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