Vancouver's black history, future mulled
Hogan's Alley vestige to be razed, but community plans ways to permanently honour Vancouver's black history and legacy.
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It was once the local spot where U.S. rock hero Jimi Hendrix jammed in summers as a kid, and where jazz luminaries often ate after local gigs.
Now, the lowrise brick building that once adjoined the eatery where Hendrix's grandmother worked — its back-alley shed and courtyard sometimes hosting diners — is host to a sign in Vancouver's bright colours.
It's no secret that the building was home to one of Vancouver's most unexpected landmark's: a Jimi Hendrix shrine paying homage to the site's history. But Vie's Chicken and Steak restaurant didn't stand in isolation; it was just part of a once-thriving African-Canadian neighbourhood known as Hogan's Alley.
"When I opened the Jimi Hendrix shrine," owner Vincent Fodera said, "there were many African-American people who used to live in the neighbourhood, and they started to come back and say, 'This was our neighbourhood, we should do something about it."
After nearly a decade maintaining the shrine, Fodera sold his building several years ago to a condominium developer. With one condition: they find a way to save the Hendrix shrine.
But as the city inches towards tearing down its widely reviled and ill-planned viaducts, the loss of one of the last vestiges of the once-thriving black neighbourhood is put in stark relief with the African-Canadian community's dream to restore a sense of what was — and offer something lasting for the future.
"There's been a great revival in the younger generation who really want this," Fodera noted. "There needs to be recognition of this."
Now a group of Vancouverites of African descent intent on permanently honouring Vancouver's black history and Hogan's Alley are working with the city and, since May, with architects to plot some way of securing its legacy. The new Hogan's Alley Society is nearing its first anniversary, "made up of people of African descent who are active in the commuinty," explained member Lama Mugabo in a phone interview. "Preserving the memory of Hogan's Alley is crucial for the city because it's history, but it's also culture.
"We need a hub for people for people to come enjoy their culture, their food, and to learn."
Fellow member Wayde Compton — a longtime advocate for Hogan's Alley and Vancouver's black history — said the link to Hendrix is a small part of that history, and his group's sights are squarely under the viaducts.
"My focus has been more on what's happening across the street from there," wrote the author and creative writing director at Simon Fraser University's continuing studies department, in an email. His hope is to "develop a plan that addresses the historical and contemporary black connection to the block bounded by Main, Union, Gore, and Prior," Compton explained.
Among the services potentially offered: arts, music and cultural events; refugee services; food; and a trove of now-scattered Hogan's Alley artifacts.
"Imagine refugees coming down we can provide services to, and programming cultural activities all year round instead of just in February — Black History Month," Mugabo said. "More importantly, there will be archival material for Hogan's Alley.
"Right now these photographs and memorabilia are in private hands; but there's nowhere for people to actually learn from them."
Fodera remembers when he bought the brick low-rise, the only surviving part of the Vie's Chicken and Steak restaurant of Hendrix fame after the rest burned in a fire. He fell in love with the rock icon after seeing him in Germany (a double-bill with fellow guitar prodigy Frank Zappa).
And while he is happy with plans to somehow keep the shrine intact — he's in a temporary location downtown, but will return as a strata member when a new building is complete, he expects — he admitted that physical heritage buildings like his are, regrettably, a rarity in rapidly redeveloping Vancouver.
"It's a bit sad to see that all the buildings are disappearing, some with good history," Fodera said. "But I invite people to save whatever is possible — the developers are willing if people give them a chance to preserve the historic part of certain buildings.
"I just want to ensure the shrine will be preserved. I'm from Italy, a country which has preserved its history. You would never think about taking down an old building or building a new one … Yes, the buildings are falling apart (laughs) but it's not the mentality."