It’s the 1930s. A tween girl named Junie moves into a small neighbourhood called Hogan’s Alley in Vancouver. The blossoming community is home to mostly Black residents, who enjoy the Black-owned bookshops, bars, and restaurants that become their neighbours’ pride and joy. But as Junie grows up, she begins experiencing unshakeable premonitions about the neighbourhood’s downfall.

That’s the premise of Chelene Knight’s latest novel Junie, released in September last year. It tells the fictional story of a girl who is navigating a complicated relationship with her mother as she comes into her own as an artist growing up in Hogan’s Alley. Though Knight’s characters are fictional, the streets they roam were once real.

Hogan’s Alley was destroyed half a century ago. The city of Vancouver barred and zoned Hogan’s Alley residents out of their homes to make room for the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts in 1971. Today, remnants of the community can be found in the recollections of its few surviving residents and in the organizations dedicated to preserving its memory.

But Junie is not about how Hogan’s Alley died. It’s about how Hogan’s Alley gave life to a community of people who were making ends meet, hustling until their businesses took off, building social movements, and learning how to love and be loved with what they were given. It’s about a home. And Junie was released just as Hogan’s Alley was getting a second chance at life.

When Vancouver residents learned that the viaducts would be torn down in 2015, there was a flicker of hope for the memory of the fallen neighbourhood. But residents quickly learned that the city’s revitalization plans failed to appropriately honour the memory of Hogan’s Alley or to serve the city’s Black community. A number of people within the Black community began mobilizing to redirect the future of the space their ancestors had called home—and to the surprise of many, the city actually listened.

“H ogan’s Alley” was the nickname of a T-shaped intersection between Union Street, Main Street, Jackson Avenue, and Prior Street in Vancouver’s Strathcona neighbourhood. It came to life in the early 1900s with the arrival of a Great Northern Railway station. Black men working as train porters lived in the vicinity. Italian and Chinese communities also settled in the area: a poor economy in their home country pushed Italians to come to work on Canada’s railway, while many Chinese people had come to stay in British Columbia after the 1858 Fraser River gold rush even though racist head taxes made entry to Canada more difficult for them. When the African Methodist Episcopal Church opened in 1918, the neighbourhood’s Black residents coalesced around its first community centre.

The community was built on work, but it also knew how to play. Restaurants and speakeasies were the talk of the little town Hogan’s Alley made itself out to be. Vie’s Chicken and Steak House was a community favourite still spoken about today.

Hogan’s Alley oozed musical prowess. Jazz was at the heart of the blooming entertainment district. From the 1940s to the 1960s, the Crump Twins, a guitar-and-drum musical duo who grew up and went to school in the Strathcona area, regularly hosted nightclubs and took centre stage at theatres with their musical acts.

Other Black music legends visited the Hogan’s Alley community nightlife too. The Crump Twins frequently played alongside childhood friend Jimi Hendrix, whose grandmother, Nora, helped form the church. Sammy Davis Jr. went to bars in Strathcona before he began performing with the Will Mastin Trio. Louis Armstrong once met the twins during a trip to Vancouver. Nat King Cole and Duke Ellington also made appearances in the Alley’s clubs.

Even though it was a lively community, its people were living on land the city was determined to snatch away.

In 1944, the city of Vancouver began its war on the Alley. That year, the federal government updated the National Housing Act, allowing municipalities to tear down areas in their cities they believed were “blighted”—localities with poor structures, neighbourhoods deemed unlivable, and land that appeared to no longer benefit communities. These decisions were left to city councils, who could clear these areas and redevelop them for low- or moderate-income housing. The federal government would help pay for this process under a few conditions: the land needed to be completely cleared, and the province had to approve the rehabilitation plan. In 1956, another update to the National Housing Act removed restraints on rehabilitation plans, so municipalities could use the land however they wanted.

The final nail in Hogan’s Alley’s coffin came in 1957. A study by the city of Vancouver, after inspecting the quality of homes and adding Hogan’s Alley to its list of areas described as “incompatible land uses,” labelled Strathcona as one of the city’s two worst cases of “blight.” It was official: the city was going to make Hogan’s Alley obsolete.

Hogan’s Alley wasn’t a wealthy area, but in the 1960s, the city repeatedly sabotaged its ability to grow. From withholding development permits, new building approvals, and garbage pickups to cutting road improvement funding, it did everything to fracture Hogan’s Alley’s public infrastructure. The city intentionally made the neighbourhood unlivable.

By 1967, it began demolishing several blocks of houses to make room for the viaducts that would eventually carry the city’s new highways. The train porter dorms and the house of Vie Moore, owner of the beloved chicken house, were seized by the city as construction began in the western end. By 1972, the decades-old community was completely replaced by concrete highways.

Hogan’s Alley was not the only Black neighbourhood demolished by its municipal government. In 1964, Halifax’s city council authorized the displacement of Africville residents in an effort to expand the city’s infrastructure. The community was denied access to water, sewage facilities, and garbage disposal. An infectious diseases hospital, a prison, and a dump surrounded the small town. By 1970, all of Africville’s residents were relocated. Some with proof of ownership were paid market value for their homes, but others were handed $500, bribed, or intimidated into leaving. And in 1966, Little Burgundy, Montreal’s predominantly Black neighbourhood, became the victim of an urban renewal project that destroyed homes to make way for the Ville-Marie highway.

Today, neighbourhoods like these are still plagued by development and gentrification, which cause property value and rent to skyrocket. Lower-income families are often priced out of their homes. Redevelopment may take different shapes, but it leaves the same kinds of people behind.

Wayde Compton, a Vancouver-based writer and instructor at Douglas College, grew up hearing stories about Hogan’s Alley from his father, who frequented the neighbourhood even before he moved to Vancouver in the 1950s. After its demolition, Compton became a key member of the Hogan’s Alley Memorial Project, which formed in 2002 to keep Vancouver’s Black history alive through research and community events.

In 2015, the city of Vancouver announced they would be scrapping the viaducts and redeveloping the area once known as Hogan’s Alley. They said they wanted to rebuild the neighbourhood in a way that nodded to its Black and immigrant roots and work with a stewardship group made up of multiple Black community members to help incorporate the area’s social, historical, and cultural significance into the planning process. Compton was one of those stewards.

For a long time, Compton thought building a cultural centre in Hogan’s Alley was the goal. But as he and other members of the Black community discussed their visions for the neighbourhood, the plans began to change.

Stephanie Allen was one of the community members involved. As an affordable-housing developer in Vancouver who wrote her master’s thesis on Hogan’s Alley, she was determined to make sure the land Hogan’s Alley once lived on would centre the Black community’s needs.

The city was willing to grant the Black community a cultural centre on some of the land, but Allen worried if the people who needed it most would be able to access it.

“The cultural centre can’t operate in a neighbourhood where Black folks are unable to afford to live, work, and play,” says Allen. “Can you imagine a Black cultural centre in the middle of an upscale neighbourhood like Yaletown where very few Black people can afford to live? How would it be sustainable without a community surrounding it?”

For Vancouver’s Black residents, it was all or nothing. Without a straight answer about the city’s plans for the area, they read between the lines. It seemed like the city was going to develop expensive private condos where the viaducts were—housing that wouldn’t serve the neighbourhood’s original residents. In Vancouver, the average house costs just over $1 million. An average condo goes for just under $800,000.

“Who do you think’s going to be able to afford to buy those condos?” asks Allen. “It’s not us. And we knew it. So that’s where we had to disrupt their performative engagement focused on design aesthetics and push for affordable rental and co-op housing.”

In 2018, Allen, alongside other members of Vancouver’s Black community, formed the Hogan’s Alley Society. It is made up of activists, business professionals, artists, writers, and academics and carries on Hogan’s Alley’s memory by providing what the Alley did: housing by and for Black people. It helps provide low-income housing options in Vancouver by partnering with Nora Hendrix Place, a supportive housing development for people at risk of or experiencing homelessness. It also offers a housing support program to help Black people with housing-related expenses as well as with food through micro grants.

The society was also heavily involved in consultation for the city’s Hogan’s Alley plans. As members attended design consultations with the city, the Hogan’s Alley Working Group (the Hogan’s Alley Society’s predecessor) came up with a big ask for the city, one that would be very difficult to secure. They wanted a community land trust.

A community land trust is a nonprofit that acquires and holds property—land or housing or both—on behalf of an existing community. It keeps the property off the real estate market and preserves its affordability.

With its incorporation and a proposal to Vancouver City Council, the Hogan’s Alley Working Group acquired the community land trust on behalf of Vancouver’s Black community. The city approved a memorandum of understanding with Hogan’s Alley Society for a long-term lease so they could deliver housing, public benefits, and amenities in the area formerly known as Hogan’s Alley.

“We were always mobilizing to be ready for this moment,” says Allen. “City of Vancouver is not us. We love us. We are the ones that celebrate us. We are the ones that are committed to seeing racism not impact our lives.”

Compton says a landmark decision like this needed more than moral and material support. It needed institutional change.

But the support is not universal. Compton says the community land trust decision has already been labelled as “resegregation” by some people in the city, but he describes the backlash as “ridiculous” because it was “landlord racism” that led to segregation and Hogan’s Alley’s formation in the first place.

“Returning there with institutions like the cultural centre or social housing administered by our land trust—that’s nothing like segregation or being forced to live somewhere,” says Compton. “It’s a very, very different thing. It’s regaining that bit of cultural capital we would have had if we hadn’t been displaced to begin with.”

But this victory in the making cannot be celebrated without acknowledging who was displaced first. Vancouver is on the unceded traditional territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) nations.

The land the Black residents fled to and found solace on is land that was stolen from other people. But the Black residents’ relationship to the land, where they could gather amongst themselves as descendants of enslaved people brought here by colonial force, is a very different experience to that of the descendants of colonial settlers.

The stewardship group’s reconciliation and cultural redress plan includes strengthening relationships with Indigenous communities by recognizing the significance of physical and spiritual access to the waterfront and the impact of Vancouver’s industrialization. Gathering spaces, traditional language incorporation, street naming, Indigenous cultivation methods for landscape design—these are all part of the vision, but they are not what reclaims the land.

“We can’t move forward without recognizing we’re on stolen land,” says Allen, adding that the onus is ultimately on the government to redress what’s happened in Hogan’s Alley.

For Compton, this community land trust represents the beginning of restitution—a victory that has been decades in the making. He has been involved in Hogan’s Alley activism for around twenty-five years and says the burnout has been creeping up on him. As people move away from the city and drift in and out of work, the restoration project often loses momentum.

“I’m sort of stunned that we’re actually here at the point of it becoming a reality,” says Compton. “It’s amazing. It’s the right thing. It’s the perfect thing.”

The community land trust guarantees more than a building. It guarantees land. It guarantees a neighbourhood. It guarantees agency for the Black people who call Vancouver home. The Hogan’s Alley Society will decide what happens to the houses, bars, and chicken houses that will make the Alley their home again.

“It’s a testimony to our ancestors’ intergenerational gifts that they’ve given us,” says Allen. “We often think about our traumas that have been handed down, and those are major. But we have gifts of survival. We have gifts of celebrating even in our adversity. We turn straw into gold, we have the alchemy.”

Sherlyn Assam
Sherlyn Assam (she/her) is a Canadian freelance writer currently based in the UK. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in philanthropy and nonprofit leadership. Her work can be found in Broadview, Future of Good, Xtra, Everything Zoomer, Our Times, Trad Magazine, and more.