Black Strathcona places history in the palm of your hand

Welcome to Strathcona’s East Side, which – for six decades – was Vancouver’s first and only black neighbourhood. It is a vital part of Vancouver’s history that many are unfamiliar with; but the Black Strathcona Interactive Media Project is changing this by providing a glimpse of what this once thriving community was like from the 1900s to the 1960s. Created by filmmaker Gordon McLennan and Eastside Culture Crawl director Esther Rausenberg, the interactive project invites you to walk through the neighbourhood and follow a 1956 map to locate the 10 sites where QR codes enable you to download video stories to your smartphone.

It brings history to life in your hand,” says Mclennan.

A self-guided tour might bring you to the corner of Main and Union where Vie’s Chicken and Steaks used to stand, attracting entertainers like Sammy Davis Jr. and Billie Holiday for late-night refreshments. Or you might stroll down Gore Avenue to Strathcona elementary school where Barbara Howard, one of the world’s fastest women, taught physical education.

Prior to the Black Strathcona project, both McLennan and Rausenberg had individually done research on the history of Strathcona’s black community, but were unsure what to do
with it.

“We had all this research, and it wasn’t going anywhere,” says Rausenberg. “Gordon suggested interactive media, and we decided to build around that.”

The Brown Bombers baseball team at Powell Street Grounds (now Oppenheimer Park).

The Brown Bombers baseball team at Powell Street Grounds (now Oppenheimer Park).

Ten years ago, McLennan planned to make a film on Hogan’s Alley (an alley that ran through Strathcona’s southwest corner) along with historian and poet Wayde Compton. Then, it would have been a traditional documentary. But today, interactive technology has created new ways of distributing documentary film and McLennan feels there is an opportunity to share history in a new way as well.

“You can download [a video] in the exact same place where it was filmed, and in the exact same place where these stories happened,” says McLennan. “It’s an immediate connection
to the past.”

Creating an open museum

Interactivity and the use of QR codes is what put the Black Strathcona project in motion, allowing McLennan and Rausenberg to share their research and the vibrant history they had been discovering and uncovering over the course of several years.

Singer and actress Thelma Gibson atthe Harlem Nocturne on East Hastings.

Singer and actress Thelma Gibson atthe Harlem Nocturne on East Hastings.

“Once we started, we had to do a lot more research. Some of our previous research was applicable, but most wasn’t,” says Rausenberg. “So we had to go to primary sources, most of whom where in their 80s and 90s. This presented a lot of challenges.”

The project took three years to complete, and Rausenberg emphasizes that the timing was critical; she and McLennan were able to gather the stories and memories of an aging population, personal recollections of the past that were at risk of being left unrecorded.

“We wanted to tell these stories, because there are a lot of people who are not aware of the black community that existed here,” says Rausenberg. “And we wanted the history to come to life in a way that is different from how history is usually presented.”

McLennan and Rausenberg have not only documented a history that is unknown to many Vancouverites, they have also created a kind of “open museum” –
words they both use to describe the project.

It’s important to the project’s creators that Black Strathcona’s online archive serves as a learning tool that anyone can access. The videos are accessible through the website, which allows those who are not local to watch the videos. They have also developed a study guide for schools, with the hope that some of this information and history is incorporated into the curriculum.

Check out Celebrating Black Strathcona on Saturday, Nov. 8 at Carnegie Theatre, where all 10 video stories will be screened as part of The Heart of the City Festival.

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