In the scramble to find palatable snippets of black history to safely commemorate Black History Month, we find ourselves this year talking more than ever about Hogan’s Alley. Despite the fact that Hogan’s Alley was levelled in the 1960s, little has been written about the black community that is said to have been displaced. As local Vancouver writer and community activist Wayde Compton noted: “the city wasn’t ready to acknowledge us, nothing really stuck, maybe it just wasn’t time.”
Perhaps times are changing. Canada Post recently issued two commemorative stamps featuring two communities important to Canadian black history: Africville in Nova Scotia and, the aforementioned and perhaps lesser-known, Hogan’s Alley in Vancouver.
Hogan’s Alley was an impromptu entertainment district located in Vancouver’s Strathcona neighbourhood. Although it was an ethnically diverse community, it was acknowledged as having the largest concentration of black citizens in Vancouver — an interesting coincidence given that black communities have so frequently been targeted for urban renewal that it’s sometimes referred to as ‘Negro removal.’
A victim of an ‘urban renewal’ scheme, the Hogan’s Alley enclave was destroyed by the construction of the Georgia Street Viaduct, which was part of a backroom deal with the city to make room for a freeway.
As early as the 1930s, the Strathcona neighborhood began to undergo a process of rezoning that would prepare the area for radical reconstruction in-line with urban renewal projects of the time. In the 1950s the Non-Partisan Association (NPA) ceased granting building and development permits and stopped funding basic infrastructural improvements. In 1967, the NPA announced its plan to begin construction of a freeway that would run through Hogan’s Alley and Chinatown and eventually connect to the Trans-Canada Highway. Local Strathcona residents reacted quickly forming the Strathcona Property Owners and Tenants Association (SPOTA) and were eventually successful in thwarting the city’s plans only after most of Hogan’s Alley was demolished.
Today, the Viaduct stands an unfinished testament to the power of community organization and resistance to top down and paternalistic urban planning policy that often finds itself at odds with community consultation processes.
However, there seems to be two discernible opinions about Hogan’s Alley within the black community: those who would like to see it commemorated specifically as a black community, and possibly revived, and those who are still struggling to come to terms with what was lost by its destruction.
The City’s depiction of Strathcona as a bad area of town was not free of political agenda — as mentioned, it was targeted for aggressive ‘slum clearance’ in the 1930s — but the City wasn’t the only one that saw it as an undesirable neighborhood. Some members of the black community were, and are, careful to point out that their community may have centered around Hogan’s Alley, but was not in it.
The Strathcona community was as much a product of racial segregationist practices as it was a common desire for a black community. Vancouver left its black residents with very few options for work and residence and many have noted that as soon as jobs started to open up and surrounding neighborhoods became more receptive to the occasional black family, upwardly mobile black Strathconians were only too quick to relocate. Regrettably, for those who seek to tell a story of a community displaced by less visionary city councils past, most of the ambitious black residents of the Strathcona area had already left by the time the Viaduct was built. But this does not in any way diminish the importance of Hogan’s Alley for the black people who live here today.
Regardless of the mixed opinions of the black community with regard to the merits of Hogan’s Alley, their past seems somehow interwoven with it.
The Pullman Porter’s Club, which backed onto Hogan’s Alley, was patronized predominantly by black men who worked as sleeping car porters for the railroad. Its presence connected Hogan’s Alley with black communities throughout North America by word of mouth and organizations like the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, an organization created to advocate for black rights.
Hogan’s Alley was also known as a great place to socialize with others who enjoyed good music, dance and food, some of which was provided by black-owned business like Rosa Pryor’s Chicken Inn and later Vie’s Chicken and Steak House.
It is important in this context to remember what history does. It is more than just the official story told by nation states to coerce citizens into a sense of nationalistic, exclusive or shared-future based pride. It is also told as an act of reconciliation.
As a general rule, smaller communities that live in places where they are underrepresented in the structures that govern their daily lives, are often bullied out of their own histories. The neglecting of their histories by dominant majorities serves to support the general claim that they do not in fact belong. In this sense, the passive act of neglect takes on a rather active and sinister aspect.
In the context of Hogan’s Alley, the act of commemoration should be approached with caution.
Ultimately, the history of the black community in Strathcona is not for sale. It is not a sexy addition to a political portfolio that seeks to capitalize on the well-intended and congratulatory politics of multiculturalism. Histories have owners — this is something to be taken seriously.
With black Strathcona’s complicated and emerging historical record in mind, it comes as a surprise to hear people informally talking about plans for a Hogan’s Alley revival. Perhaps the city’s recent decision to remove the Viaduct is an opportunity for some sort of reconciliation, but that process should not fall victim to the mistakes that city councils have made in the past. It should involve the participation of all the groups of people who count the area surrounding Hogan’s Alley as part of their cultural heritage.
Perhaps for the black community, and the story of their presence in Vancouver, it is enough to be able to say with confidence that “we were here!”
Adam Rudder is a Vancouver based teacher and writer who is currently completing a PhD in Anthropology.