How Art and Passion Can Get Us Past This
// Claire McGillivray

“Things like this are the living, breathing memorial,” stated Wayde Compton, in reference to the Hogan’s Alley Poetry Festival, which kicked off on Sept. 23. As the co-founder of the Hogan’s Alley Memorial Project, he beamed as he described the way “folks come out and they talk about it and keep it alive.”

Event coordinator, host, and seasoned slam poet Kevan Cameron, also known as “Scruffmouth,” described the Hogan’s Alley Poetry Festival as “an opportunity to illustrate the creative and cultural contributions of Vancouver’s Black community.” Both he and Compton were glowing in their remarks at the opening night gala and reception at the Vancity Theatre.

The event was created by The Black Dot Roots and Culture Collective and The National Congress of Black Women in order to commemorate and celebrate Hogan’s Alley, the only historically Black neighbourhood in Vancouver. The district underwent a complete demolition and dispersal of people in 1972 to accommodate Mayor Thomas Campbell’s “Urban Renewal” project. This project included construction of the Dunsmuir and Georgia Viaducts and further downtown highway installation, but was ultimately stopped by passionate lobbyists before the demolition of Chinatown and Gastown could occur.

The small neighbourhood, located in the Strathcona area, was home not only to a culturally vibrant Black community, but also many Canadians of Chinese, Japanese, Italian, and Native descent. As Cameron says, “Right now, the significance of Hogan’s Alley is that it had that critical mass of Black people in this city, and it was the Black community and the Black neighbourhood. It wasn’t only Black people, but there were enough people there that were engaged in culture ... We remember these things now when we try to pay tribute to this community.”

The opening reception preceded a three-day poetry festival in commemoration of the Hogan’s Alley community. The event focused mainly on spoken word poetry, but it also included elaborate performances of traditional African dance, storytelling, and podplays: a new style of theatre that uses audio media to guide the listener through a self-directed theatrical experience. The opening reception gave only a taste of what to expect at the festival, but it was just enough to whet the artistic appetite.

Adelene da Soul Poet, who goes occasionally by the name of Bertha Clark, gave several passionate and empowered readings of her spoken word poetry. Themes revolved around the strength of family and friendship through hardship, laced with many clever anecdotes from “back in the day” at her grandmother’s diner: Vie’s Chicken and Steak House in Hogan’s Alley. Esteemed guests of the diner included Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Earl Grant, Duke Ellington, Billy Holiday, and Diana Ross & the Supremes.

There was further performance of spoken word done by Ugandan native Juliane Bitek. Her poems were eclectic and soulful, sometimes referencing esteemed poets of Uganda and even Marshall Mathers, a.k.a American rapper Eminem, who she quotes in her poem The Microphone is Not a Gun.

Musically, a highlight from the evening was the phenomenal harmonic duet of Summertime by George Gershwin, which seasoned Vancouver performers Dalannah Gail Bowen and Thelma Gibson performed together. The two had a kindred-spirit kind of chemistry that resonated into the audience.

To preface a documentary about Hogan’s Alley by Cornelia Wyngaarden & Andrea Fatona, Compton took to the stage to engage the audience in a little more of the history behind the historically overlooked and undervalued neighbourhood. Compton, who “started as a poet and accidentally became a historian,” became very passionate about the history of Hogan’s Alley after he began writing and asking questions about his own identity in the city. Compton, it should be noted, is also the 2011 Vancouver Public Library Writer in Residence.

In chapter seven of Compton’s book, After Canaan: Essays on Race, Writing, and Region, he writes, “Vancouver’s Black community suffered, what their American cousins, punning on the term ‘Urban Renewal,’ called ‘Negro Removal.’ The destruction of the politically weaker communities of the city were large modern planning schemes.” He describes the destruction of Hogan’s Alley as “the moment where the Black community in Vancouver integrated.”

“The story of Vancouver is that moment when they decided not to put a freeway through, that was the moment that Vancouver became a ‘good guy’ in the urban planning world.” Compton expresses his displeasure at this thought, simply by pointing out the largely marginalized Black community that Vancouverites tend to forget about. Additionally, he is concerned by the “continuing emphasis on what developers want in the city, rather than what people need.”

A parallel from past to present can be drawn in “the shameful lack of social housing in the city right now, and the rapid gentrification of the Downtown Eastside,” says Compton. “I see it as a very similar thing to what happened in the 1950s and 60s.” The hardship thrust upon the Black community during the 1972 construction of the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts is, in Compton’s opinion, a mirror of the burgeoning situation today. We see a “different community, different group of people, similar area, and definitely a similar situation of displacement [to what] is happening right now.”

Allies of The Black Dot Roots & Culture Collective create a hard-hitting message for their audience. The Hogan’s Alley Poetry Festival is first and foremost a celebration of culture and creativity, but the celebration also urges individuals to face the facts – Vancouver as a city has historically wronged an entire community of Black individuals through a physical infrastructure change, forcing a dispersal of families and friends. Hope is not lost, though: the soulful expression on stage at the Hogan’s Alley Poetry Festival has an underlying theme. Through arts and passion, there is inspiration for individuals to take action against history repeating itself.

// Claire McGillivray

// Artwork by Katie So

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© 2011 The Capilano Courier. phone: 604.984.4949 fax: 604.984.1787 email: editor@capilanocourier.com