement loans. This made it a prime candidate for the “urban renewal” promoted by freeway fanatics in cities across North America. Time was running out for Hogan’s Alley, and the end came in the late 1960s when the neighbourhood was demolished to make room for a viaduct.
Hogan’s Alley, named after a pioneering New York comic strip about a fictional slum filled with Irish immigrants, has long been a contentious part of Vancouver’s history. Now, amid the debate around the Black Lives Matter movement, there is new attention to its fate and how it could be revived as a cultural, commercial and residential area that would create a new centre for Black life in Metro Vancouver.
Recently protesters spent a weekend blocking the viaduct that replaced Hogan’s Alley as well as a neighbouring viaduct, diverting traffic into Vancouver’s downtown peninsula. The city did not meet with the activists to discuss their demands for defunding the police and paying tribute to the lost community and police ended the occupation, arresting several people.
A committed group of Black activists has pushed the city to make progress on this revival amid plans to tear down the two viaducts and redevelop a vast parcel of land bordering False Creek.
Vancouver Councillor Pete Fry said the absence of Hogan’s Alley has denied the Black community a focus. By comparison, he said the downtown Chinatown, nearby, has survived and exists as a centrepiece that speaks to the history of the Chinese-Canadian community.
“It’s important to reflect on, when we erase histories, what that does to people’s sense of belonging and ownership. I don’t mean ownership of land, but ownership in the sense of having a stake in the city, and sense that ‘my people are part of this.‘”
Mr. Fry supports a vision for a revitalized Hogan’s Alley with housing, a cultural centre, a central plaza and opportunities for businesses such as West Indian and African shops. “It’s not just for the Black community but from the Black community as an offering to all of Vancouver,” he said.
Kennedy Stewart, mayor since the end of 2018, said he is looking to finally resolve the area’s future and the controversy, with continuing talks planned with the Hogan’s Alley Society, a community group, and the prospect of funding from the federal Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. and the province to build a community centre.
“I am hoping the result will be that move toward an agreement and nobody has to block viaducts any more,” he said in an interview.
Stephanie Allen co-founded the Hogan’s Alley Society three years ago to push the city to hand over the land to a community trust, which could pave the way for a mixed-use development centred around creating space for Black people and businesses.
Two years ago, the non-profit sent a draft motion of understanding to city hall, a crucial next step for the project that could allow Ms. Allen and others to secure funding from CMHC and begin the complex task of planning the development.
They still haven’t heard back from the city. More recently, the city said it was working with the society to finalize a meeting and agenda with staff, but the COVID-19 pandemic got in the way.
“They can’t even comprehend doing this, it’s like we’re talking about living on Mars when we’re talking about this land trust,” Ms. Allen said. “I think it’s a financial resistance, but I also think it’s an anti-Black one.”
Andy Yan, head of The City Program at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., said minority and lower-income communities across North America have historically faced the kind of treatment dealt to Hogan’s Alley, with demolition used to facilitate developments deemed a higher priority. “Unfortunately, that’s a very common story,” he said, citing, for example, the 1960s-era destruction of the Black community of Africville in Nova Scotia.
“It’s that pyramid of race, class and power that I think has greatly shaped where these types of projects are developed, and who they displace.”
Shirley Chan, who used to live in the larger Strathcona neighbourhood near Hogan’s Alley, said it was very sad to see it being bulldozed. The first phase of this freeway project – the Georgia viaduct – was announced in 1967 and completed in 1972. Strathcona survived. Mass protests by residents including Ms. Chan’s mother turfed the highway project and stopped further parts of the neighborhood from meeting the same fate as Hogan’s Alley.
“Neighbourhoods are important and ... that was what was happening with Strathcona and Chinatown – we have a strong sense of identity,” she said.
Oludolapo Makinde, a graduate student at University of British Columbia’s law school, said the displacement of Black families, businesses and community is still being felt today.
“People who come to Vancouver, Black people who come to Vancouver, cannot identify themselves within the community because the Black community was dispersed way back,” she said in an interview, noting that about 1 per cent of the Vancouver population is Black.
“So there’s always a tendency to think that because of a small population, there’s no Black history in Vancouver or anti-Black racism doesn’t exist,” she said. “That’s why a lot of people are not so familiar with the Hogan’s Alley’s history, and that’s why it’s important for us to bear that in mind.”
Randy Clark, one of Ms. Clark’s 10 older siblings, said that in 1965 when his family arrived, many of the families had already seen the writing on the wall and left Hogan’s Alley. His grandmother and mother were still running Vie’s Chicken and Steak House, the legendary restaurant started by his grandmother two decades earlier. But it was a far cry from its heyday as a late-night hot spot that served Black porters from the nearby rail lines and cops and cabbies coming off their shifts, as touring musicians Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington or Diana Ross and the Supremes were holding court in a smaller side room.
Other Black cultural institutions in Hogan’s Alley included the African Methodist Episcopal Fountain Chapel and the residential quarters of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
By the 1960s, many neighbourhood amenities were gone. The city was not picking up garbage or looking after the streets, and some of the buildings were left to decay. Local newspapers derided Hogan’s Alley and its neighbouring area, labelling them the slums of Vancouver and rundown.
“The City of Vancouver contributed to that. … They were ignoring that particular area, in my opinion, to lessen the value of that area,” Mr. Clark said.
Ms. Allen, who wrote her master’s thesis in urban planning at Simon Fraser on the history of Hogan’s Alley and the prospects for its renewal, said having a small slice of the city where Black people live, work and play would be invaluable.
“We know the impact that culture has in lifting people up and giving them a sense of themselves.”
With research by Stephanie Chambers
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