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Celebrating Black History Month: A Reflection



“There has been a Black community in Vancouver since before there was a Vancouver." - Wayde Compton


Less than a month after another Black History Month ended, Women Transforming Cities has been reflecting on the importance of honouring the ongoing legacy of Black leaders, activists, and communities year-round. We acknowledge that systemic racism in urban planning processes has resulted in municipal policies that do not meet the diverse needs of Black communities. To dismantle these barriers, we must follow the leadership of Black women, trans women, non-binary, and Two-Spirit folks, who have advanced transformative local social justice movements. We must also create a shared vision for anti-racist city building by contextualizing the work of Black activists within historical and contemporary struggles for Black liberation in Vancouver.


Hogan’s Alley

From 1910 to 1971, Strathcona was home to the first and only majority Black neighbourhood in Vancouver. At its core lay Hogan’s Alley, a vibrant community of Black immigrants situated between Union and Prior Streets from Main Street to Jackson Avenue. Hogan’s Alley was a hub for Black culture, renowned for its restaurants, churches, nightlife, music, and art. During peak years, there were approximately 800 Black community members living in Hogan’s Alley. Many of these individuals initially migrated from California to Vancouver Island in the late 1850s, but relocated to the East End of Vancouver as the city’s economy grew.


In subsequent years, however, the City of Vancouver’s continued efforts to rezone Strathcona took a toll on the resilient community. The city attempted to justify its actions by wrongfully portraying Hogan’s Alley as a space “of squalor, immorality and crime” as written in the Daily Province 1939 and quoted in Black Strathcona. Eventually, the city stopped maintaining community infrastructure, resulting in a significant decrease in property values that forced many to sell their homes. The racist undertones of the city’s view of Hogan’s Alley paired with a desire to build a freeway regardless of its impact became the basis of the Georgia viaduct construction. This city-backed ‘urban renewal’ project ultimately destroyed the western end of Hogan’s Alley, displacing community members. According to Black Strathcona, an organization dedicated to preserving and showcasing Black history in Vancouver, “there was little left to indicate that there had ever been a Black Community” in Strathcona by 1990.


Ongoing Displacement of Black Communities


To this day, Black Communities in Vancouver continue to be displaced and underrepresented in planning processes. For instance, in an article published by Vancouver Is Awesome, SFU Professor Dr. Tiffany Muller-Mydrahl discusses the exclusionary nature of residential rezoning in Vancouver, revealing the harmful role white privilege plays in dictating access to housing. Similarly, a 2021 report on Housing Discrimination & Spacial Segregation in Canada found that racialized communities experience disproportionate levels of housing discrimination at the hands of landlords who often “arbitrarily impose illegal requirements” (17) to prevent non-white renters from accessing the property. Vancouver City Planning Commissioner Amina Yasin says that these forms of “public space enforcement and anti-Blackness have been suffocating Black communities for decades.”


By understanding the intersections between these historical and present injustices, we can learn to break patterns of systemic racism and advocate for a more equitable city.


A Vision for Anti-Racist City-Building: Black Resistance & Joy


For centuries, Black communities have resisted the oppressive forces of displacement while carving space for joy amidst struggles. While conversations around countering harm are undoubtedly important, a key aspect of equitable city building involves celebrating Black joy and resistance.


A primary example of local Black resistance is the Hogan’s Alley Society, who are championing efforts to revitalize the former Hogan’s Alley site through a land trust and affordable housing for Black and Indigenous communities. According to Dr. Magdalena Ugarte, professor at TMU’s School of Urban and Regional Planning, this work is significant, as it not only supports “Black resurgence in an area that was historically Black”, but it represents a planning process “that is Black-led and Black-informed”.


Black resistance can also be seen through anti-gentrification protests and calls for affordable housing, grassroots organizing around community safety alternatives, and even Black joy in itself. As Okonta et al. affirm in an article published by the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, Black joy centers Black wellness and rest, both of which foster community and are “critical to resisting systems that devalue their presence.”


Anti-racist city-building entails respecting, amplifying, and celebrating the agency and self-determination of Black urban planners in making decisions about Vancouver’s future. It also involves a continuous process of (un)learning on behalf of non-Black planners, which lessens the pressure Black communities face to ‘teach’ folks about equity. With a better understanding of the impacts of systemic racism both within city planning and beyond, planners can make more informed judgments about the impacts proposed municipal projects may have on equity-deserving communities. Planners must also reevaluate their community engagement practices to ensure that Black communities are being equitably engaged and empowered throughout planning processes.


Taken together, these actions will allow us to create more equitable urban spaces that reflect the diversity, resilience, and agency of Black Communities in Vancouver and beyond.


Resources for Further Learning


Inspiring Black Activists to Follow and Amplify


  • Ravyn Wngz (she/her) an abolitionist, storyteller, Afro-Indigenous 2SPIRIT, trans woman who co-founded ILL NANA/DiverseCity Dance Company and sits on the steering committee of Black Lives Matter Toronto.

  • Dr. Jill Andrew (she/her) the first Black queer person elected into Ontario legislature who called for an Intersectional Gender Equity Strategy in the provincial government.

  • June Francis (she/her) co-founder of The Co-Laboratorio project, Director of the Institute for Diaspora Research and Engagement at Simon Fraser University, and Chair of the board of Hogan's Alley Society. She is a trailblazer, advocate, professor, and researcher.

  • Faith Nolan (she/her) whose activism focuses on homelessness, women prisoners, and labour rights. She is an iconic queer member of Canadian feminist music and the first to chronicle Afro-Scotian history with her album, Africville.

  • Uzoma Asagwara (they/them) the first Black queer person elected to the Legislative Assembly in Manitoba. They are an addictions specialist, psychiatric nurse, mental health advocate, and an educator.

  • Anthonia Ogundele (she/her) founder of Ethos Lab, a nonprofit focused on fostering community and STEM-focused exploration for youth. She launched the first Black-led Virtual Reality environment in Canada and founded Hogan's Alley Land Trust. She is a community organizer who fosters inclusive and accessible spaces "for the free expression of all people."

  • Monica Forrester (she/her) the founder of Trans Pride Toronto, Program and Outreach Coordinator at Maggie's Toronto Sex Workers Action Project, and advocate of an influential policy that allowed trans women into women's shelters.

  • Cicely Belle Blain (they/them) founder of Bakau Consulting, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Vancouver, poet, and editorial director. They helped develop an intersectionality toolkit for the City of Vancouver.

  • Tanya Hales (she/her) founder of Black Moms Connection, a non-profit that provides programs and resources to Black mothers. She is a writer, speaker, and founder of an anti-racism consulting business, Color in White Spaces.

  • Dr. OmiSoore Dryden (she/her) the first queer person to hold the James R. Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies is co-president of the Black Canadian Studies Association. She pioneered research on the barriers queer and trans Black men face with the Canadian blood system.

  • Janaya Khan (they/them) co-founder of Black Lives Matter Toronto and international ambassador for Black Lives Matter. They are an advocate, speaker, and writer.


This blog was written by board member Alexa Traboulay.


 

References

“Black Strathcona Chronology.” Black Strathcona, http://blackstrathcona.com/chronology/.

“Housing Discrimination & Spacial Segregation in Canada.” Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, May 2021, https://previous.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Housing/SubmissionsCFIhousingdiscrimin/CERA-NRHN-SRAC.pdf.

McGreevy, Madeleine. “Black Experiences with Planning in Canada.” Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU), 24 Jan. 2022, https://www.torontomu.ca/fcs-news-events/news/2022/01/black-experiences-with-planning-in-canada/.

Okonta, Nathan, et al. “Black Joy: Resistance, Resilience, and What It Means to Black Canadian Youth Experiencing Homelessness.” Black Joy: Resistance, Resilience, and What It Means to Black Canadian Youth Experiencing Homelessness | The Homeless Hub, 22 Feb. 2023, https://www.homelesshub.ca/blog/black-joy-resistance-resilience-and-what-it-means-black-canadian-youth-experiencing.

Parl, Carol Eugene. “How Zoning Affects Metro Vancouver's Affordable Housing Crisis.” Vancouver Is Awesome, 18 Oct. 2021, https://www.vancouverisawesome.com/housing/how-zoning-affects-metro-vancouvers-affordable-housing-crisis-4524631.


Yasin, Amina. “Whose Streets? Black Streets.” The Tyee, The Tyee, 18 June 2020, https://thetyee.ca/Analysis/2020/06/18/Whose-Streets-Black-Streets/.

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