Chinatown and Hogan's Alley advocates call for greater reconciliation in Vancouver's Northeast False Creek Plan
'Right to return' policy floated, where original landowners would have first dibs on new housing where viaducts now stand.
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“This is it – this used to be ours,” said Lawrence Der, standing under the viaducts on the edge of Vancouver’s Chinatown.
Der is president of the Chau Luen Society, which used to own a building here until the city came knocking. It was 1966, the era of freeways, and Vancouver wanted one for its downtown core. But Hogan’s Alley, home the city's Black community, and Chinatown were in the way.
Thanks to activist’s historic protests, the freeway was never fully built – but the city did bulldoze the Chau Luen Society building and Hogan’s Alley to make way for what is now known as the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts.
Two years ago, Vancouver city council voted to tear them down. The resulting Northeast False Creek plan being debated this week is city staff’s vision for revitalizing the area.
Members of Vancouver’s Black community and Chinatown communities spoke at city hall on Wednesday, asking councillors to give more thought to the lasting impact on those communities when the city took their land away for the viaducts.
Stephanie Allen, co-chair of the Hogan's Alley Working Group, wants the city to take it one step further and implement a ‘right to return’ policy, in the name of reconciliation.
It would give former landowners like the Chau Luen Society, and members of Vancouver’s original Black community, first dibs on the land under the viaducts.
“If you can prove that you had grandparents that had a home there or a business there, and you can trace that back, then you have an opportunity for the first right of refusal of housing or business,” she said.
“It’s a brilliant way to bring about justice.”
Der was 20 years old and volunteering with the Chau Luen Society when the viaducts were built.
“I know [the directors] didn’t want to sell it,” he said. “They didn’t want to move.”
The Chau Luen Society is one of about 20 family clan societies in Vancouver that own land. For decades, these societies provided housing for the community at a time when Chinese people did not feel welcomed outside of Chinatown.
Der recalls the society’s origin story – of how three of the society’s directors used their own money in the 1940s to buy the 50 by 120-foot lot on the southeast corner of Main and Union streets.
The three-storey building became home to London Drugs’ first store and the society used the top two floors as a rooming house for the Chinese community. NDP MLA and former city councillor George Chow used to live there, said Wong.
But then, the city called. Society member Daniel Tom was in charge of negotiating with the city and says the society received about $112,000.
“All the members were saying, hey [the city] wants us to get out … we have no choice,” he said.
The resulting viaducts displaced not only the Chau Luen Society, but also Vancouver’s vibrant Black community.
In the proposed Northeast False Creek Plan, the city has committed to creating a cultural space for the Black community where Hogan’s Alley used to be. Advocates worked hard for years to ensure the community would have their own space in Northeast False Creek.
“This is an opportunity to really celebrate and hold culture for people from the African diaspora, and to see meaningful participation in city building,” said Allen.
“That whole opportunity was stripped of us when we were displaced.”
In the proposed Northeast False Creek plan, the city is committing to building 1,800 units of social housing. Critics say it’s not enough, given the city is reaching desperate levels of housing unaffordability.
The crisis is felt deeply in Chinatown and when asked whether the Chau Luen Society would support a 'right to return' policy, Der and Tom both said they would want to operate a low-income housing building once again on that land.
“If we could financially back this up,” Tom added.
But Michael Tam, a director at the Chau Luen Society, says it is unlikely the society would bid for one of the housing developments slated for the area under the viaduct. It is already difficult to fund the society’s existing programs, which include seniors housing, martial arts clubs, table tennis and karaoke nights, as well as special events such as Christmas parties and a summer picnic, he said.
Tam, 33, is one of Chau Luen's younger members and is optimistic the society will continue to grow. There has been renewed interest in Chinatown from people of all ages in the past few years, he said.
Tam, now 84-years old, moved back to Chinatown last year after the apartment he used to live in near Metrotown was torn down to make way for new condos. He currently lives in a seniors-housing apartment at the Chau Luen Society building on the corner of Keefer and Gore streets. Tom helped the society fundraise to build that 12-storey tower after the city expropriated the land to build the viaduct.
The society is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year.