A Place to Belong Podcast Episode 4: Hogan's Alley

Listen to A Place to Belong, a six-part podcast from Historica Canada.

In the late 1960s, Hogan’s Alley was the only area in Vancouver with a largely Black population, mainly because of the housing discrimination pervasive in the city.

In this episode, Randy and Bertha Clark share their memories of a tightknit community brought to the ground by city planning, and explain how historic Black communities are still fighting to be remembered.

Listen to A Place to Belong, a six-part podcast from Historica Canada.In the late 1960s, Hogan’s Alley was the only area in Vancouver with a largely Black population, mainly because of the housing discrimination pervasive in the city. In this episode, Randy and Bertha Clark share their memories of a tightknit community brought to the ground by city planning, and explain how historic Black communities are still fighting to be remembered.


Narrator: CONTENT WARNING: This episode contains reference to specific instances of anti-Black racism and violence.

Randy Clark: I have a church directory. It's almost like a phonebook that my grandparents, my grandfather gave to me years and years ago. And it's a directory of the members, all the members of the church, their names, their addresses and their phone numbers.

N: That’s Randy Clark. He grew up in Vancouver’s Hogan’s Alley — essentially a lane running between Union and Prior Streets, and from Main Street to Jackson Avenue.

RC: So, with a directory in my hand, I can walk the streets and say the Brown family lived in this location. This is where they resided, the Risbys. The house might not still be there...

N: But...

RC: This is the address that they lived in when they lived in this area.

N: Over the years, Hogan’s Alley became the only area in Vancouver with a largely Black population — mainly because of the housing discrimination pervasive in the city. The church Randy is talking about was called the Fountain Chapel Church. As you can tell by his description, it was the social and spiritual heart of Hogan’s Alley. It still stands today on the corner of Jackson Avenue and Prior Street — no longer as community-owned church, but as a privately-owned residence.

RC: When people lived here in this community, in particular Black people, they knew one another... Because there were always activities that would stem from that. That church going to picnics and whatnot, socializing...

N: Aside from the church and a few landmarks here and there, Hogan’s Alley no longer exists. There’s no Black neighbourhood to speak of. Starting in 1967, the area was targeted by the city, labelled as a slum, and bulldozed, piece by piece, to make way for a freeway that was never finished.

RC: So, when the community was dispersed, people over time would lose contact with one another. I think as a Black person growing up, I have lost a great deal by not being a part of that community.

N: This is the story of death by city planning, and how historic Black communities are still fighting to be remembered.

You’re listening to A Place to Belong: A History of Multiculturalism in Canada.

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Bertha Clark: I'm related to the Gwynnes and the Starks and the Alexanders and the Wims that came to B.C. by invitation of Sir James Douglas in 1858.

N: That’s Randy’s younger sister, Bertha.

BC: a.k.a. Adelene da soul poet.

N: The Clarks’ ancestors arrived in BC from San Francisco in 1858, among some of the first Black pioneers in the area.

BC: Some settled in on Salt Spring, and others settled in Victoria, and they're still there.

N: The James Douglas Bertha mentioned was a governor of what is now British Columbia. At the time, BC was a British colony, and it was Douglas’ job to keep it that way. To prevent the colony from being taken over by the United States, Douglas needed to increase settlement — and quickly. So, he invited Black communities to settle on Vancouver Island.

BC: BC needed some Black people to come up and help them out with what was going on in BC, but they left because of the slavery, you know, and the things that were going on down south.

N: On April 25, 1858, thirty-five Black immigrants from San Francisco, known as the Pioneer Committee, made their way by steamship to Victoria. It’s very likely that some of Bertha and Randy’s ancestors were on this same steamship.

BC: They were a big part of the community, I mean, they came up here and they just started doing things.

N: The word “pioneer” might make you think that people like Bertha’s ancestors were some of the first Black people to settle in Canada, but that’s not exactly true. Black people have lived in what is now Canada since colonization. In fact, the very first recorded Black person in Canada was a man by the name of Mathieu da Costa, an interpreter in the early 1600s.

But not all arrived of their own will.

Thousands of people of African descent were enslaved here for more than 200 years between the 1600s and 1800s. While it’s true that more than 30,000 came from the United States through the Underground Railroad to seek freedom and a few others were later invited to settle, like in the case of the Pioneer Committee, thousands were brought to Canada as property. These legacies of anti-Black violence and oppression shaped the Black communities that were established, and often later displaced, across the country. In the 19th and 20th centuries, many Black migrants settled in Canada to escape racism south of the border, including Bertha’s family.

BC: My grandma's family, they bought their freedom, right. They paid for their freedom.

N: But much of what they were escaping they found here, too.

At least one Canadian doctor travelled to the U.S. to purposely spread misinformation to discourage Black settlers from moving to Canada. He told would-be migrants that they could die from Canada’s harsh winters. He told Black men that their daughters and wives would be strip-searched by men upon arrival — something that was horrifyingly reminiscent of slave auctions.

As we’ve learned so far over this series, Canadian immigration authorities went to great lengths to make Canada a white nation. In 1911, Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier approved an outright ban on Black immigrants, though it was never officially enacted. The attempt was similar to legislation that prevented Chinese, Japanese, and other non-white immigrants from entering the country.

When immigrants were permitted to enter Canada, many faced harsh housing discrimination and were forced to live in specific parts of the city, which often became Chinatowns, Little Indias, Little Italys, or in the case of Vancouver’s Black community, Hogan’s Alley.

Between 1858 and 1860, roughly 800 free African Americans from California migrated to Vancouver Island. Later, some migrated to other parts of BC, including Bertha and Randy’s grandmother, Vie Moore.

BC: She was born on Salt Spring in 1901.

N: That’s Salt Spring Island, just off Vancouver Island. By the mid-1940s, Vie and her husband Bob Moore lived in the working-class neighbourhood of Strathcona in East Vancouver.

BC: But she opened up her restaurant called Vie’s Chicken and Steaks on Union, right off of main street.

N: Bertha was eight years old in 1965 when her mother, Adelene, decided to move Bertha and her siblings from San Francisco to Hogan’s Alley to be closer to their grandmother.

At the time, the area had been home to Vancouver’s first and only Black neighbourhood for more than half a century. But even so, young Bertha saw few people who looked like her in the surrounding areas.

BC: I mean, we were... we were right dead in the middle of the in skirts of Chinatown. Right. So, I mean, I go up the street and go around the corner and walk a block and I'm in Chinatown. Well now I can go up the street and keep going straight and then I'm in the Italian area. You had a lot of everything but Black people.

N: That became even clearer to Bertha when she started school.

BC: My first day of school in Vancouver, Hogan's Alley. Right. I was coming home from school and there was a group of kids. There was just a group of kids. And I didn’t know none of these kids. They didn't know me, but I was the only Black one in that school and I had to go through those kids to get home.

N: The first day, Bertha avoided the group and walked another way home. But on the second day, she decided to take her regular route — right through that crowd of kids.

BC: And so I walked through them and then this boy hit me in the back of the head. Soon as he hit me in the back of the head, that was all she wrote. I had to drop the books and we had to fight. No, I wasn't tough. I was just aware.

N: Aware that this wasn’t just kids fighting after school. Aware of the reason why she was attacked. But after that fight, those kids didn’t bother Bertha again. 

BC: I mean, we weren't friends with a lot of the people on the block, but we... We weren't not friends with a lot of the people on the block. Everybody just did their own thing, right.

N: The Black population in Hogan’s Alley was small, about 800 people at its height, but it was home to people of various backgrounds, including the descendants of Black pioneers, like Bertha’s grandparents, along with Black homesteaders who came from Oklahoma by way of Alberta.

BC:...When we were kids, it wasn’t called Hogan's Alley. You know, it was just main and union, right? And if it was, I was too young to know that it was called Hogan's Alley.

 

N: Author Wayde Compton believes the name Hogan’s Alley is a reference to a racist comic strip from the late-19th century about Hell’s Kitchen in New York City. Back then, the term “ghetto” wasn’t popular. “Ghetto” is used today to describe parts of a city where low-income and racialized people are living in poor housing conditions due to government neglect.   In the early 20th century, “Hogan’s Alley” became the shorthand for such a place.

BC: To this day, it doesn't dawn on me that it was a poor neighbourhood, because when you have a poor neighbourhood, you have a lot of poor people in the neighbourhood, right? That wasn't the case. We weren't poor, you know. And neither were the neighbours.

N: So, what was Hogan’s Alley actually like? We’ll find out after this short break.

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MIDROLL

N: A Place to Belong is part of a larger education campaign created by Historica Canada. This project has been made possible in part by the Government of Canada. Along with the podcast series, Historica Canada also offers a video series and an education guide about the history of multiculturalism in Canada. Visit historicacanada.ca for more.

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N: In reality, Hogan’s Alley was a cultural hub, home to both labourers and artists alike. Its location, right by the Pacific Central Station that connected to the Great Northern Railway, was no coincidence. Many Black sleeping-car porters working on the trains would end up in Vancouver.

The African Methodist Episcopal Fountain Chapel Church that Randy described in the opening was co-founded in 1918 by Jimi Hendrix’s grandmother, Nora. It became the heart of Hogan’s Alley. Then there were the restaurants, like Vie’s Chicken and Steak House. Or Leona Risby’s Country Club Café, where entertainers like Leona’s daughter, Thelma Gibson-Towns, would perform.

Thelma Gibson-Towns: In those days, like now we do more with drumming and more of an Afro Caribbean style of dancing, but then it was basically what we call hoofing, tap dancing, early jazz and... 

N: Thelma is an Afro-Caribbean dancer and singer who grew up in Hogan’s Alley in the mid-20th century. This is her speaking in a 1994 documentary by Cornelia Wyngaarden and Andrea Fatona called Hogan’s Alley.

TG-T: But it was just, it was recreation. It was fun for us. I don't think we really realized that we were passing on a time of culture or a series of culture.

N: If you lived in Vancouver between the 1930s and 60s and liked good food and jazz, Hogan’s Alley was the place to be. Bertha and Randy’s grandmother’s restaurant, Vie’s Chicken and Steaks, became famous for both after it opened in 1948.

RC: The restaurant was located at two oh nine Union Street.

N: Randy and Bertha lived across the street from the restaurant. Inside, the yellow and blue walls, red ceiling, mismatched tables and folding chairs created a casual and welcoming atmosphere. A well-used jukebox stood in the corner.

Here’s Thelma again.

TG-T: And usually, the next busy season or time would be after the beer parlours closed and everybody would come to eat. And then those people usually would stay and dance to the jukebox. And we didn't have liquor, so it was like a bottle club — you could bring your own liquor as long as you kept the bottle under the table. That was the law. You couldn't have it sitting on the table.

N: Neither Bertha nor Randy was aware of just how integral their grandmother’s cooking — and jukebox — was to their neighbourhood.

RC: I didn't exactly know how good business was or how well-known the restaurant was, but it didn't take me very long to figure out that there were lots of people that went through the restaurant and had a great time.

N: But Bertha’s memories of Hogan’s Alley inspire much of her work as Adelene da Soul Poet. Her performing name honours her mother, Adelene, and grandmother, Viva Adelene.

BC: OK, I'm going to have to do my poem to describe what it's like. OK. OK, here we go. This is Vie's Chicken and steaks:

From the corner of Main to the alley on Union, that's where you find the spot.

Vie's Chicken and Steaks was pretty, pretty hot.

Let me tell you. My grandma owned the joint and ran it first class, too.

T-bones, porterhouse, fillet minions and a half a chicken was the meat on the menu.

Hoooo Biscuits that was homemade, baked fresh every day.

Melt in your mouth and sold out quick because grandma didn't play.

That's right. She served it with mushrooms, onions, peas, salad and fries.

And that was the complete menu when you came to Vie's.

The hours were five at night to 5:00 a.m. but after midnight it was always strong.

There was no liquor license so folks brought they own along.

My grandma supplied the ice and the mix

and would always take a minute and sit to have her a drink or two.

The cops would come in after they beat, the cabbies would come in off the street

and the entertainers back then, when they came to town, would walk through her doors because grandma didn't mess round.

That's right. Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Lou Rawls, Billy Holiday, Sammy Davis Jr. hoooo

Vie's chicken and steaks with a hot, hot, hot part of that night scene. You hear me?

And there was a time when Jimi Hendrix’s grandmama worked with mine.

Now I remember Rosie, the dishwasher, and my mom and Lea would waitress.

Everybody was friends. My grandma hired only women, even way back then.

And the laughter would be jumpin’ jumpin’ and jumpin’ all night long up out of that place.

First class dining, first class dining, at Vie's Chicken and steaks. Ouuu. Aright.

N: It was usually waaaay past Bertha’s bedtime when things really got going at Vie’s.

BC: It was just a happy place. You know, we can hear the laughter sometimes across the street in the house. But that was as far as we got as kids cause we weren't allowed in there. Unless we were helping clean it up on the weekend and its out of the oven.

N: Performers of all sorts — from Sammy Davis Jr. to Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald — would end their night at Vie’s alongside taxi drivers, police officers, and longshoremen. It no doubt felt like home to many — Vie’s cooking still had its roots in Black American soul food and Vie herself would often join her customers at their table for a chat. Once in a while, Bertha and her siblings were allowed to join the party.

BC: We went in and we met Diana Ross and the Supremes [laughs]. We never forgot that [laughs]. We’ll never forget that because that was a big deal.

N: Jimi Hendrix even spent a few years living in Hogan’s Alley with his grandmother, Nora Hendrix, who worked alongside Bertha’s grandmother at Vie’s.

TG-T: Well, back then, it was more like one big family, because everybody knew each other, and if one of us were out doing something wrong, you can expect a call to the mother to say, I saw your child or they spoke wrong or something like that.

N: That’s Thelma again. Here’s how she remembers her home in Hogan’s Alley:

TG-T: Everybody sort of looked out and had a personal interest in the neighbour's kids. I know at times we had as many as 10 kids in and they were always welcome. And if we had anything, you know, to share with them, we always did. It was the sense of sharing.

N: And yet, Hogan’s Alley was essentially gone by the mid-1970s. In fact, the destruction of many Black neighbourhoods in Canada began around the same time, and for the same reason: so-called urban renewal.

[BEAT]

N: Racism was alive and well in 20th century Vancouver. There are stories of crosses being burned on the lawns of Black community members. This is an infamous tactic used by white supremacist groups. The Ku Klux Klan had a headquarters in the city and would parade downtown on Granville Street. It also wasn’t uncommon for Black folks to be called the N-word or subjected to other forms of overt and systemic racism.

In 1952, a Black longshoreman named Clarence Clemons was brutally beaten by white police officers in Hogan’s Alley. He later died. When the case went to trial, the jury sided with the police account of events, and ignored the many eyewitness accounts from Hogan’s Alley residents. But Clarence’s death motivated Black Vancouverites to fight against their oppression. In January 1953, 150 Black Vancouverites met at Fishermen’s Hall and created the Negro Citizens League.

Racism also showed up in more subtle ways.

The housing discrimination we mentioned earlier meant that some parts of Vancouver had strict white-only policies, making it impossible for non-white Vancouverites to rent or own certain properties. Staying in one’s community wasn’t much easier. Black, Asian, and other non-white people were often victims of redlining, meaning non-white residents in neighbourhoods like Hogan’s Alley were often denied loans and mortgages to own property or make home improvements.

So, by the mid-1960s, the long history of racial discrimination was slowly chipping away at Hogan’s Alley. It was portrayed in the media as the epicentre of crime and delinquency. In the public consciousness, Bertha’s home was reduced to nothing more than a rundown — or blighted — neighbourhood. This characterization made it easier to justify its destruction.

Here’s Randy again:

RC: In 1965 it was not a pretty sight. Over the years, I learned why: because the community, in that area specifically, had been more or less left to be rundown. When people moved out of the homes on our block of Union Street between Main and Gore, that house remained empty or the building was removed from the lot. Therefore, the lot became empty. And sometimes old wood was on the lot, tall grass was on the lot or garbage was on the lot. And again, I wasn't aware of why this was happening as a 12-year-old, as a 13-year-old. But eventually I became aware of it and it had to do with the, um, viaduct.

N: He’s talking about the Georgia Viaduct. It was the first phase of an interurban freeway that would run through Hogan’s Alley and Chinatown. The freeway was never fully built as planned. But the completion of the viaduct spelled the end for Hogan’s Alley.

BC: Oh, the Black community was affected hard because that side of the street that they tore down was where the Black community was formed right there. Right there, right?

N: That’s Bertha again.

BC: And Chinatown was still set, the Italian population was still set, you know, so it was targeted straight at that Black community. Let me put it like this, it was a different atmosphere for me, okay, and for the family because there were no more Black people, right? Because everybody had to go wherever they went. And that right there changed that atmosphere.

N: In 1956, amendments to Canada’s Housing Act led to the destruction of blighted buildings and provided funding for slum clearance — all under the guise of urban renewal. All across North America, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, massive urban renewal projects tore through communities that were overwhelmingly low-income and Black.

A variation of this story repeats itself throughout the country and over the course of history. Regent Park in Toronto, Africville in Halifax, Little Burgundy in Montreal. And Hogan’s Alley in Vancouver.

BC: You couldn’tThere was nothing that you can do about it. You couldn't complain about it. You couldn't stop it. And so you just had to figure out where we go from here.

N: After Bertha and Randy’s grandmother could no longer work, their mom, Adelene, took over Vie’s Chicken and Steaks. It stayed open for a few more years, but the community that brought Vie’s to life was no longer there. It closed in 1979.

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N: It's important to remember who built Canada's Black and African diasporic communities - descendants of those who were violently ripped from their homes and scattered throughout the world via the Transatlantic Slave Trade. These descendants - then and now - have historically found strength together. And Hogan’s Alley is what brought Black Vancouverites together.

Remember what Randy said at the beginning of this episode?

RC: When people lived here in this community, in particular Black people, they knew one another.

N: With Hogan’s Alley gone, Vancouver’s Black residents lost their connectedness to each other. They lost their Black businesses, and in turn, Black jobs. They lost their homes. And the community lost track of itself.

BC: We absolutely did. Yes. That is very true. And then there was, you know, Black people in Vancouver they're everywhere. It's not just one area. They're scattered all over the place now.

N: For Bertha, nothing can remedy this loss.

BC: You can't destroy something and then think that you're going to come back to it and everything's going to be OK. I mean, once it's gone, it's gone.

N: Today, Vancouver’s Black population is larger and more diverse than when Bertha was a child. But there remains no Black neighbourhood: Black Vancouverites are dispersed throughout the city, representing about 1 percent of its population. They have never been able to make a part of the city their own as they had with Hogan’s Alley.

And for a long time, the historical significance of the area wasn’t even officially recognized. But thanks to groups like the Hogan’s Alley Society, there are now plans to create a non-profit community land trust where Hogan’s Alley used to be, which would include a Black Cultural Centre.

But even communities like Hogan’s Alley that exist today continue to be at-risk in cities across Canada. Soaring housing costs are making it harder for racialized and low-income people to stay in their neighbourhoods. And not enough has changed to convince Bertha that what happened to Hogan’s Alley won’t happen again.

BC: I'm pretty sure if we congregated another Black neighborhood, somewhere in time the city would knock that down, too.

N: And Bertha makes it clear that anti-Black racism is still a reality.

BC: People will call you out. They will call you names…

N: …Like the N-word…

BC: for no reason. And they do do that. They do that today, just like they did it 20 years ago. It's sad to see this stuff still going on. and we're talking hundreds of years back and it's still going on, so it is what it is. Some people think they have the privilege of the whole world, the whole city, the whole state, whatever, and nobody else does, right? We've been standing up for ourselves for centuries. You know, and it's time to be included, be a part of, and be treated as a human being.

[BEAT]

N: We’ll leave it there for now....

BC: Hey, you know what? I want to ask you something real quick if you guys have time? Can I... can I do one more poem for you? I'd like to share this poem with you that I had actually wrote for my mother when she passed away...Because that was like the end of the era for us, you know? And so, It's called "You Ain't Gone."

You left me hangin'. What could I say?

You went and died on me that day.

And now that you're gone, what do I do? How do I make it in life without you?

And why? Why is it that you still talk? I hear your voice upon my walks.  

Fussin, bossy, telling me the things I need to hear.

You ain't gone.

You see, I feel your presence, your spirit is strong.

I know these feelings I have ain't wrong, because I laugh when I hear the things that you say.

I answer you back, as I go about my way.

I thought I had lost you. That's all I envisioned.

But I thank God for giving us this beautiful connection.

because now that I know it, this is cool.

'Cause you left me the biggest part of you.

The gift to realize that we're still together. That's right. That spiritual power, that's it.

I was so afraid when you were gone, but I didn't know the spirit power holds on.

So I look forward to waking and spending my day with you in my mind, with you in my way.

Laughing with you now as you laugh, too, because we both know we've got separate things to do.

Me on this end, I'd say, is the lower. You, on that high road because you done crossed over.

Hand in hand and side by side. God chose you to be the guide.

So I'm not alone, as I thought at first.

Those were just emotional bursts.

What's happening now is a stronger force.

Subconscious spirit knew this of course.

You were chosen,

so you go ahead on.

I'll be all right because you ain't gone.

Boom. That's it.

Thank you for letting me do that poem.

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N: On the next episode of A Place to Belong, we asked: What does the multiculturalism policy look like in practice? To find out the answer, we learn about Montreal’s most diverse neighbourhood, Cote-des-Neiges, and explore what works — and what doesn’t.  

Jim Torczyner: Multiculturalism is an aspirational goal. Multiculturalism gets expressed in reality by how people act at the grassroots. You can have the best policy on paper. But it's really going to depend on how accessible it is and how it's implemented. 

N: Subscribe to A Place to Belong on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. 

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CREDITS 

N: This episode of A Place to Belong was co-written by Melissa Fundira and Historica Canada. It was produced by Historica Canada. Production support by Michael Fiore and Edit Audio. Post-production by Edit Audio. 

Thank you to Bertha and Randy Clark, and consultant Stephanie Allen, founding board member of the Hogan’s Alley Society.  

Clips of Thelma Gibson-Towns from the 1994 documentary Hogan’s Alley by Cornelia Wyngaarden and Andrea Fatona provided by Video Out Distribution. Fact-checking by Amy van den Berg. 

This project has been made possible in part by the Government of Canada. Thanks for listening.