From the grassy void where her childhood home once stood, Bertha Clarke looks north across Union Street and surveys a changing Strathcona. New to the neighbourhood are an assortment of bohemian coffee shops, locavore eateries, and a record store specializing in vintage vinyl—signs of life on a block that’s been near derelict since the 1970s. That was when a prime chunk of Chinatown was demolished to make way for the Georgia Viaduct, taking with it the house Clarke grew up in—along with the last vestiges of Hogan’s Alley, once the most vital African-Canadian neighbourhood in Western Canada.
Among the casualties were rooming houses, nightclubs, and a legendary soul-food diner, Vie’s Chicken & Steaks, where Clarke’s grandmother Viva Moore once presided over an all-night crowd of entertainers, cabbies, and cops.
“T-bones, porterhouse, filet mignon, and a half a chicken was the meat on the menu,” Clarke recalls for the camera, and it’s clear that she misses Grandma Vie—and her melt-in-your-mouth biscuits, too.
The clip, part of 10 produced for the online archive Black Strathcona, can be viewed at the Black Strathcona website. But if you head down to the corner of Union and Main, you can also use your smartphone or iPad to lead you on an interactive walking tour meant to illuminate a long-hidden part of Vancouver’s history. Along the way you’ll meet TV stars, musicians, community organizers, and Barbara Howard, once the fastest woman in the world. They’re all former Strathcona residents—and, with the exception of a young guitarist born James Marshall Hendrix, their stories have rarely been told.
Using downloadable QR codes on display at each of the 10 sites, Black Strathcona is an example of locative art, a fascinating fusion of up-to-the-minute technology and the oral tradition, of documentary film and hands-on experience.
“It encourages you to interact with the neighbourhood—to walk around and not only see the story locations, but to get out into Strathcona and see other buildings and other locations and go ‘Gee, this is changing,’ and ‘Gosh, this is being knocked down,’ or ‘This should be saved,’ ” says filmmaker Gordon McLennan, who worked with poet/historian Wayde Compton and Eastside Culture Crawl director Esther Rausenberg to bring the project to life. Compton and McLennan had originally envisioned taking a more traditional documentary approach, but technological advances over the project’s 10-year incubation persuaded them to change their tack.
“What we wanted to do with the project was to make a piece that was of today,” Rausenberg stresses. “Even though the stories are historical, we wanted to use younger people to tell the story. So much of the history is being told by these younger presenters, spoken-word artists and poets.
“Another intention of the project is that it is an educational resource,” she adds. “It can be accessed by school groups in Prince George or on Haida Gwaii...and if they do come down here, they can actually walk around our wonderful community of Strathcona and get a sense of what was here. It’s kind of like an open museum.”
It’s also a reminder that Vancouver’s multicultural heritage is both deeper and wider than many area residents realize. “This project meant a lot to me, because it’s bringing out the monument [to Vancouver’s black community] that should have been years and years ago,” says Clarke, who now lives on the Sunshine Coast. “It’s way overdue, the recognition of the people of the area. So it made me really proud to be a part of the project, because I am literally representing my family. It was a big deal for me to finally have that mark stamped down in history.”