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Freeways and Chinatowns

January 20, 2011

Jean Chong makes a fascinating point in her post documenting monuments to Chinese-Canadian railway workers:

 At different times during the 1960’s-1970’s, each Chinatown in Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver, was threatened  with development plans for a freeway. Each city with the local Chinese community, fought back and stopped such development.  It would have meant not just cutting into and cutting out a heart of community and history, but also destroying adjacent long-standing neighbourhoods in each city core.

Not surprising, really, that freeway proposals cut through Canadian Chinatowns – just as the Interstates in the U.S. were invariably thrust through the Black ‘slums’ adjacent to downtown cores, frequently accompanied by urban renewal projects. 

In Vancouver, here was the rendering for one of the Chinatown freeway proposals:

This right-of-way would have skirted the southern part of Strathcona and Chinatown, to join up with the viaducts.  The following map from 1968 gives a better sense of the impact on the business section of Chinatown, requiring an elevated viaduct to the north to join with the ‘waterfront highway':

More devastating to the human fabric of Chinatown was the urban renewal proposal for Strathcona, the residential neighbourhood to the east.  (The sentiments of the time were captured in this NFB/CMHC ‘documentary’ – To Build A Better City.)

Some of it was built: the Raymur and MacLean Park housing complexes were architecturally bleak but still provide low-income, secure housing.  Nonetheless, the neighbourhood itself thrives as an eclectic combination of heritage housing, ethnicity and class.

The story of how Chinatown and Strathcona were saved is now part of the mythology of this city – still insufficiently documentedArguably it was the second time in our history that the Chinese community rose up to save the only part of Vancouver that was theirs (the first being the race riot of 1907).   We should more explicitly acknowledge the contribution of people like Mary Chan and the Strathcona Property Owners and Tenants Association who led the first stages of the fight against the freeway that profoundly changed the direction of Vancouver.

Indeed, it appears the same events were analogously occurring in other cities, other Chinatowns across Canada – a part of the stort that needs to be told, even as some of the participants are still alive to tell it.

[More backstory here.]

UPDATE: Fascinating news clip from that era, featuring Bessie Lee, another key player in the Chinese community that was fighting City Hall proposals:

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. January 20, 2011 1:34 pm

    Great to see this subject being discussed publicly. It’s not just of historical interest, of course, since the current redevelopment/gentrification of the Downtown Eastside is not without parallel, except that this time the affected community is more class than race identified, though First Nations are likely the dominant racial group in the area.

    Chinatown may have survived the freeway threat, but other communities did not – for instance, the black community that was once located in Hogan’s Alley, where the Georgia Viaduct now sits. For more information about this, see Wayde Compton’s site at http://www.waydecompton.com/hamp.html

  2. January 20, 2011 8:42 pm

    Urban redevelopment funds were targeted at Chinatowns across Canada and for good measure Africaville in Halifax. There was a meeting of Chinatown leaders in Calgary in 1969 , I think, where leaders called on the federal government to rebuild rather than destroy communities.

    In Vancouver, the city tried to carry on with the redevelopment of the East End and the construction of the freeway. That included the expropriation of the area around Fifth and Burrard home to Vancouver’s Sikh community for the Arburtus Connector. Lost in the demolition was North America’s first Sikh temple. Community members moved to the south of the city where another community had grown up with the Fraser River Mills.

    Targeting an ethnic community is nothing new. Vancouver council debated a plan in 1910 to ‘buy’ Chinatown and relocate it to the eastern end of the city where it would be out of the way. As part of that scheme the council encouraged the Great Northern railway to build their downtown terminus at Pender and Carrall (today’s Chinese Cultural Centre). This they hoped would promote further industry and displace the Chinese.

  3. January 23, 2011 7:41 pm

    Background info. –before the latest developments after this article was posted.

    http://www.vancouverhistory.ca/archives_strathconaSaved.htm

    http://insidevancouver.ca/2010/09/11/murals-commemorating-125-years-of-vancouver-chinese-canadian-history/ (Photo of mural at bottom of blog article that is a tribute to the fight against freeway a la downtown.)

    http://www.vanmag.com/News_and_Features/Chinatown_Syndrome Written last year by F. Bula. At least gives a flavour of multiple complex players in this ongoing area.

  4. Mr. Motorist permalink
    June 3, 2013 2:38 pm

    I don’t know why you are so anti-freeway. They improve the lives and mobility of millions. Only the selfish few like you guys would be anti-highway… but I bet you are quick to drive those highways that are built here and elsewhere. Look up hipocrate in the dictionary… you may see your name mentioned. And as for the Gastown and surrounding area today… OMG! You want to preserve that?? Wow!

  5. June 3, 2013 11:24 pm

    I looked “hipocrate” up in my condensed Oxford, Mr. Motorist, but there’s no sign of it. What do you think I might be doing wrong?

  6. June 4, 2013 4:01 am

    It is my humble opinion that more subways, more Skytrains more bikes are no substitute for incrementalization . . .

    http://members.shaw.ca/aguaflor/St.lawrence.center/st.lawrence.center.toronto.html

    . . . there is no substitute for a well planned, human scale, diversified neighbourhood.

    Getting there is not the point. Being there is!

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