Lama Mugabo is a community activist and member of the Hogan’s Alley Society who works in Vancouver’s low-income Downtown Eastside neighbourhood. Hogan’s Alley was a predominantly Black neighborhood that Vancouver City Council displaced to build the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts in 1970. The demolition of Hogan’s Alley was part of a wave of “urban renewal” efforts across Canada and the United States that targeted Black communities. Forty-five years later, in 2015, the City voted to tear down these viaducts, and members of the Black community came together to demand redress: that the City engage with them in planning the area, and devote resources to a Black cultural centre, social housing, and space for Black-owned businesses.
Out of this redress advocacy effort, the Hogan’s Alley Society formed in order to negotiate with City Hall for reforms. Reforms are necessary and valuable for social movements because they focus our critiques and can improve life for struggling communities, but reforms are also risky because if we narrow our political vision exclusively to government reforms, our work can end up protecting, disguising, and sustaining the fundamentals of racist systems. For example, prison abolitionists are wary of the danger that diversifying police forces can retrench the power of policing. Black community redress at Hogan’s Alley is tackling a site of reform in city planning and building housing, with the goal of revitalizing Vancouver’s Black community. But for City Hall, “revitalization” means bringing real estate markets back to life in a predominantly low-income area. It means gentrification.
Listen Chen interviewed Lama Mubago to talk about the tensions between these two competing definitions of revitalization—one about reorganizing and rebuilding the dispossessed and displaced Black community, and the other about developer profits and commodifying “community” to sell gentrification projects.
“It makes you wonder, do I belong here?”: Black life in Vancouver
LC: To start us off, what do you think the new Hogan’s Alley will make politically possible for the Black community in Vancouver?
LM: Our hope is that we’ll be able to bring back to life the Black community that was destroyed by the construction of the viaducts in 1972. Right now, Black people are scattered all over the Lower Mainland. Social isolation has been a major problem for the Black community in Vancouver. When I was doing my undergrad at SFU, we formed a group called the Association of Students of African Descent, the group was made up of students of African and Caribbean ancestry.
Being together made a huge difference in our lives. During reading breaks, we organized trips to Seattle to hang out with other Black people! Being in a city with people who looked like us was refreshing. Old people, young people, brothers and sisters, professionals working in different sectors of the economy. We went to a see basketball games, ate soul food, went to nightclubs, and just immersed ourselves in Blackness.
Before this interview, you asked me about the capacity of the City to redress anti-Black racism. A couple of months ago, we had a meeting with the City and Parks Board senior staff to talk about how we can make public parks safe and inclusive. We told them how it feels to be Black in public spaces. When we meet to have a barbeque, or enjoy a day in the park, someone inevitably calls the police, and says, “Officer, there are Black people in a park!”, and a few minutes later, law enforcement shows up. The percentage of Blacks who are stopped through carding [the police practice of performing random identification checks on the street] is something like 5%, when we’re only 1% of the population. Something is wrong with this picture.
We look to the City to make some changes in policy. We want the City to hire Black people and also promote them. We are absent at decision-making tables. That needs to change.
“This goes back to the beginning of this country”: Anti-Black racism, erasure, and exclusion
LC: Right, there have been calls for the City to adopt these specific policy changes to mitigate the impact of policing on the Black community. What needs to be done that the City is not discussing, beyond the reforms?
LM: When we brought up the idea of revitalizing Hogan’s Alley, we asked the City to give us access to this block. We applied for a long-term year lease with the intention of using CLT – Community Land Trust as a tool to plan and develop the land. But people raised questions: “You want the whole block to yourselves? Just for Black people?” Our request is rooted in justice. We have been wrongfully displaced, we have been dispossessed, we’ve lost our core, our sense of belonging, a place we once called home. And now, you have a problem with us claiming what was taken away from us? This speaks to the fact that our history has not been taught and as result, a lot of people who react negatively are driven by ignorance and insensitivity.
This goes back to the beginning of this country. Canada and the City of Vancouver were built with white supremacy. When Canada was recruiting settlers from Europe and the US, Prime Minister Laurier’s government passed an Immigration Act that made it possible for border agents to arbitrarily require that migrants possess $500. Border guards turned away thousands of Black migrants who did not have $500 while their white counterparts only needed $25. Racism is part of the foundation of this country; it was designed to be a white country. So, when you ask yourself why they aren’t many Black people, there lies the answer.
“We’re still arm wrestling”: Fighting the City for affordable housing
LC: So, the Hogan’s Alley Working Group’s plan for the Hogan’s Alley block is part of the City’s Northeast False Creek [NEFC] plan, which is this humongous plan that has been described as “Vision’s most significant legacy” and “the next generation of Vancouver building.” This plan includes both Hogan’s Alley and 20-25 new condo towers. How do we make sense of City Hall’s tendency to tether a good thing to the same old awful? How do we strategize a response to these kinds of forced choices?
LM: We know that Vision and the City of Vancouver are in love with developers. What cities do is build themselves to attract investors. Vancouver builds everything around developers by giving them greater height allowances for condo towers. Developers make a lot of money. In the Downtown Eastside developers make their Community Amenity Contributions [fees paid in exchange for increased building heights] through including token numbers of social housing units, and the City pats them on the back. This is where we run into the problem with the City.
We told the City that in order to bring the Black community back, we had to provide affordable housing. But the City was planning to use condo sales to pay for the removal of the viaducts. And we said, don’t put this on our shoulders. It’s on you to remove. We want affordable housing so our people can live in stable, affordable housing in perpetuity. That was a challenge. I think we’re still arm wrestling because we don’t have the tenure, the long term leases that we asked for, even though there’s a commitment by the previous Council to do it. We hope they’ll honour the commitment.
I think it’s really important to underscore what the City of Vancouver does—it puts so much weight in and behind developers and people with money, at the expense of low-income tenants. We have some work to do to raise awareness of the forces that would rather build more condos for rich people at the expense of low-income residents. We know that the Chinatown Business Improvement Association [BIA] doesn’t want this block to go through—they claim this is Chinatown, and we shouldn’t give it to Black people. From our perspective, Chinese community-based organizations and spaces are part of our vision and the push to restore Hogan’s Alley as the Black Strathcona of the pre-viaducts days.
“It’s all about haves and have nots”: Class and community
LC: I’m glad you mentioned the Chinatown BIA, because I had this question prepared about the word “community” and how often we see it co-opted to further the class interests of the rich, and this plays right into that! There are lots of people in the Chinese community who support Hogan’s Alley, but the landlords and business owners represented by the BIA, in other words, the Chinese-Canadian bourgeoisie, will claim to represent the broader Chinese community in order to protect their interests. How do we make sense of the term “community” when BIAs and even real estate developers constantly describe themselves as representing “the community”?
LM: In this case, it’s all about haves and have-nots. It’s about those who have been excluded and those who have been included by the system. There are groups that advocate for seniors’ right to affordable housing. They reject the invasion of condo development that gradually erodes their community of any sense of livability and heritage. Suddenly people find themselves priced out with nowhere to go, while the BIA and other pro-business groups call for maximizing profit by building condos.
The question is how can we build an inclusive community with our neighbors. During our community design consultation, we were mindful of an ugly outcome that may arise from the fact that we want to have social housing on the east block of Main St, in contrast to the proposed condos on the west block. What about the type of grocery stores those condos will bring in? Will it be a high-end store like Urban Fare?
The word “community” has a deep meaning in Black culture. We believe that it takes a village to raise a child. We want to build a community where people can regain a sense of belonging. We want to welcome new immigrants who come to Vancouver fleeing persecution and seeking a safe haven to be supported and given the opportunity to thrive. We want our seniors to live in a surrounding where they see Black children and families live together. We want welcome professionals who will consider retiring and moving on the block so that they can contribute their skills and expertise to rebuild the community.
The language of revitalization
LC: I find it ironic that Mayor Robertson championed the NEFC plan by claiming that it “revitalizes” one of Vancouver’s “last waterfront neighborhoods”—referring to the massive area owned by Concord Pacific and Canadian Metropolitan Properties. How is the Hogan’s Alley Working Group different from other urban projects that are described with the language of revitalization?
LM: Revitalization means coming back to life. If you want to “revitalize” Indigenous land, then you need to return it to First Nations who lived there, rather than developing it. From the development point of view, developers and City Hall are looking to generate revenues by attracting investors who will buy condos and tourists who will visit the proposed entertainment center and park. There’s a lot of excitement in generating wealth on the proposed NEFC area. It’s pivotal that making Vancouver liveable includes making sure that the city builds a stock of non-market housing to accommodate folks from the working class.
LC: There’s been a lot of momentum and energy around bringing back Hogan’s Alley. Once the Hogan’s Alley plan is realized, how do you hope to see that energy continue? Where would you like to see it directed toward?
LM: Hogan’s Alley is a huge opportunity for young people. We’re building a foundation for future generations. When we’re talking about Hogan’s Alley today, we know it’s going to take at least 5 years to remove the viaducts, another 5 for the community assets we want to build: housing, retail spaces, cultural center, day care centre. I’ve been talking with college students and encouraging them to think about the future of this site. Right now, we have started doing a needs assessment research to understand the experience of Black people in Metro Vancouver. We want to know the discrepancy between what we have and what we need, so that we can use the data to build a thriving community.
I would like to see this momentum continue, and build on the conversations we will have with the community over the years. A few months ago, I spoke at a panel hosted by researchers from the Chicago Architecture Biennial in collaboration with 221A Gallery, to discuss issues related to gentrification, Indigeneity, and colonialism, looking specifically at the impact of architecture on the land. I was particularly impressed with how local residents in Chicago took over abandoned land and used it to grow food and engage young people to build their community by growing and cooking food together. It was inspiring to learn from what the brothers and sisters in Chicago are doing, using food security as a catalyst for lasting change in building the community. It’s crucial for us to continue expanding our networks and learning from each other.