The rich history, isolated present and hopeful future of Vancouver’s Black community

Every February, people across Canada and the U.S. celebrate Black History Month to honour and uplift the legacies of Black communities. This year, advocacy groups, like Hogan’s Alley Society (HAS) and University of British Columbia’s Black Student Union (BSU), are not only highlighting Black voices, but also Vancouver’s history of anti-Black racism. Hogan’s Alley, from its once vibrant Black community to the forced displacement of its residents, remains a key chapter in this history – one that is being revived.

Photos by Bolu Abiola

“Hogan’s Alley was a multicultural and multiethnic community,” says Djaka Blais, executive director of the HAS. “It was a place where people could find affordable housing, and in some instances, it was one of the few places that they were welcomed to stay.”

This changed between the 1930s and the 1970s when the City’s urban renewal projects displaced the vibrant Hogan’s Alley Black community.

In addition to operating culturally informed, affordable housing, HAS also oversees public education and research projects, including the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation-funded Housing Solutions Lab that examines the renting experiences of Black residents. They have also been working with the city of Vancouver to re-establish social, cultural, and physical infrastructures in Hogan’s Alley that address the needs of Black Vancouverites – an ongoing process that further draws attention to how the loss of Black community spaces has longstanding impacts.

Undoing misconceptions

“We never had a real hub, a nucleus for the Black community since then,” says Blais. “Community members had spoken about really significant experiences of isolation, discrimination, and racism they experienced growing up here.”

For Blais, this isolation goes beyond the loss of physical space in what was once known as Hogan’s Alley, a Strathcona neighbourhood running from Main Street to Jackson Avenue in between Union Street and Prior Street. In fact, Blais notes that this displacement also resulted in the loss of the Black community’s cultural and social capital, fuelling the false narrative that Vancouver does not have Black community members.

“There’s a reason why there are so few numbers, and it was intentional,” says Blais. “Through a series of racist policies… that community [in Hogan’s Alley] was displaced across other parts of the province, going to other provinces, or back to the US.”

Drawn to this community, Blais moved from Calgary to join HAS in Aug. 2022 just as the organization was developing beyond its volunteer-board structure. Shortly after, in September 2022, the HAS signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the city to re-build Hogan’s Alley under a community land trust – a deal that Blais credits to at least four years of tireless negotiations led by HAS volunteer board members and other community advocates. Even though the timeline for when the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts, the final straw in displacing Hogan’s Alley, will be dismantled is still uncertain, Blais states that HAS plans to redevelop the area with small businesses, childcare services, a Black cultural centre, and affordable housing.

Despite the memorandum, Blais notes that inequitable resource distribution is an ongoing problem, one that is made worse through the lack of race-based housing research. To address this issue, the HAS recently conducted a research study centered on Black renters
in Vancouver.

“A significant number spoke to the anti-black racism they experienced in trying to access suitable and affordable housing and maintaining that housing,” says Blais. “Some of what came out of the survey was also limited access to suitable units, whether it be based on accessibility needs or family sizes.”

To address these challenges, Blais would like to see intentional investment in Black communities when it comes to distributing resources. While the HAS plans to hold webinars and offer more tours of Hogan’s Alley to honour Black History Month, Blais encourages people to engage with this work throughout the year.

The labour of self-advocacy

As HAS works towards reviving the vibrant Black community of Hogan’s Alley, UBC’s BSU is working on making the campus more inclusive.

“True equity [is] when I see myself and people that look like me in stories, in all spaces in this institution,” says Sara Lennon, VP of external communications for UBC BSU.

For Lennon and other executive members of the BSU, much work still needs to be done to make UBC fully inclusive. According to Lennon, racist incidents, such as the use of racial slurs, continue to occur in classrooms even today. Aïcha Diaby, co-president of the BSU, adds that when racist incidents do occur, there are few avenues for Black students to report them.

“The biggest problem I would say if I had to summarize is the constant need for self-advocacy,” adds Mary Jim-Akaya, one of BSU’s VP of Events. “Really and truly, everything that I now consider as a resource is something students had to fight for and create.”

Within classrooms, they also note that the disproportionate number of Black professors and lack of acknowledgement regarding George Floyd’s murder led to further isolation. Lennon also remarks that in comparison with her cousins studying at U.S. institutions, UBC’s African studies department does not offer as many courses.

“Black history [shouldn’t be] just limited to African studies,” adds Diaby, while noting how her kinesiology classes fail to consider culture-based diets. “It’s hard to distinguish what is performative and what is actually caring about anything.”

Established in 2018 under UBC’s Alma Mater Society, the BSU has been running weekly kickbacks for the past year and a half – a safe social space for Black students. They also organize formal events, movie nights, and dance classes. For Black History Month, the BSU, which has grown in its partnerships with other campus organizations, is planning a variety of events, including a Black history-themed kickback and a masquerade ball. They would like to see more institutional support and transparency when it comes to building UBC’s Black community.

“I feel like what real allyship would look like for me is feeling like I don’t have to be a Black student in a politicized way,” says Jim-Akaya. “I wish we can get to a place where Black students can just be black students.”