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East End Blues: Remembering Vancouver’s Black history

VANCOUVER - Politicians and activists may argue about the future of the Downtown Eastside, but this weekend the focus was the past.

The often forgotten history of the Vancouver neighbourhood's black community was celebrated at two area venues with “East End Blues and All That Jazz,” a performance of music and stories commemorating Vancouver’s black history.

The goal was “to bring back the stories of people and communities who had disappeared,” said Savannah Walling, co-writer of the piece.

The performance was part of “Eastside Stories,” a three-day festival in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside about forgotten histories, with storytelling events and walks around the neighbourhood.

“East End Blues” features music from the 1920s to the 1970s, with two singers, an upright bass player, a pianist and a narrator: Chic Gibson who replaced his late brother Leonard in this remount of the play first performed in 2006. Their sister Thelma Gibson was a special guest in this performance.

“It’s an evening of music and memories, of gospel and blues and jazz. And a lot of memories and reflections of the historic black community,” said co-writer Savannah Walling.

The neighbourhood once had a thriving black community, including Hogan’s Alley, a hub for live music which was wiped out with the construction of the Georgia Viaduct.

Because many of the buildings have disappeared and since the community itself was scattered, the history of the community remained only in the memories of local old-timers.

“I knew very little about the black community because it’s really dispersed,” said Denis Simpson, co-writer and director, “but researching I found out a lot.”

To help preserve this history Walling and Simpson collected stories from former residents for the narration of “East End Blues.”

Most of the packed audience on Saturday night were First Nations people from the neighbourhood and black people with roots in the same neighbourhood – a place that is and was both rich in community and notorious for ghettoization.

Before the show began a First Nations audience member asked how they could bridge their communities. Performer Thelma Gibson, whose family of entertainers was an important part of Hogan’s Alley, said that there really is no cohesive community and that black people are “everywhere”.

But if this event is successful the once close-knit community will be remembered.

Audience member Jonathan Kift said that “the black community is something you don’t really hear much about in Vancouver.”

“I love the fact that it’s in the community where the black people used to live – and where some still do,” added Kift.

Black history films preceded the show, which included interviews from the 1960s and 70s with Downtown Eastside resident Nora Hendrix and her famous grandson Jimi.

Simpson said he was honoured by the enthusiasm of the audience.

“I think it’s really important to see many people of different nationalities here from the Downtown Eastside. Especially a lot of young people,” said Simpson.

“Because it’s not just enough that we’re doing a history lesson of sorts, the young people have to know where we came from, where we are and where we’re going.”

Melanie Kuxdorf reports for The Tyee.

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