How can infrastructure projects act as assets for all communities?
As Black History Month comes to a close, I decided to take some time to learn and write about the story of Hogan’s Alley. Hogan’s Alley was a historic black community in Vancouver – part of the ethnically diverse East End, which was also home to Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Indigenous, and Jewish residents.
The first black immigrant families came to Vancouver during the mid-1800s, when Sir James Douglas (the governor of Vancouver Island and a man of bi-racial African descent), invited Black Californians to move to British Columbia. While there were other smaller black communities in the region, Hogan’s Alley became the region’s most established and well-known black neighbourhood. This was primarily due to the fact that from the late 1800s through the mid-1900s, black men worked as sleep car porters on the Canadian railways. These men and their families stayed in the East End (Strathcona area) as it was affordable and close to the railway station.
Over time, Hogan’s Alley blossomed into a cultural hub. It was a place where people came to enjoy soul food and listen to good jazz. Black businesses, including Vie’s Chicken and Steak House and the Pullman Porters’ Club on Main, thrived during the mid-1900s. Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sammy Davis Jr. were among some of the many patrons to visit the area. Jimi Hendrix also spent time in Hogan’s Alley, as his grandmother, Nora Hendrix, lived in the neighbourhood and was a cook at Vie’s.
Although Hogan’s Alley was a cultural hub and home to black businesses, the black community faced racialized challenges, including inequitable access to home financing, lack of social services, and inadequate investment in community revitalization. In the late 1960s, the city started planning a project to build a viaduct that connected commuters from the Eastern areas of the city to downtown Vancouver. In order to develop this project, in the early 1970s, the city developers demolished the area that encompassed Hogan’s Alley to make way for the Georgia Viaduct. As a result of this infrastructure project, and under the guise of “urban renewal”, black residents were displaced from their homes and the Hogan’s Alley community was destroyed.
Although the racial context was different at the time that this project was developed, this story highlights the inherent complexity of infrastructure projects, and how critical it is to weigh the risks and benefits across all aspects of sustainability. The project was ‘good’ in that it created a new transportation network, providing improved access to the downtown core for workers. While beneficial from an economic standpoint, it completely overlooked the social justice and long-term community impacts. In the case of the Georgia Viaduct project, the black population (and other immigrant populations in the area) were actively ignored, abandoned, and displaced, but, it is not uncommon for infrastructure projects to result in unintentional segregation, displacement, or gentrification as well. Weighing the social complexities, histories, impacts, and needs of communities in the planning, design, construction, and maintenance of infrastructure projects through active and consistent engagement is critical to developing mutually-beneficial infrastructure assets.
In 2015, City of Vancouver councillors voted to demolish the viaducts. Since then, the City has been working on a plan for large-scale redevelopment of the Northeast False Creek area. The City is in dialogue with the Hogan’s Alley Working Group, Historic Chinatown, and the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Wauthuth Nations about the project.
The Hogan’s Alley Society has also been working with the City of Vancouver to provide guidance and ensure that the redevelopment of the Hogan’s Alley block represents the legacy of the historic black community, which was displaced by the construction of the viaducts. They envision a space that highlights the contributions of the former inhabitants of Hogan’s Alley and adds to the vibrant multicultural milieu of Vancouver.
It will be interesting to follow the development of the False Creek area to see how the project ends up integrating the story of Hogan’s Alley into the revitalized space.
Bronwyn Worrick | MBA, BA, ENV SP
Co-Founder & Consultant