Opening Doors in Vancouver’s East End: Strathcona
In 1977 and 1978, Strathcona residents Daphne Marlatt and Carole Itter embarked on an ambitious task: to document, through oral histories, the lives of the neighbourhood’s pioneer residents, most of them elderly. As one of the oldest and most diverse of Vancouver’s many neighborhoods, it holds an incredibly rich storehouse of memories that reflect the city’s immigrant experience. Once slated for demolition to make way for a proposed freeway into downtown, Strathcona had been saved by the determined efforts of its fiercely loyal residents and this dedication and passion is reflected in the stories told throughout Opening Doors in Vancouver’s East End: Strathcona, originally published in 1979 as part of the Sound Heritage program by the Province of BC through the BC Archives.
Going painstakingly from door to door with tape-recorder in hand, Marlatt and Itter spent hours with longtime Strathcona residents in their homes, collecting memories and stories from the neighbourhood. The end result is a fascinating glimpse into the early days of Vancouver and the people who gave it life and character.
The book stays true to its roots, with no attempt to sensationalize of glorify. In the blurb for Nora Hendrix, she is described as a native of Knoxville, Tennessee, who came to Vancouver in 1911 via Chicago and Seattle. One of her grandchildren, Jimi Hendrix, “became a noted musician in the 1960s.”
As Itter writes in a chapter called Staying Local, ‘This was no Utopia. This was the original core of Vancouver’s East End—a ghetto—by definition that “section of the city in which members of a minority group live because of social, legal or economic pressures.” It was, for example, a tough neighbourhood in the 1940s and 1950s for some teenagers who considered themselves a protective force and permitted few outsiders to walk safely through the area. And at times in the 1920s and 1930s, many families were raised and educated on the profits of home-scale bootlegging of wine and liquor, and madams and prostitutes knew their business. There was no money. There were pockets of wealth. There were and still are backyard vegetable gardens feeding households for most months of each year.’
One thing that is striking is the broad range of cultures and races represented the book, but this is no politically correct nod to multiculturalism—instead, it’s a reflection of a neighbourhood that has long sheltered, even welcomed, the disenfranchised, with little in the way of judgement.
The book is a fascinating read for anyone interested in the history of Vancouver, particularly the hard-scrabble years surrounding the Depression. As George Nitta, a third-generation Canadian citizen of Japanese descent born in 1903 says, “I’ve had to work hard enough for three generations in my time.”
Opening Doors has been out of print for years and is treasured by those lucky enough to own a copy. It was recently reprinted as the inaugural work in the 125 Legacy Books Collection, a series of 10 volumes slated to be released this year. The project, driven by municipal poet laureate Brad Cran and the Association of Book Publishers of BC, is dedicated to bringing back important out-of-print titles about Vancouver, in honour of the city’s 125th anniversary.
excerpt from Opening Doors:
Ivy Kaji McAdams was the daughter of an English nurse and a Japanese Canadian medical student serving overseas in World War One. She was born in Edmonton in 1920 and arrived in Vancouver in 1921.
Some of the tragedies that come out of that time were just incredible. I was friendly with the boy who was shot, Yosh Uno [January 16, 1942]. The family had this little grocery store on the corner of Fourth and Alberta and just eked out a living with it. His mother was in the store one day, they lived in the back, and 4 young [white] kids came in with a gun and they held her up. Yosh ran out from the back to protect his mother and they shot him dead. So then these kids were charged with murder. Then the headlines, “Four whites for one Jap—is it fair?” And oh, there was this commotion started. It was enough to lose the boy but to suffer all the slurs and everything, like, “Japs are killing Americans, so what difference does it make if 4 Canadian boys shoot 1 Jap? Why should these boys be tried for murder?” Well, they were afraid to even open up their store, you know, because the police had laid the charge, naturally, but the public went up in arms about it. The feeling was very, very strong at that time.