Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

Tale of Two Cities

Feb 9, 2019

I was interested to read this recent article in the Montreal Gazette about the partial demolition of much of the Little Burgundy neighbourhood in the late-1960s-early-1970s. Steven High writes that in the name of urban renewal much of the city's English-speaking black population was displaced. The community had grown up close to two railway stations because so many black men worked as porters on the trains. Their homes were bulldozed to make way for the Ville-Marie expressway and for new public housing.

Why this story caught my eye was that exactly the same thing was happening in my hometown, Vancouver, at exactly the same time. In 1967 the civic government announced that a freeway was going to be built right through the heart of Chinatown. The project aroused so much opposition from local residents that it had to be abandoned. This became known as the Great Freeway Debate, a turning point in the history of the city.

However, one part of the scheme did get built, two new viaducts across the train tracks into the downtown, in the process destroying an historic community known as Hogan's Alley associated with Vancouver's small black population. At the time hardly anyone cared about Hogan's Alley; its destruction passed pretty much without comment. Subsequently, thanks to a group of community activists, the history of the neighbourhood has been rediscovered. Now the city intends to remove the old viaducts and a Black Cultural Centre is part of the plans for the future.

Little Burgundy and Hogan's Alley are just two neighbourhoods that faced "renewal" during the late 1960s when wholesale bulldozing -- aka "slum clearance" -- was all the rage. Black History Month affords an opportunity to rediscover the black communities where you live and to learn their stories.