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Speaker Series in Review: The War on Blight with John Atkin

Updated: Jul 6, 2020

Civic Historian, John Atkin discusses the shady history of urban planning in Vancouver in our final presentation of the 2018 Speaker Series!

John Atkin enthralls audience members with his presentation on the dark underworld of city planning in post-war Vancouver.

Audience members were privy to an incredible final presentation for our 2018 ‘Vancouver Noir’ Speaker Series in which Civic Historian John Atkin revealed the city’s dark history of discrimination with city planning. His presentation, aptly named ‘The War on Blight: Post-War Planning in the City’ unearthed “this hidden little story of strange little men planning the destruction of neighbourhoods,” Atkin stated in his introduction.

The shady cast of characters in this true narrative weren’t the typical gangsters or crime lords from our previous presentations. Instead, they were devious city planners and politicians who strove to ‘clean-up’ the city by wheeling and dealing dishonest plans, surveys and developments that preyed upon Chinatown and Strathcona residents and their valuable land.

Atkin went on to explain the title of his presentation, ‘The War on Blight,’ which stemmed from a 1957 Vancouver redevelopment study. In the study, it said, “Areas bypassed by progress and renewal, are areas of blight.” “This whole view of Blight as a disease and the defeat of the war on blight has given rise to the city we have today—but the story is much more interesting than one might imagine,” he added. In particular, he revealed that the same 1957 study expressly stated that “…rising land values and property values themselves, make it profitable to remove family dwellings and to replace those with retail industry and department blocks,” thus beginning a long saga of rhetoric that would entwine racism with redevelopment. For instance, documents frequently targeted only ethnic areas, and framed ‘blight’ as a contagious problem, and focused on trying to contain it.

Giving some context to the hostility of the post-war planning in the East Side of Vancouver, Atkin showed the audience rare photos of the city pre-war, which demonstrated just how much of the city was zoned for industrial purposes. This industrial zone extended all the way from Strathcona to False Creek, where, as most know, the shiny Olympic Villiage and many new waterfront condos stand.

Vancouver's False Creek Industrial Area before Redevelopment, Vancouver Police Museum

Vancouver’s False Creek was once heavily industrial and was home to many ethnic minorities. Photo credit: Vancouver Archives #CVA 260-1017.

Additionally, by this industrial waterfront, were sawmills that employed many different races of workers, all of whom also lived in close proximity to their work. This is how Vancouver’s first ethnic enclaves came to be, but sadly, they also would become the target of redevelopment by the city.

Atkin also discussed the war’s effect on city planning, explaining that Social Engineering after the war became of great interest to politicians both here and across the border. In particular, in the US, the government was concerned that men coming home from the war would not enjoy their American way of life after experiencing life in Europe. One document even went so far as to state: “These men may have sat outside with a glass of wine, and when they come home, they will be disappointed to move back to the tenements of the inner city; we will have a revolution.” Atkin went on to clarify, that planning of the utopian suburban life became a big focus for the US and eventually Canada because they wanted to prevent a revolution in the inner cities.

From there, Atkin discussed the evolution of the Vancouver’s city plan, and how this “War on Blight” targeted False Creek, Chinatown and Strathcona in many devious ways. For starters, the city began planning out its own residential utopias, with Point Grey receiving the first residential zoning bylaw in the city—with a design that still stands today. This design includes sidewalks, trees, boulevards and lots of pleasant housing. But the creation of Point Grey also resulted in less than favourable comparisons to the East Side ‘slums’ of Vancouver, which were deemed as chaotic and disorderly. This coupled in with land deals with the CPR greatly affected the city’s attitude to ‘blight’ and increasingly focused on redeveloping the East Side for redevelopment to ‘win’ this war.

Moving into the ’30s, city planning became a true profession, and this had a cascading effect on zoning in the city. For instance, as the regulations became more solidified and targeted, one focus was to actually get rid of old Victorian houses in Strathcona, which, at the time, were considered ugly and undesirable. At the same time, the city was struggling with a housing crisis. Atkin surprised many by stating, “Even then, Vancouver had a housing shortage. It has had less than a 1% vacancy rate since its founding, and since the ’40s and ’50s negative vacancy rates… It got so bad that the federal government war-time housing corporation would occasionally knock on doors to convert houses.” In particular, this corporation would knock on doors of large houses and if they found only two occupants, they would slate it for rezoning the very next week.

Atkin also discussed the many different city plans that had been proposed and denied over the years, joking that, “ We could have filled an entire presentation on just how many civic centre ideas there have been through Vancouver,” at which point he showed audience members some of the interesting proposals that have gone through the gamut over the years.

An old map of Vancouver that shows its vastly different layout when compared to today. Image credit: The Vancouver Sun

An important point he made, however, was that there has always been this quest for improvement with Vancouver’s city planning. From ensuring that there is enough green space to getting rid of the disorder an chaos, much of this post-war attitude shaped how our city stands today.

The appearance of the city was especially important to Harland Bartholomew, who in the late 1940s wrote many reports on the city, and in one famous one stated that “…much Vancouver is an affront to its setting.”

Similarly, other reports shunned the industrial nature of the city’s East Side, stating that “Unregulated growth in the city usually results in an unhealthy mixture of land uses,” even though the city itself had originally zoned much of the East Side for industrial use.

As the years moved on, the tactics became shadier and shadier, with Atkin revealing that most of the planners wanted to let the East Side fall into a state of disrepair, so they could demolish it and rebuild over it. So, for instance, in Chinatown, health inspectors would ticket vegetable sellers for selling “dusty vegetables,’ when in fact the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce had petitioned the city to repave, water or oil the roads to keep the dust down. The city denied this request but still ticketed the vegetable sellers in a bid to demolish buildings and businesses for being unsanitary.

Atkin, at this point, reiterated that there was a lot of prejudice against Vancouver’s multi-ethnic areas, and specifically, Chinatown.

There were also interesting characters who appeared in this Strathcona saga, including:

  1. Arthur Julius Bird, a city architect who at one point oversaw the zoning bylaw and was obsessed with a ‘garden city, road housing’ plan that never came to fruition.

  2. Leonard Marsh who brought the war on blight into social sciences. He wrote a report called ‘Rebuilding a neighbourhood: report on a demonstration slum-clearance and urban rehabilitation project in a key central area in Vancouver,’ which essentially suggested that Chinatown and other East Side areas with ethnic minorities be cleared to make way for urban renewal projects. For his report, Marsh got UBC students to survey residents of the East Side about the deficiencies of their neighbourhood, under the guise that it was a government survey meant to help improve the neighbourhood. In reality, these complaints were used in Marsh’s report to vilify the area and to get it rezoned for development, even though many of the residents had expressed a desire to stay in the Strathcona area.

  3. Similarly, Fred Hume, former Mayor of Vancouver and New Westminster, had also authorized a survey that asked East Side households what they wanted to see in their neighbourhood. He even went so far as to get The Chinese Benevolent Society on board, under the assumption that they would get improvements for the Chinatown area. Unsurprisingly, the surveyors were actually taking notes on the condition of the housing so they could assess the appropriation value.

These types of underhanded surveys and broken promises would continue all the way up until 1969, when Strathcona residents banded together in large numbers to protest, spurring the government to scale back on its redevelopment plans and to acknowledge its history of targeting the community unfairly.

A truly informative and topical presentation, ‘The War on Blight’ kept our audience chatting for a long time after it finished. Perhaps because the issues seem all too familiar to current residents of the East Side, who still struggle with some of the same difficulties when dealing with gentrification, redevelopment and the rights of residents over government city planning.

And that’s a wrap for this year’s Speaker Series. A huge thank you to all our presenters, audience members and staff. We hope to see you next year. Sign up for our emails here to get the latest news on our series for next year, in addition to our exciting events for fall!


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