Vancouver’s Black Community honours a missing page of history

With the removal of the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts approaching, Hogan’s Alley Trust, a community-led nonprofit, along with the Western Front, an artist-run centre, is hosting conversations (Oct. 24 and Nov. 21) to honour Hogan’s Alley, then-hub of Vancouver’s Black community.

Hogan’s Alley, where Vancouver’s Black community thrived, was bulldozed in the 1970s to make way for the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts. The Black population has since been dispersed throughout the city.

“There isn’t a very visible Black community here. And the question that I had [when I first moved to Vancouver] was, ‘Where is the Black community?’” says Anthonia Ogundele, a planner by training and member of the Hogan’s Alley Trust.

She started to learn the history of Hogan’s Alley by looking at the displacement of the Black Vancouverites.

“I was interested in understanding what civic license or social license the city had at that time to destroy the Black community and build the viaducts,” says Ogundele.

Injustice facing Black Canadians

For Ogundele, Vancouver’s Black people could find themselves over-policed or voyeured in public space, which could be traced back to before the erasure of Hogan’s Alley.

Anthonia Ogundele, member of the Hogan’s Alley Trust | Credit: Yusheng Cai

“There has been a long-standing relationship or tension between the city and that particular space. In the early 1920s, the City of Vancouver rezoned the area. Residents of that neighborhood found it more difficult to upgrade their homes. They found their garbage was not being picked up or different homes were being put into disrepair,” says Ogundele.

The building of the viaducts was the last straw.

“There was a social cohesion that was there in the neighbourhood. The viaducts dispersed the Black community across the region, which is why you don’t see such a concentrated Black presence here in Vancouver,” says Ogundele. “What has happened generationally is that there is a feeling of social isolation in the city which is a problem among all communities, but is acute within the Black community.”

In a broader context, Black Canadians are facing gross injustice, which serves the motivation of Stephanie Allen, another member of the Hogan’s Alley Trust, to bring the Black community back to life.

When Allen was a junior high student in Ontario, she was told by the guidance counselor that she wasn’t smart enough for university, which turned out to be a common experience for Black people.

“When you asked Black people, people of colour in Ontario around my age group, ‘What was it like going to school in the 80s?’ A lot of us found we had received the exact same advice,” says Allen. “There’s a point when you kind of realize there’s a difference between me and those guys over there. I knew when racism started to come my way. I knew when I started to be called names and when people started to treat me differently.”

Redevelopment is uncompromising

For both Allen and Ogundele, the redevelopment of Vancouver’s Black community shouldn’t be compromised.

“This is not a battle being fought by anyone else in the city. It’s not being fought by any other communities. It’s a battle being fought and initiative being proposed by the Black community, because we are personally affected. We’ve been personally impacted by the past and the ongoing discrimination that is built into systems of power,” says Allen.

Ogundele agrees. She says Hogan’s Alley Trust has had conversations to spotlight the history and raise awareness about the five principles of the redevelopment, which are recognition, honoring, access and inclusion, security of tenure and land use, investment.

“It has to happen. I don’t think any one of these principles can be compromised. Otherwise the integrity of the development falls and makes it like any other building here,” says Ogundele. “Right now we are starting with having some conversations around the history of Hogan’s Alley and understanding the nature of this work.”