Mural memorialises Vancouver’s lost historic Black neighbourhood

Hogan’s Alley was once a thriving hub of Black Canadian culture, before it was demolished like so many communities in the name of urban renewal

Anthony Joseph's mural Hope Through Ashes: a Requiem for Hogan’s Alley, appears along the edge of Vancouver’s Georgia Viaduct bridge Photo: Gabriel Martins

As the artist Anthony Joseph paints his 45-foot-long mural, Hope Through Ashes: a Requiem for Hogan’s Alley, along the edge of Vancouver’s Georgia Viaduct bridge, there is a purple haze in the air. But it is not a tribute to the legendary guitarist Jimi Hendrix, who spent many summers here with his grandmother Nora before the city’s only historic Black neighbourhood was demolished in 1971 to make room for a proposed freeway. Instead, the haze in the air today is smoke from the American wildfires reaching the sky in Canada.

But the spirit of Nora, a former vaudevillian entertainer who came to Vancouver via Chicago and Seattle and helped found the area’s now-100-year-old African Methodist Episcopal Church, lives on as a prominent figure in Joseph’s mural— bearing a shield for defence—among other stalwarts of the city’s Black community. Her purple hues and flaming attire are a nod to her grandson Jimi. “I may make the flames and purple colour swirl off of her,” says Joseph, adding that he was inspired by the psychedelic art found on Jimi Hendrix album covers.

The painting was commissioned by the Vancouver Mural Festival, “to reclaim space by visually projecting a historical narrative of the Black community in Vancouver,” and to celebrate the former entertainment hub as well as document its destruction. The city’s Black community grew out of African Americans escaping a Gold Rush era law that made it difficult for them to settle in California, and around 1,000 moved from San Francisco to British Columbia. At its height in the 1940s, the population of Hogan's Alley reached 800, partly due to housing discrimination in other parts of the city. Greater Vancouver's Black residents today number almost 30,000, or 1.2% of the population.

The proposed freeway that destroyed the heart of Hogan's Alley in the name of “urban renewal” never materialised in the end, thanks in part to the local Chinese community who mobilised to save the nearby historic Chinatown. Its only vestige now is the Georgia Viaduct, a bridge that connects Downtown Vancouver with the residential neighbourhood of Strathcona that once encompassed Hogan’s Alley.

“I put the majority of the mural within clouds of smoke from which historical faces of Hogan’s Alley arise”, Joseph says Photo: Gabriel Martins

“It was hard for me not to think about the fact that I was adding art to the very instrument that led to the destruction of Hogan’s Alley,” says Joseph, who worked in animation and gaming before returning to painting. As a nod to the demolition, “I put the majority of the mural within clouds of smoke from which historical faces of Hogan’s Alley arise.”

Local heroes like Nora Hendrix are memorialised alongside figures like Fred Deal, the former sleeping-car porter at the nearby Canadian Pacific Railway station who was wrongfully convicted for shooting a white police officer in 1922. He was only given a retrial through the efforts of Hendrix and others in the Hogan’s Alley community. In the mural, Deal’s face is bruised after a violent beating by police, and his mugshot prison number appears in a black cloud behind him.

The mural also depicts the musician Ernie King, who ran the Harlem Nocturne, the only Black-owned nightclub in Vancouver, and was the founder of the city’s first Black theatre, the Sepia Players. And members of the Gibson family of entertainers—Thelma, Leonard, Austin “Chic”, and Syd Risby—leap and dance out of the smoke.

And a rose rising over the corpse of the Yellow Kid, a character from the comic strip from which the neighbourhood got its name and which was often a vehicle for racist, xenophobic messages—leading to the term “yellow journalism”—“symbolises the spirit of the Black community living on and continuing to bloom within the spirit of Vancouver,” Joseph says.