Hogan’s Alley Society continues to work towards building a future for Black Canadians amidst Vancouver’s history of structural racism
Sarah Rose // Features Editor
Valeriya Kim // Illustration
The Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts tower over the streets below like tombstones, artifacts of a stolen future—the future of Vancouver’s Black community. They represent the buildings and homes of over 800 residents in Hogan’s Alley (East Strathcona) that were razed in the name of urban renewal. Last June, the viaducts were the site of a peaceful protest where seven demonstrators, such as Capilano University (CapU) student Feven Kidane, were arrested for standing in solidarity with defunding the police and honouring Black life. Hogan’s Alley wasn’t the first vibrant Black neighbourhood to exist in Vancouver, but if the city continues to halt progress on Community Land Trust agreements, then it could be one of the last.
In East Strathcona, between Union Street and Prior, is a trail of colourful graffiti. Follow it down past the shadow of condos to an overlooked shop that once was an unofficial shrine to Jimi Hendrix. Beneath the coat of fire-engine-red paint lay the remains of Vie’s Chicken and Steak House, a legendary Hogan’s Alley haunt for jazz era icons like Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole. Strumming further through these streets of the past reveals one of the fastest women in the world, Barbara Howard, who later became the first visible minority hired by the Vancouver School Board. Keep going, now stop. Look down from the pedestrian overpass on Raymur Avenue. Fifty years ago, a group of mothers from the Raymur Social Housing Project blockaded the train tracks below. The overpass is a memento of the fight for their community so that over 400 children wouldn’t have to dodge trains to get to school. These remarkable stories fall like winter rain among a sea of voices that will never be heard from, frozen in time.
Today, Feven Kidane can’t sit still—but that’s not unusual for the ADHD Gemini-rising. She wades through the rooms of their home, putting together a quick meal. “Do you mind if I eat my lunch?” she asked between bites. As the Capilano Students’ Union (CSU) Students of Colour Liaison, Kidane works tirelessly to be present in multiple spaces. Between assisting in organizing Black Lives Matter protests throughout the year, they also worked as a Youth Advisory Council Member for the Ministry of Children and Family Development. Echoing the spirit of the Militant Mothers of Raymur, as part of their work with Black Lives Matter, Kidane supported 13-year-old Marquice Jeffers-Harris’s mother in her fight to change hit and run laws in Canada when no charges were laid for the driver who hit Marquice with an SUV. Jeffers-Harris was left outside of his home by the teacher at his school in Surrey with nothing but a towel, unable to walk.
Of everything Kidane does, what underpins their work is a message about freedom and belonging, that if uplifted and held closer to more people, they might not have to work so hard for; “I’m just trying to join the fight for Black Liberation.” Yet Kidane’s presence within the city is something she is forced to think about all the time, because being Black in Vancouver is about sharing a language of isolation. “I should not have to walk through life like, ‘Oh, there’s a Black lady that lives in my building? … Wow, I got lucky.’”
Somewhere at the heart of Black displacement in Vancouver are the viaducts, but the city began displacing residents of Hogan’s Alley from as early as the 1930’s, long before construction began in 1971. The viaducts are ultimately part of an uncompleted plan for an eight-lane freeway system, they separate what is now East Strathcona from Chinatown. Despite the city voting to remove the viaducts in 2015, they remain in place as monuments to an industrialist manifest destiny of highways and highrises. Through extensive lobbying, civic activism and resistance, the community prevented the remaining six lanes of the freeway system from being built. Protests, such as those Kidane was involved in during the summer, as well as activism against unaffordable condo development and speculation—buying property to leave vacant and resell at higher prices in the future—are some of the ways marginalized communities in Vancouver continue to resist urban renewal.
There’s a book in Kidane’s house, The First Vancouver Catalogue from 1970, that contains nothing related to Hogan’s Alley. She says she once borrowed an extensive history book from a friend, which revealed only three sentences about the community, and “it’s all about the crime!” Look anywhere, and most—if not all—books dedicated to the history of Vancouver lack any record of Hogan’s Alley. “Go into the City archives—all you’re going to find [are] pictures of houses, of some people,” said Kidane. “It’s purposely erased so that people don’t have to feel like they were robbed of something.”
Despite the intended erasure, there are still storytellers dedicated to keeping the Black history of Vancouver alive. “There has been a Black community in Vancouver since before there was a Vancouver,” wrote Wayde Compton, co-founder of the first Black Canadian press in Western Canada, and the Hogan’s Alley Memorial project in 2002.
“When Hogan’s Alley was destroyed, Black people lost their core. People scattered all over the place, some residents returned to the [United States] because they felt safer with their own people. The displacement has exacerbated our isolation,” said Lama Mugabo, a community planner and activist. Mugabo currently serves as a board member for the Hogan’s Alley Society.
In Metro Toronto, the Black population is four percent higher than the national average of three-and-a-half per cent, largely due to the presence of enclaves—geographical areas with high concentrations of a minority group. “An enclave is a place of calm and a place of protective identity,” said geography Professor Dan Hiebert for The Tyee.
The 1970s, in particular, were a period punctuated by urban renewal and gentrification sweeping through many major cities in North America. In addition to destroying whole neighbourhoods the way the viaducts did, it also comes with the cost of rising rent, higher taxes and displacement by a largely affluent white population.
“When people dig deeper, they quickly realize that the paucity of the numbers [in Vancouver] is not by accident. It’s by design,” Mugabo said. For marginalized identities that experience greater discrimination in society, having a space to call home, to take refuge, is everything. “I think about it all the time,” Kidane reflected, “Maybe I wouldn’t feel so weird being the only Black person in many, many spaces where there should be more Black people because the space and Earth demands that,” Kidane said.
After the City voted to demolish the viaducts in 2015, Hogan’s Alley Society proposed a Memorandum of Understanding and a 99-year lease with the intention of using a Community Land Trust (CLT) as a tool to begin revitalizing the land. CLTs are community owned non-profit organizations that can operate on a variety of scales, but are designed to keep land in perpetuity for the use of the community. The proposal includes a cultural center, childcare services as well as commercial space.
Six years later, and the city has made little progress despite continued efforts towards other projects. This could largely be due to the city’s reliance on sales from a maze of new highrises and condos from developers that are intended to front the cost of removing the viaducts, which due to the pandemic, remains unclear when the city could see developers submitting applications. But Kidane worries it’s an issue of ongoing displacement in practices like redlining or restrictive land title covenants. “If we were beyond redlining, Hogan’s Alley would be [already] here,” Kidane said.
In 2018, the ambitious Northeast False Creek Plan (NEFC), which won the American Planning Association Award, was approved. The NEFC plan is a 20-year proposal that would include building upwards of 25 highrises inside 58 hectares of land which encompasses Hogan’s Alley. It’s equivalent to a town the size of Prince Rupert. Green Party Councillor Adriene Carr voiced concerns in the four-hour approval meeting for the NEFC that the proposed housing wouldn’t meet a realistic degree of affordability. “I feel 80 percent [of the housing will be] high-end condos,” said Carr. The rate of affordable for-profit housing set by the city of Vancouver as of 2018 started at $1,903 for a one-bedroom unit in the West Side.
“The invasion of condo development gradually erodes [the] community of any sense of livability and heritage,” said Mugabo in an interview for The Volcano. According to the NEFC plan, the social housing proposed by Hogan’s Alley Society would sit on the East block of Main Street, opposite the proposed condos on the West block. Compton also discussed his concerns for the future of the space left behind by the viaducts, “my worry is that it’s going to lock into contemporary gentrification,” he said in an interview with the CBC.
“[A] Community Land Trust is the best mechanism that will bring Hogan’s Alley back to life, in dignity,” explains Mugabo. The CLT would not only protect the land from speculation—preventing it from being resold to the highest bidder—but ensure access to real affordable housing, with all revenue invested back into the community.
“A lot of cities are watching Vancouver. What happened here happened in Montreal, Halifax, and other places in Canada,” said Mugabo. “We want real changes and a message to future generations that the city has atoned to its injustice against Black people.” Without a CLT, those like Kidane worry about what kind of place the land will be and for whom: “If it’s owned by the city, what is it really, who does it serve, will it be accessible?” If Vancouver wants to promise equality, then the first step should not be to rely on the whim of private developers—it should start with reparations. General Manager Gil Kelley discusses the NEFC plan for the American Planning Association Award as if he discovered Hogan’s Alley’s existence by accident through the project. In 2018, the city council issued a formal apology to the Chinese community for past racist policies, while the Black community is still waiting for acknowledgment.
Outside, Kidane catches their breath in between soft plumes of fog pierced by the winter sun. The need to just breathe for a moment—to experience life in a space we can call home—is felt in every shared moment of silence. Still, she always carries a sense of joy and hope. “There is nothing hopeless when it comes to wishing that you had people that looked like you because that’s wishing that you had more life in your life.”
For all of us, the appreciation of beauty is coupled with a sense of loss, even if it’s not immediately visible. Buildings can never be just buildings. They can be havens of protection—they can also imprison and oppress. Buildings have the power to be tools for cultural destruction, to reinforce the colonial desire for expansionism. We look to buildings to embody the ideas we respect, to cradle us, like a mold where we become the visions of ourselves.
Architecture isn’t just a product of technological capability but a reflection of values and ideas. Often, buildings go unnoticed until a silent explosion like losing the home, job, or family built within leaves an indelible mark on our lives.
Kidane believes in the heart of transformative justice and in healing past wounds. “When I think about things like whiteness, I’m shocked how many people don’t look at that and think it’s heartbreaking because that’s self-inflicted cultural erasure,” Kidane said. “[Black] People nod to each other in this city—it’s just acknowledgement … It’s like, ‘good to see that I’m not alone.’”
For Mugabo, breathing life back into Hogan’s Alley is one step towards building the communities of the future, but the viaducts remain artifacts of a future that was already stolen. A future that is already over. The idea of fully imagined cultural futures is a freedom that belongs to the past. As Han Kang writes in The Vegetarian, “faced with those decaying buildings and straggling grasses, she was nothing but a child who had never lived.”
We carry a critical responsibility to ensure the living conditions for future generations, and it will remain out of reach so long as Canada’s foundation rests on a society built to sustain white supremacy. Many Black-led organizations in Vancouver struggle to meet the criteria for grants, and without more substantial widespread support, there is a real worry that the needs of the Black community could once again fall through the cracks.
Every day, we’re surviving historical events that spike closer together on the calendar like tachycardia on a heart monitor—ecological disaster, a pandemic and the public emergency of racism. The need for survival, family, and community faced by Black diaspora is nothing short of a crisis.
Learn more about Hogan’s Alley Society, volunteer or donate at www.hogansalleysociety.org