by Sophie Lachapelle-Chisholm
Hogan’s Alley was the name of the area in which the black community lived from around 1900 to about 1960. It was a poor neighborhood, to which words like slum, squalor, and blighted were often attached. The history of this once vibrant community has slowly been fading from Vancouver’s conscious since its destruction in the 1970s. A small, but growing, group of Vancouverites has made it their purpose to re-educate the city about a community it so readily, and unsuccessfully, tried to eradicate.
A question that is not often posed of Hogan’s Alley is to do with its name. It is a striking sort of name that, even knowing nothing about it, conjures up images of nefarious goings on. The name was by no means official, though was used colloquially by all, from newspapers, to police enforcers, to the actual inhabitants of Hogan’s Alley. The one place in which Hogan’s Alley was only referred to by its proper name, Park Lane, was official city documents. So if the name was not an official one, where did it originate? The first use of the term “Hogan’s Alley” can be traced back to a certain Richard Felton Outcault. In the late 1890s Outcault honed his artistic craft at various New York City magazines and newspapers, where he drew satirical cartoons and became the father of the modern cartoons. Some of his most seminal work included scenes taking place in his fictional Hogan’s Alley, which was defined by its Irish inhabitants, mostly living in impoverished tenements. In these tableaus Outcault depicted poor immigrant Irish kids attempting to sound upper class.
Often they featured the “Yellow Kid”, a young boy who bore a constantly shaved head from incessant lice infestations, and was intended to represent inner city poverty. It is also from which the term “Yellow Journalism” came. His works were extremely popular, and it is not unlikely that Vancouverites came into contact with them. Park Lane must have closely resembled what readers imagined “Hogan’s Alley” looked like. The term came into use, and it stuck, just as it did in ghetto areas of a few other cities.
(Interestingly, Hogan’s Alley is also the name of the FBI training simulation set. Based on a Hollywood set from a movie, actors play the part of criminals and trainees then attempt to catch them, simulating what agents do in the field.)
It is probably unlikely to exaggerate the living conditions inhabitants of Hogan’s Alley faced. Though there are few official documents pertaining to the area, some information can be garnered from the news reporting of the time, photos, as well as from personal histories of past inhabitants. In The Sun, and The Vancouver Province it is referred to as a slum, with unhealthy standards of living. But slums are not simply planned and created; they are a gradual endeavor. One must begin exploring the factors leading to substandard housing. Vancouver began to readily grow in the late 18th century with the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885. Many Asian immigrants were working on the CPR, and some remained in and around Vancouver. The black population had already begun settling on the west coast. Many African Americans had travelled to BC for the Gold Rush, as well as to escape the growing racial tension in California, and some of these folks stayed in Vancouver. Although the racism in the US was intolerable, the racism in Canada was only less intolerable. Upon arrival in Vancouver black people had only a few options for places to settle. And whereas Asians were legally discriminated against, with laws forbidding them living in certain areas, the black community was more discreetly discriminated against. Landlords would often lie to prospective tenants who were black, saying that an empty room was actually occupied. Black people began settling right near the train station, where many of them were employed as porters. In this area there was cheap room and board that would accept black occupants, and also the Pullman Porters’ Club. It is in this area the black community began to make permanent homes. Not surprisingly, this area was right next to Chinatown.
Since Hogan’s Alley was not an official area of the city, there are no distinct markers on maps designating what is and what is not Hogan’s Alley. Unofficially, the area consisted of the east-west alleyway between streets Prior and Union from Main Street to Jackson Avenue, and a one-block north-south alley between Main Street and Gore Avenue, making Hogan’s Alley T-shaped. Unlike the Asian community, which was largely a bachelor one, the black community was mostly family based. Family owned and operated businesses began appearing in the early 20th century. Some became quite renown, such as Vie’s Chicken and Steak House, which was opened in 1948-50 by Viva Moore and her husband Robert who worked on the railway. It was situated at 209 Union Street and remained open until 1980. By 1981 it was destroyed. It is rumored that such musicians as Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday, B. B. King, and Louis Armstrong visited this joint in the 1950s when performing in Vancouver.
Another important structure in the area was the Fountain Chapel. Located at 823 Jackson Avenue, members of the black community bought the structure in 1923, and it became the African Methodist Episcopal Church. One of the co-founders was the working-class community member Nora Hendrix, grandmother of famed Jimi. The church was in use by the black community until 1989. The building changed hands a few times after that and is now a private residence, though not a designated heritage site.
So what made Hogan’s Alley a ghetto district? It should be noted that, along with the Asian and black populations, this area was home to many other immigrant groups. Many Italians also lived in Hogan’s Alley, such as the proclaimed “mayor of Hogan’s Alley” Carl Marchi. The Fountain Chapel served as a Lutheran church for Germans and Scandinavians before the black community bought it. In the 19th and 20th centuries most European North Americans held very strong racial beliefs. Racism towards all minorities and immigrants was harsh and sensationalized. That is to say, the reports and accusations of Hogan’s Alley being a slum were made by middle and upper class white folks, who did not appreciate immigrants encroaching on their city. If they described the black community as living in squalor, and the residents as criminals, it would only bolster their own preconceived notions about minorities, and would help them attempt to destroy and eliminate their presence. It should not be overlooked that there were, in fact, juke joints, brothels, speakeasies, crimes, and bootleggers. These sorts of activities, people, and establishments were not as common as the newspapers made them out to be, nor were they only to be found in immigrant communities. Hogan’s Alley was largely a family-oriented neighborhood, albeit, a rather impoverished one.
By the 1940-50s there was growing social concern about the living conditions of the city’s poor. The cabins and houses in Hogan’s Alley were deemed unfit for habitation, and were said to pose health hazards. Earlier in the century tuberculosis had spread through the community, and many houses were in disrepair. In other words, the community was “blighted”. Social housing ideas were circulating, as were plans to demolish parts of the area. This was in line with the notion of “urban renewal”, which was happening across North America. The plans involved bulldozing poor neighborhoods, such as Chinese and black communities, in the name of rational city planning, making space for highways, freeways, and in the case of Hogan’s Alley to make way for a viaduct. The displaced people were to live in newly constructed housing projects, which in the US cities led to the notorious “Projects”, known for their criminals, drugs, gangs, and murders. It was a departure from city living and transit, to suburban lifestyles and cars. Initially, the plan in Vancouver was to have a freeway go through Hogan’s Alley all the way through Gastown, both of which were planned on being demolished. The only reason Gastown was not destroyed was due to Strathcona community uprising. Since it was the late 1960s early 1970s, citizens felt more empowered than they had a decade earlier. They stood up against the city’s plans to demolish a vital part of itself, though, not before Hogan’s Alley was relegated to destruction. Thankfully, most of the black residents of Vancouver had already begun to disperse throughout the city before their homes were removed
For the first half of the 20th century every citizen of Vancouver knew of Hogan’s Alley and had an idea of what it represented. Nowadays, though Hogan’s Alley is becoming somewhat memorialized, only a minority of Vancouverites are familiar with the name, and even fewer are aware of the present black community living within Vancouver. There are annual remembrances, with poetry nights, there are numerous blogs transcribing its history, a café named after it, a small plaque next to the Jimi Hendrix shrine, and currently there are discussions concerning the removal of the Georgia viaduct. As Wayde Compton suggests, what is to be done to the area should be up to the residents of the area, something that should have been done with the residents of Hogan’s Alley. The area is home to many people, and what should be done to their homes ought to be up to them, not to city councilors most of whom have no connection to the area. An interesting and saddening question is what might have happened to Hogan’s Alley if it had remained the hub of the black community. Would it have endured as Chinatown has, maybe been akin to Little Italy’s Commercial Drive area, organic and artistic, or something else entirely? One thing can be certain: by demolishing Hogan’s Alley, Vancouver sentenced an integral community to slowly vanish from memory.
-After Canaan, Arsenal Pulp Press, 2010, by Wayde Compton, also: http://www.waydecompton.com/
-Neon Eulogy, Ekstasis Editions, 2001, by Keith McKellar
For interior and exterior photos of neighboring houses in Strathcona visit: http://pasttensevancouver.wordpress.com/2008/06/08/rebuilding-a-neighbourhood/
"The End of Hogan's Alley" by Curtis Scott: http://spacing.ca/vancouver/2013/08/12/the-end-of-hogans-alley-part-1/