Black History Month – Hogan’s Alley

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BCNPHA is recognizing Black History Month with a story on Hogan’s Alley. The Vancouver neighbourhood was a hub of the local black community before its residents were displaced as part of the city’s Urban Renewal Program in the 1950s. Today, the Hogan’s Alley Society is working to ensure its revitalization. Our contributing writer, Adam Rudder, was born in Vancouver and completed his Master of Arts degree in history at the University of Victoria, where he wrote about the Hogan’s Alley community in Strathcona. He is an adjunct faculty member at Fairleigh Dickinson University (Vancouver) and is co-chair of the Hogan’s Alley Society, which is committed to the research and writing of Black experience in the 20th century in B.C.

A Black Community in Vancouver?

There are many ways to displace a community. Not too long ago, stories about the first black community in Vancouver were greeted with surprised looks and suspicion. In 2018, however, we have begun to acknowledge the fact that systemic racism in the areas of housing and urban planning quite actively discourage the settlement and growth of black community in Vancouver.

Hogan’s Alley

The presence of black people in the Strathcona area of Vancouver has a history that dates to the early 1900s. In 1918, the construction of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Fountain Chapel church at 823 Jackson Ave. signalled the formation of a well-organized black community. The church was the product of fundraising efforts initiated by prominent members of this growing community such as Nora Hendrix, who was honoured on the Black History Month Canada Post stamp in 2014. It is important to remember, as former Hogan’s Alley resident Randy Clark recalls, “that there were at least two Hogan’s Alley black communities: the entertainment or red-light district by night and the place where hard-working families raised their children by day.”

It was the Hogan’s Alley community by night that became the target of Vancouver’s Urban Renewal Program in the 1950s; consequently, it was yet another black community that had been dragged into the very political process of “slum clearance.” In fact, during this period the removal of black people from their homes had become so common throughout North America that African Americans had begun to refer to Urban Renewal as “Negro removal.” Perhaps the general willingness of white citizens to look the other way while black communities were driven from their homes was one of the reasons that the Marsh Plan targeted the “Negro” population directly in its survey, referring to the “small colony of Negro families” in Strathcona. As it was commonly perceived in those times, settler colonist urban planners often had to drag “backward” people (i.e., people of colour and the poor) kicking and screaming into the future. The future of Hogan’s Alley, as it turns out, was the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts.

Hogan’s Alley and the City

Hogans-Alley-map-1024x424The history of Strathcona is important to understanding how Euro-descent citizens were privileged in terms of transportation and housing and how black Vancouverites were divested of a historical legacy in the city. Slum clearance was, among other things, part of a larger strategy to make commuting from the largely white suburbs of the Lower Mainland less taxing for those residents who were considered a priority. But in Vancouver the city could not, as is the case in other places, decide to build a freeway in a certain area and then just simply remove peoples and homes and call in the bulldozers. By the time the NPA revealed its plans to build a highway through Strathcona, this area of Vancouver had been successfully been characterized as impoverished and blight stricken, with Hogan’s Alley being the heart of this center of material and moral depravity. It should come as no surprise that the majority of the protest to this proposed plan came from the Strathcona community itself, which had struggled to make homes for themselves despite obvious neglect from the city. Randy Clark again recalls the ill-kept state of his neighborhood, which can only be seen as part of the city’s plan to allow this area to fall into disrepute and “squalor” so that tearing it down and building a freeway could be rationalized.

The city did not completely abandon the people of Strathcona, and in 1970 the Raymour Social Housing Project was built a little east of Strathcona to house black and other refugees from the areas that had been slated for progress. But as Randy Clark so succinctly put it, “black people knew something about projects, and had no desire to repeat that experience.” In fact, the experience of projects and the concentration of “the slow to progress” people into certain areas of town through racist urban planning (i.e., highways, railways, and other forms of enlightened segregation) and informal discrimination (i.e., red lining and rental housing) was something black Vancouverites were trying to run away from.

Updated on February 22: Vancouver City Council voted to move forward with a bold plan for Northeast False Creek that will revitalize the waterfront neighbourhood, reconnect Chinatown and Hogan’s Alley to the rest of the downtown core, and deliver record amounts of social housing and the biggest new public park in 30 years. Read the media release here

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