Reading a City’s Past: Exploring Local History Collections with a Look at Vancouver’s Hogan Alley

Cities, towns, and the neighbourhoods within them often make for fantastic discoveries. Imagine walking past the same barber shop, the same shiny new building, or the same empty parking lot day after day. The area is well-known to you. You can easily describe it, you can easily direct people to it or through it.

Yet beyond those brick and mortar buildings or that parking lot sitting vacant year after year, we may have little idea of what was once there or how these very spaces could once have been used radically differently, occupying a radically different space in the cultural life of that neighbourhood.

Histories of our cities and towns make for rich and contemplative reading housed in libraries’ Local History sections. Book displays and guest speakers can be accompanied by our own photos of landmarks in our library’s environs or of unique little side streets nearby. Placing these displays in unusual places where we wouldn’t expect to find Local History material could very well expand the audience for this collection, creating dialogue as well as an increased awareness of the city in which we live.

Image courtesy of Notman photographic Archives - McCord Museum (through Flickr: The Commons)

Image courtesy of Notman photographic Archives – McCord Museum (through Flickr: The Commons)

What are some local areas that you’d like to showcase more in your library?

Vancouver’s Main and Georgia Street viaduct area linking the Strathcona neighbourhood into the city’s downtown core is one such place to celebrate. Known as “Hogan’s Alley”, this area stretched within the vicinity of Union Street to roughly Pender Street, between Gore Street and Columbia Street (City of Vancouver, 2011Lazurus, 2013). Home to the city’s black community from the early 1900s to the early 1970s, the area was a fascinating cultural mix of nightclubs, gambling joints, a Methodist church, cottages, and even horse stables (Lazarus, 2013; Mann, 2010). It was where many black families lived and owned businesses. Its most famous resident was Nora Hendrix, grandmother of guitar whiz, the late Jimmy Hendrix. Yes, Jimi Hendrix.  🙂

The 1972 installation of the Georgia Street Viaduct brought the dismantling of Hogan’s Alley as well as the unique character of this once bustling neighbourhood.

The past two decades have seen an active movement to revive the history of Hogan’s Alley, with literary works, talks, and an annual poetry festival. Most famous of these initiatives was the 2009 opening of the Jimi Hendrix Shrine.

Amongst those leading this revitalization is Wayde Compton. Vancouver Public Library’s 7th Writer-in-Residence, Compton is a local writer and co-founding member of the Hogan’s Alley Memorial Project. He has researched and written extensively about Hogan’s Alley, publishing poetry and essays about this neighbourhood both in its own right and in the context of Vancouver’s urban development. Amongst his works are poetry and short fiction in 49th Parallel Psalm (Arsenal Pulp Press, 1999) and a history collection he edited, Bluesprint (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2003).

Are there parts of your city or town you’re excited to tell others about? Who are the authors who have kept the memory of these places alive? Any ideas for libraries to commemorate them more through Local History or Special Collections? Love to hear about them!


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