British Columbia

Why the Vancouver viaducts are a symbolically important place for an anti-Black racism protest

The area around the viaducts was once the heart of a thriving Black community established in the early 1900s known as Hogan's Alley.

Black neighbourhood of Hogan's Alley was demolished to build elevated roads as part of freeway plan

823 Main St. in Hogan's Alley, photographed in 1969. The area, centred between Prior and Union and Main and Jackson streets, was the heart of a thriving Black community until it was demolished to make way for the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts. (City of Vancouver archives)

The Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts were very likely a symbolic choice of location for a demonstration by anti-racism protesters, as well as a way of blocking traffic from two of Vancouver's main arteries.

The area around the viaducts was once the heart of a thriving Black community established in the early 1900s known as Hogan's Alley.

Centred between Prior and Union and Main and Jackson streets, the area was a cultural hub for Vancouver's Black community, which became ghettoized and neglected by the city. Over time, residents were pushed out as industry and infrastructure — including the viaducts — moved in, dispersing the community.

The viaduct protest, which began Saturday, was dispersed Monday morning by Vancouver police, who arrested seven people.

On a 2014 Black History Month stamp, Canada Post described Hogan's Alley as a 'vibrant destination for food and jazz through the 1960s. It was the unofficial name of a four-block long dirt lane that formed the nucleus of Vancouver's first concentrated African-Canadian community.' (Canada Post)

At one point, Hogan's Alley was home to more than 800 Black community members, and featured the African Methodist Episcopal Chapel (founded in 1923), a residence for the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, as well as the legendary Vie's Chicken and Steak House — a hotspot where Jimi Hendrix's grandmother Nora, a vaudevillian performer and choir singer, worked as a cook.

When the city announced its plan to build a freeway through the neighbourhood around 50 years ago, some members of the Black community did try to stop it, said Stephanie Allen, co-founding board member of the Hogan's Alley Society. 

"There was actually a police beating of a black man who died and then a lot of the community started to rally," said Allen on CBC's The Early Edition on Monday.

Even though the freeway through downtown was never realized, residents were forced to leave as much of the area was demolished to make way for the viaducts. 

'Discrimination, isolation and exclusion'

Hogan's Alley Society did not co-ordinate the protests that shut the viaducts down Saturday and Sunday. 

The group of protesters has declined to comment to media, including CBC News, except to say that the protest is peaceful and in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, as well as the movement to defund police forces in favour of alternative public safety tools.

Stephanie Allen, left, tours Hogan's Alley with Matt Galloway, host of CBC's The Current. At one point, Hogan’s Alley in Vancouver was home to more than 800 members of the Black community. (Matt Meuse/CBC)

"What you see in the protests here is people coming together around these really severe issues of discrimination, isolation and exclusion," said Allen. "Young people are the ones that are out there really putting their lives, and their bodies, on the line to stand up for something larger."

While the protesters are reflecting sentiments currently shared by thousands of demonstrators around the world, Hogan's Alley Society has some immediate, local goals.

With the viaducts scheduled to be dismantled within the next few years, Allen says her group has been in negotiations with the city to turn the land into a land trust to be stewarded by the Black community.

The society has put forward a proposal that includes rental housing with spaces for small community businesses and non-profits, and a community centre at its heart.

"This is something that the whole city could get behind because we really see this as not just for Black people and from Black folks, but really a place where everybody in the city could benefit," she said.

In 2018 the City of Vancouver passed a plan for Northeast False Creek that included specific plans for the Hogan's Alley area, with the city calling it "a significant opportunity to re-establish a focal point for the Black community in Vancouver."

The City of Vancouver's Northeast False Creek Plan calls for specific action to be taken in the Hogan's Alley area (labelled 6d here), including the exploration of a long-term land trust. (City of Vancouver)

Project stalled

But two years later, city staff haven't moved forward with any proposals or timeline for the land, with the delays blamed on the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"Prior to COVID-19 related disruptions, city staff were in the process of working with the Hogan's Alley Society to finalize a meeting time and agenda ... intended to continue advancing foundational work on the implementation of the Hogan's Alley block, as well as to work collectively to address systemic anti-Black racism," said the city in a statement, which called a land trust a "consideration."

City councillors say it's high time for those discussions to happen. 

"It seems to me like this is a completely right time, an opportunity to move now instead of dragging our feet," said Coun. Adrianne Carr.

"It's critically important. It has been for decades, and the increased attention on the issue highlights we should be moving as quickly as possible," Coun. Christine Boyle said.

"I certainly understand the frustration that it's taken this long ... and I hope it comes back to council very soon." 

Allen argued the city is employing "stall mechanisms that we see happen repeatedly with marginalized communities," but they'll continue to push for a community trust to be part of the final proposal. 

"What we need to see is the City of Vancouver to commit that they will not seek to profit from land where Black communities were displaced," she said.

"That's gotta be a statement: we will not seek to extract and privatize condos or other commercial real estate so we can fund the things we're doing. That's just got to be unequivocal." 

Tap here to listen to the complete interview with Stephanie Allen on The Early Edition.

With files from The Early Edition and Justin McElroy