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Guest Shot: Vancouver viaducts removal clears way to honour Hogan's Alley

Removal of the 1960s downtown infrastructure a chance to create a gathering space, an archive, for future black communities, argues Wayde Compton

Expo Boulevard curves underneath the Georgia Street Viaduct on Aug. 6, 2015. The viaducts were built in the late 1960s through the largely black neighbourhood of Hogan's Alley in Vancouver's East End.

Jennifer Gauthier / Metro Order this photo

Expo Boulevard curves underneath the Georgia Street Viaduct on Aug. 6, 2015. The viaducts were built in the late 1960s through the largely black neighbourhood of Hogan's Alley in Vancouver's East End.

Last year, Vancouver City Council voted to take the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts down.

This was the culmination of years of study, spearheaded by Coun. Geoff Meggs of Vision Vancouver. Before the vote, members of the public appeared before council to say a few words, to voice their hopes and concerns.

They were so numerous that two days were required to accommodate everyone. While a wide variety of opinions were aired, many of the people there insisted that in some way or other the new plans need to honour the history of Hogan's Alley — the neighbourhood that existed for decades at the site where the viaducts were built in the late 1960s, and which included a sizeable population of black Vancouverites.

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I was at that meeting, and stated my hope for some sort of spatial restitution to a displacement that I strongly believe was institutionalized racism.

The viaducts were part of an "urban renewal" scheme that fit a pattern of such plans all across North America during that era: freeways were slated to connect cities to their suburbs, and they were almost always run through black neighbourhoods — because black residents were considered expendable.

In the case of Vancouver, Chinatown was also targeted.

But as it turned out, Vancouver’s freeway plan was never realized, and the only portion built was the one that obliterated black centralization in the East End (or Strathcona, as it came to be called through this planning).

Vancouver writer Wayde Compton

Ayelet Tsabari / Submitted

Vancouver writer Wayde Compton

Since then, black Vancouverites continue to comprise about 1 per cent of the city's population. We were not driven out. But it is now difficult to locate us in the geography of the city, because our businesses, residences, and our centre was expunged.

As someone who has written about and researched this history for many years, I applied to join the Northeast False Creek Stewardship Group this summer, a body appointed to offer consultation on the future plans. I did so hoping that a 21st-century city council might correct, as much as possible, this history of hostility to Vancouver’s black citizens.

Along with Anthonia Ogundele, also in the group, we have begun to solicit thoughts and ideas from members of Vancouver's black community — including, importantly, some of those who descend from families who lived through the displacement.

How the ideals of historical redress might meet the pragmatic details of planning and politics will, of course, unfold in a way that is as-yet unwritten.

But my own hope is that the removal of the viaducts opens up the chance to create a space of daily return to the area for future black communities, as well as for those who value learning about our history and culture. A gathering space, an archive, a place to meet and to receive newcomers who are seeking cultural kin: real inclusion might begin there.

The age of segregation is over, and that is as it should be. But a celebration of Vancouver's 20,000 black people through a return in the form of a new cultural presence to the site of our historical origin — that would be how Vancouver might finally tell its black citizens that if they weren't always welcome, they are now.

Wayde Compton is an award-winning Vancouver writer and editor. He is co-founder of the Hogan’s Alley Memorial Project.

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