The Fountain Chapel – the spiritual heart and hub of the community – was established at the corner of Prior and Jackson in 1918, its founders included Jimi Hendrix’s grandmother Nora.
The local chapter of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters became the political heart of the community in 1939, led for 17 years by Eleanor Collin’s brother-in-law Frank, born and raised in area of today’s Downtown Eastside.
Black community members organized against racial targeting on many occasions, such as the 1922 trial of railroad porter Fred Deal (charged with murdering a police constable); the 1952 beating of longshoreman Clarence Clements (arrested for “loitering” outside the New Station Café); and the 1950’s inquiries into city renting practices. They battled for strict enforcement of civil rights laws, for provincial fair employment and accommodation acts; for improvement working conditions and educational opportunities and for a federal bill of rights.
In good time and bad, music provided the courage and strength to make life more endurable for everyone. By 1919, George Paris and Willy Bowman opened the Patricia Café at Jackson and Hastings with a jazz Band featuring Oscar Holden and Jelly Roll Morton. During the golden years of jazz from 1919-1921, the Patricia and Regent Hotels were the headquarters for Vancouver’s black entertainment. The big black bands such as Duke Ellington and Louis Jordan were hosted at the Beacon Theatre (the 2nd Pantages Theatre) where Leonard Gibson, a tap dancing wage earner from the age of five, was known to perform.
The East End became a hot bed of jazz; each decade had its own “hot spot”. It was the Monte Carlo Café at Hastings and Main in the 1920’s, the Mandarin Gardens at Pender near Hastings in the 30’s, and the Cabin Inn on Main and Keefer in the 40’s (which became the New Delhi), and the Forbidden City at Pender and Columbia in the 50’s. Then from 1957-1968, rhythm and blues held sway for 11 years at the Harlem Nocturne, trombonist Ernie King’s popular nightclub at Hastings and Gore; here Thelma and Chic Gibson performed in the stage shows their brother Leonard choreographed. The 1960’s hot spot for Soul Music was the Smilin’ Buddha on Hastings where the late Jimmy Hendrix- perhaps the greatest electric guitarist who ever lived – is remembered to have performed.
During hard times, civic attention focused on an elusive multicultural alley running through the neighbourhood known unofficially as Hogan’s Alley- its location has been hotly debated. A muddy alley of garbage cans, Hogan’s Alley passed behind back yard gardens, stables, and businesses spread along either side run by Italian, Chinese and black entrepreneurs.
The problem for East Enders was that the working class community that provided services and food to a developing community got labelled “Vancouver’s square mile of vice” by the journalists and politicians who fraternised it. The best and worst of the area could not have existed without the involvement of the whole city: it was the place to entertain resource workers and contain social problems. When city officials could no longer turn a blind eye to what was going on, they planned to close down the activities. Starting in the 1930’s, the East End from Dunlevy to Clark was declared an industrial zone: auto wrecking and scrap metal yards moved in, the city ceased providing services and residents were no longer able to obtain loans for mortgages and home improvements. After World War II, the city – despite all evidence to the contrary – declared the area an urban blight, marked land for expropriation, and planned high rise housing projects and an 8-lane freeway through its heart.
“When we heard the city’s plans for the neighbourhood”, black resident Dorothy Nealy said, “We were horrified. We just screamed. They intended to put high rises all over here, just like in the West End.”
Buildings alongside Hogan’s Alley were condemned. One hundred acres of homes were destroyed. As hundreds of people were relocated, Asian and black residents spread throughout the city. Historical neighbourhoods where blacks and Chinese lived were being wiped out across North America by freeway construction. Developers called it “urban renewal” but the black community thought of it as “Negro removal”.
After years of struggle by hundreds of residents and supporters, the freeway project WAS finally stopped.
“The people that lived here, we just took up a petition”, said Dorothy Nealy, “We got thousands and thousands of names and we stopped them….all kinds of people got involved. Because WE were satisfied with our neighbourhood. I’ve lived here for 35 years and would not want to live anywhere else. No, Nobody wanted to move out of here. It was just like a village. That’s the way it was.”
The whole community showed it was capable of winning a fight with city hall. But it was too late for Hogan’s Alley and the historic black neighbourhood. The Georgia Viaduct’s 1972 construction destroyed the two most active blocks of black-owned businesses and residences alongside Hogan’s Alley and drove its residents out. Today, Hogan’s Alley is unmarked and its disappearance seldom mourned.
In its heyday, the East End’s historic black community numbered as many as 400 black residents, living in a racially mixed but predominantly black area. Like immigrants all over the world, black East Enders worked hard to earn a living and better themselves economically, and contribute to their community’s welfare. Black entrepreneurs provided food and services for working people’s off-hours. Black East Enders have made major contributions to the industrial, judicial, cultural and culinary history of the Downtown Eastside – including a legacy of superb triple threat artists who can sing, dance and act.
They were all part of the industry building Vancouver. Active in business, education, the professions, the arts and politics, they’ve contributed to its well being and unique character.
Today there are approximately 18,000 blacks living in the Greater Vancouver District who are continuing to contribute. But ever since the decline of the East End’s black neighbourhood and the Fountain Chapel, Vancouver has never had another black residential or commercial centre.
Today, in cities across North America, as many original ethnic neighbourhoods vanish, communities start to look, smell and sound like each other.
But when we look around our Downtown Eastside, we see its unique history and identity preserved in our buildings, street and landscapes; manifested in its character and human scale; embedded in our cultural and social diversity; in connections between people; and in our memories.
Community members past and present are uncovering little-known fact’s of our historic community so that future generations will understand and take pride in what our black residents endured and accomplished.
In the words of former resident, educator Randy Clark, “It’s about community and it’s about getting along – “getting along and supporting each other without realizing you’re supporting each other because we were always helping each other – that’s how we survived. There is a bond that still exists today among people who grew up in this neighbourhood. If you got them together, they would have one hell of a party telling stories about what they had heard. “
“We’re here to bear witness to this history. We can feel proud of this history and we can feel hope.” – East End Blues and All That Jazz