If you walk by the corner of Main St and Prior today, the only landmark immediately noticeable is an empty lot nestled against Main St. But up until 40 years ago, this was the closest thing to a black neighbourhood that Vancouver has ever had.
Hogan’s Alley, as it was colloquially known, was a four-block strip in Strathcona that for half a century was the cultural centre of Vancouver’s black community. The neighbourhood was destroyed in 1970 with the building of the Georgia Viaduct.
Although Hogan’s Alley was multi-ethnic, it was home to a cluster of black families, a number of small businesses owned by blacks and the only black church in Vancouver, the African Methodist Episcopal Fountain Chapel.
According to Wayde Compton, a Vancouver-born writer and co-founder of the Hogan’s Alley Memorial Project, few Vancouverites are aware that black people have had a significant presence in British Columbia since its founding.
“In Nova Scotia, people are fairly aware that there’s a black community there—they’ve had a fairly big impact on the culture,” said Compton. “[But] there are actually more black people in BC than there are in Nova Scotia.”
Compton, who has written numerous books about the history and literature of black British Columbians, says that because of this invisibility, it’s essential we remember sites such as Hogan’s Alley.
“Most people I talk to who are over the age of fifty… seem to have a pretty good idea that there was a black community here. They all at one point or another went down to Hogan’s Alley, and went to a place like Vie’s Chicken and Steakhouse.
“But anyone younger than that is just dropping memories.”
Compton himself was born two years after Hogan’s Alley was torn down.
Black people have been in British Columbia since its founding. The first governor of the province, Sir James Douglas, was himself part black.
As Compton describes in his new book After Canaan, the first large wave of black immigration came in the 1850s from San Francisco. They were lured by both the Fraser River Gold Rush and escaping the escalating racism and segregation of Californian society.
Although many returned to the United States after the end of the American Civil War, the British Columbian black population began to cluster in Vancouver as the city became the economic centre of the province.
As many black men were employed as porters on the railways, black families began to gather in the East End, where the western terminus of the Canadian Pacific Railway was located. The area they settled became known as Hogan’s Alley.
Alongside the African Methodist Episcopal Fountain Chapel—which was partially founded by Nora Hendrix, the grandmother of Jimi Hendrix—Hogan’s Alley contained many black restaurants, known as “chicken shacks,” that were part Southern-style eateries and part informal speakeasies.
The best-known of these establishments was Vie’s Chicken and Steakhouse. The building now contains a shrine to Jimi Hendrix.
Although there were no laws segregating blacks in Vancouver (those laws did exist for Asians and First Nations people), many lived in Hogan’s Alley because they would not have been accepted elsewhere. A 1962 investigation by The Ubyssey found widespread discrimination towards blacks who were trying to rent.
“Negroes are turned down daily on racial grounds when they apply to rent rooms or suites in private homes near the campus,” read the article. “Chinese and East Indians are subject to discrimination also, but less frequently. Members of all three races have been insulted by landlords who tell them coldly that unrented rooms have been rented.”
Hogan’s Alley, however, was viewed by some as a problem area for Vancouver. A 1939 article from The Province stated that “to the average citizen, Hogan’s Alley stands for three things: squalor, immorality and crime.”
So when the City began embracing the ideology of “urban renewal,” it was surreptitiously decided that Hogan’s Alley, alongside Chinatown and parts of the Downtown East Side, would be cleared for an extensive highway system.
This proposal was pushed through by the Non-Partisan Alliance (NPA) and Leonard Marsh, a UBC professor of social work. The intention was to push the black population into social housing projects, as was being done in many American cities.
And although the highway system never came to fruition due to massive protests from residents, Hogan’s Alley was ultimately destroyed by the building of the Georgia Viaduct. By 1970, most of the black population had already dispersed throughout Vancouver.
Since 2002, Compton has been working with the Hogan’s Alley Memorial Project to build a memorial to commemorate the neighbourhood on its former site.
“Vancouver is a very weird city in a lot of ways, in that we have such a shallow history,” he said. “For a city that young, we should be very interested in keeping what little bits of history we can have, but it’s almost the opposite: people are quick to erase and forget about it. Put up a new building and knock down an old one.
“I think it’s a dangerous trend. We should try and find a way to understand the city.”
Vancouver City Councillor Geoff Meggs has been a public supporter of the proposed memorial.
“Vancouver’s a very young city, and it’s changing awfully quickly,” he said. “The pace is so fast that it’s important for coming generations to have a sense and an understanding of what’s gone before and how difficult some chapters of that history have been. If you don’t know where to look, it’s hard to find signs of Japantown, and that whole community was expelled from the province in 1942.
“I think people lose sight of the fact that the diversity of our society is not something that has just occurred in the last few years, but it’s been a factor in the life of Vancouver and the province from the beginning.”
The Arts Council of Vancouver is researching a possible memorial, but that decision won’t come until the future of the Georgia viaduct is finalized, which could take years.
“From our perspective, we want it to be something that’s permanent,” said Compton. “We don’t want it to be temporary.”
Compton sees a memorial as an opportunity to make it clear that black people have been, and are, a part of the Vancouver community.
“I have friend with whom I was talking about the phenomenon where people say there are no black people in Vancouver.
“This friend of mine, who’s a black Vancouverite, says people will say this to [his] face in Vancouver.
They will stand in front of [him] and say, ‘It’s weird that there are no black people in Vancouver.’ And he’ll say, ‘Well, I am one. You are staring at one right now. How can you say this?
“And I think that’s what we’re up against; getting people to shift their consciousness around that perception.”