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Municipal Politics

Vancouver in the ‘70s: Grime, Gangs, Protest — and Far Crazier

New books explore two sides of a very different city.

Jesse Donaldson 2 Nov

Jesse Donaldson is an author, journalist, photographer and one of the founding members of The Dependent Magazine. His first book, This Day in Vancouver, was shortlisted for a B.C. Book Prize. Find his previous articles published in The Tyee here.

If modern-day Vancouverites were dropped on the streets of their home city 40 years ago, they’d scarcely recognize the place.

“Vancouver today looks at itself as this sea-to-sky beauty,” laughs Aaron Chapman, author of the recently released book, The Last Gang in Town. “We eat sushi. We do yoga and the Grouse Grind. None of that was part of Vancouver in the 1970s. We weren’t drinking designer macchiatos walking down the street. You were drinking a stubby bottle and throwing it at somebody.”

Chapman’s book isn’t the only new book showcasing how much things have changed. Kate Bird’s Vancouver in the Seventies also provides a vivid look at a decidedly different Vancouver — a city of smog, grime, protest and unprecedented generational strife.

Hippies occupied Stanley Park. The mayor threatened to bulldoze Chinatown. Politicians like Harry Rankin and Bruce Eriksen were championing the plight of those in the newly christened Downtown Eastside. Meanwhile, gangs of young men turned city parks into bases, committing robberies, arson, assault and even attacks on city police.

Vancouver in the 1970s — particularly in the early part of the decade — was boisterous, divided and unrefined, far different from today’s polite, gentrified city.

“I have this belief that Vancouver becomes a new city every 10 years,” Douglas Coupland writes in the foreword to Bird’s book, “and since the '70s we’ve been four other different cities in between.”

Neighbourhoods have changed — a lot.

At the dawn of the 1970s, the City of Glass looked markedly different, and nowhere was that difference more obvious than the skyline. It would be decades before glass-walled high-rises came to dominate the downtown; in fact, it was only three years earlier that the 1967 Strata Titles Act had allowed for the creation of the condominium.

False Creek and Granville Island were cluttered with derelict warehouses. Sections of Robson Street were European-themed — Vancouver in the Seventies features photos of Danish tea rooms and schnitzel houses. Kitsilano — in particular a stretch of houses along West 4th Avenue known as “Acid Row” — was hippie central. Commercial Drive, Chapman explains, was still primarily Italian, and most businesses recognizable today had yet to take root (except for Nick’s Spaghetti House, which opened in 1955).

But one thing that hasn’t changed is the city’s obsession with development. Mayor Tom Campbell floated plans to do everything from replacing Chinatown and Strathcona with a freeway to building a Four Seasons hotel at the entrance to Stanley Park. There was even a plan to demolish Christ Church Cathedral and replace it with an Arthur Erickson-designed office tower called Cathedral Place.

The '70s was the decade of the “mega-project” and rapid change. Entire neighbourhoods, including Gastown and Granville Street, were transformed in a few years. The methods may have been, at times, questionable, writes Coupland in Vancouver in the Seventies, but Vancouverites were invested in their city and genuinely wanted to make it a better place.

“While we flatter ourselves that Vancouver is green and perfect, in the '70s, at least, the city was all about grime and unhappiness,” he notes, “but at least everyone was trying to come up with new solutions to longstanding problems.”

People protested — a lot.

Like much of the western world, Vancouver had a lively counterculture — particularly in the early 1970s — ready to express anti-establishment leanings in public protest. There was certainly much to protest: the Vietnam War, marijuana legalization, the Kent State shootings, and the Amchitka nuclear tests.

Local developments, too, provided inspiration for protests. In the fall of 1970 squatters spent six weeks occupying the Jericho Youth Hostel before a court-ordered eviction turned into a street battle between protesters and police. At the 1972 opening of the Georgia Viaduct, sign-waving protesters attacked the mayor’s limousine. In 1974, a group calling itself “Renters United for Secure Housing” stormed a zoning hearing in Kitsilano. And beginning in 1970, young protesters began a year-long occupation of what was intended to be the Stanley Park Four Seasons site, christening it “All Seasons Park.” There were even protests against fluoridating Vancouver’s drinking water.

It was sometimes difficult to distinguish protest from wanton violence — most notably in the case of the Rolling Stones riot outside the Pacific Coliseum in the summer of 1972. It’s hard to say how much the riot was politically motivated (Chapman writes that a Marxist-Leninist gang calling itself the Youngbloods had been keen to disrupt the concert) and how much was simply the result of a large crowd plied with too much alcohol.

In any event, the gathering quickly degenerated into chaos. Officers armed with helmets and riot sticks were pelted with rocks, bottles and, eventually, Molotov cocktails. One officer was hospitalized after being hit with a railroad spike fired from a homemade bazooka. In the end, 31 police officers were injured — 13 of them hospitalized — and 22 arrests were made.

“Without question, there were a number of different things going on,” Chapman notes. “But what it boils down to is, there was this attitude back then. It was a Golden Age of Casual Violence. Some people just wanted to go out, get drunk and get into a fight. The idea of getting into a fight with a cop, that was the piece de resistance of the kind of trouble you could get into. It was a much more violent time. There was just a real taste for fisticuffs.”

Not all of the kids were all right.

Vancouver has always been home to youth gangs. But in the decades before the Red Scorpions and the United Nations gang battled for supremacy in the drug trade, gangs were a different breed. Most made their home in city parks, and drew their names from them — like the Riley Park, Dunbar Park and Ross Park gangs.

However, as Chapman details in his book, none were more notorious than the Clark Park Gang.

Started in the 1960s, the “Clark Parkers” grew to become Vancouver’s most notorious gang, involved in assaults, robberies, arson and vandalism all over the city. Most members came from low-income homes in the East End, their childhoods transformed by alcoholism and abuse. They prided themselves on being the toughest guys in town. Identifiable by their Dayton Boots and red “mack” jackets, the gang had 50 to 60 core members, but could call up more than 200 if the need arose. Guns were virtually unheard of — although knives and chains came out when the going got tough. Most differences were settled with fists, and while break-and-enters and drug trafficking were part of gang life, the primary goal wasn’t necessarily profit.

“This wasn’t organized crime,” Chapman says. “It was almost ‘Disorganized Crime.’ And that made things a lot more volatile. Today, your chance of interacting with a gang member is incredibly low. They keep to themselves.... In the Park Gang era, these gangs were right on the street. Your chance of accidentally running into them on the street, or cross somebody somehow — it was way higher. You talk to people who lived through the Park Gang era, they all remember these guys. And everyone has a story. ‘My older brother got beat up by them.’ ‘Someone I know got attacked by them.’ And in a lot of ways, it’s since turned them into something of an urban legend.”

By the early 1970s, Clark Park was a place to be avoided. Gang members’ graffiti (they adopted the now-iconic East Van Cross, which had first started appearing in the 1940s) could be seen all over the East End.

Some members of the gang eventually changed their ways, becoming parents and getting straight jobs. Others did not, manning grow houses, selling hard drugs or working as enforcers for the Hells Angels. And an unfortunate few didn’t survive. And it was, in part, their adversarial relationship with law-enforcement that led to the gang’s undoing.

The adults weren’t much better.

As poorly behaved as some of the city’s youth might have been, their elders were no angels. As well as presiding over the destruction of heritage sites like the Vancouver Opera House, Campbell, as mayor, fought anyone who got in his way. On learning council had approved the Four Seasons Hotel at the entrance to Stanley Park, he headed to the site to celebrate by gloating in the faces of protesters.

Law enforcement too was markedly different. While finally free of the corruption that had tainted the department, officers had a very different way of interacting with the criminal element. Following the Rolling Stones riot of 1972, which the police blamed on the Clark Park Gang, the VPD created a secret “Heavy Squad” — 11 of the largest, toughest men it could find — to drive the gang from its turf.

“They were tough and strong,” noted retired constable Vern Campbell in an interview with Chapman. “Christ, if you were under six-foot-three you were only able to serve coffee to these guys.”

Working in small teams in the summer of 1972, the H-Squad was responsible for some highly controversial police work. In interviews with Chapman, gang members tell tales of being intimidated, beaten with clubs or driven out of town and abandoned. There are stories of death threats, being tossed into Burrard Inlet and shot at with live rounds and being attacked with bats and told never to return.

The H-Squad was disbanded in October 1972 (its members received commendations) and the final nail in the Clark Park Gang’s coffin came only a month later. A police pursuit ended with the shooting death of 17-year-old gang member Danny Teece. The fatal shot, fired by Cst. Brian Honeybourn, and the trial that followed were death-knells for the gang. Members remained friends, but began to drift apart. (Honeybourn went on to a distinguished career in law-enforcement, and later undertook the most extensive investigation of the Babes in the Wood murders, the city’s best-known unsolved murder).

“We changed the East End,” notes former Clark Park member Gary Blackburn, in an interview with Chapman. “At one time, everyone just looked out for themselves; everyone wanted to be king of the mountain. We brought all these guys who used to fight each other together to become friends.”

“It wasn’t based on money but just that we stuck together. People would come from everywhere if you were in trouble. Even people who didn’t know you had your back. People still say ‘Don’t fuck with the East End.’ All that East Van graffiti and what it means — that’s because of us.”  [Tyee]

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