Powell Street (Japantown) Historical and Cultural Review

By Savannah Walling The Report The Powell Street (Japantown) Historical and Cultural Review was prepared for the City of Vancouver by a team led by Strathcona resident James Burton. This involved a community consultation process to review the historical and cultural heritage of the Powell Street area commonly known as Japantown. I was one of the co-writers along with James Burton, Dr. Michiko Midge Ayukawa, Helen Cain, Michael Clague, Denise Cook, Terry Hunter (Vancouver Moving Theatre), Patrick Kelly and Dr. Patricia Roy. The team was guided by the wisdom of an Advisory Group: individuals with a deep understanding of the physical place and its cultural history. Many community members generously shared through their writing, interviews and conversations. They told us about the area’s history, identified some of its critically important stories and the spaces and buildings needed to tell them, and shared ways to do the telling. We built on the research of other important projects such as the City of Vancouver DTES Public Realm Plan and the Strathcona Business Improvement Association’s Open Windows streetscape improvements project. The Review surveys the area’s history; its historical themes; places of heritage value; cultural activities that celebrate heritage; management tools for historic and cultural management; and ideas for future planning. It concludes with lots of community suggestions on “next steps.” We hope this report will assist the community to argue on behalf of its own rights and goals. Historical themes The report describes ten powerful themes experienced in one form or another over the years by the neighbourhood’s residents: • First Nations presence; • Heart of the City; • Hastings Mill and Waterfront Industry; • Welcoming Community; • Powell Street Cycles of Prosperity and Loss; • Exclusion, Perseverance and Resistance; • Church and Cultural Precincts; • Housing and Home; • Japanese Canadian Settlement; and • Gathering at Powell Street Grounds. Historical context The Powell Street (Japantown) area is the place from which Vancouver began and grew. Some stories about Vancouver’s early development are to be found only in its streets and buildings—and in the memories of its residents. Powell Street (Japantown)’s history is part of the founding story of this city and therefore the common heritage of all who live in Vancouver—the site of many historic events, waterfront industries and cultural institutions key to the city’s development. It’s also the story of a particular place and of the people who have lived here and do so now. Powell Street/Japantown lies on land within the unceded territories of the Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations. One of the earliest European settlements - Hastings Mill—was erected on an ancient Coast Salish site. This area was a hub of major trade routes between inland Coast Salish and interior groups: it was a “place to meet other people who gathered and hunted with us.” There has always been a strong First Nations presence here and there still is today. Within 30 short years of settlement, native power over this area had collapsed; Japanese immigrants began to replace Aboriginal workers and take residence; thousands of immigrants arrived by train and ship. Victoria capitalists Dr. Israel Powell (Superintendent of Indian Affairs) and David Oppenheimer (Vancouver’s first mayor) bought up most of the land east of Carrall St. to Clark. Here, Vancouver’s first cultural institutions and churches were established and the area’s cycles of fabulous boom times and ongoing decline set in motion. As wealthier residents left in the 1890s for the West End, mixed use buildings became the norm—with small family businesses on street level and rooming or boarding houses above. The area was famous, during the 1920s - 1930s, for its exciting, bustling, economically vibrant centre of the Japanese Canadian community—still influencing life here more than 60 years after its social destruction. (In 1942 - despite no evidence of disloyalty on the part of anyone of Japanese ancestry in the province - the federal government yielded to demands from panicky white British Columbians and forcibly removed Japanese Canadians.) Not until the 1950s were laws that were discriminating against Asian immigrants and Aboriginal citizens repealed. A few young Japanese Canadians and seniors returned to settle in the area; some stores and restaurants reopened. The Japanese Language School and Japanese Hall reopened, drawing Japanese Canadians from across the lower mainland. They continue to visit the area for cultural programs and seasonal festivals. Today the area is “natsukashii” (a place of lots of memories) and a mini-pilgrimage site. The area was never ethnically homogenous however. First Nations always maintained a working and seasonal residential presence in the area’s waterfront industries. Yugoslavs have resided on Cordova Street, and Scandinavians, Chinese, Latinos and Afro-Canadians have also lived here. The heart of the community is Oppenheimer Park (once known as the Powell Street Grounds)—the block bounded by Cordova, Powell, Dunlevy and Jackson Streets. First Nations who felt unwelcome in Stanley Park made it their home. Nearby ethnic communities used it as their outdoor space. It’s been home to the award-winning Asahi baseball team, the DTES Slo-Pitch League, the Vancouver Dream Catchers Homeless Soccer Team and martial arts exhibitions. It’s been an historical staging ground for protests and rallies by the marginalized and unemployed. It’s been home to festivals, feasts and ceremonies. Today, it’s still the community’s “living room.” By 1949, although the loss of Japanese Canadians offered new opportunities for other ethnicities, Powell St. seemed almost deserted. Declared an industrial zone by the city, loans for mortgages and home improvements were stopped; infrastructure was neglected. As a result, the neighbourhood deteriorated physically. Rezoning attempted to do away with an area historically used to entertain  the city’s citizens and visiting resource workers with services ranging from restaurants and night clubs to gambling houses and brothels. Rezoning undercut a well-functioning working class community that provided its residents with a variety of goods and services. Traditional sources for jobs were in retreat: a decline in fishing stock plus technological changes in the forestry, railroad and shipping industries meant fewer jobs. Warehouses moved to the suburbs. Unemployment rose locally. Streetcars disappeared, reducing the flow of customers. Inline with trends from the mid-1950s to the 1970s that wiped out culturally lively communities across North America, the city was interested in urban redevelopment with plans for high-rise towers; a super-highway to speed traffic from New Westminster to Vancouver; a third-crossing over  Burrard Inlet—plans  that would have wiped out big chunks of today’s Downtown Eastside. However the community refused to die. In the mid-1970s, a grassroots protest movement forced government policy to change. Freeway and high-rise tower plans were abandoned. A government funded neighbourhood improvement program assisted a cultural renaissance, improving facilities at the Japanese Language School and Buddhist Temple; and planting sakura cherry trees in Oppenheimer Park. During the 1970s, Powell Street (Japantown) was enjoying a renaissance: Tonari Gumi (Japanese Canadian Volunteers Association) drew in descendents of immigrants who began recovering their community’s history and culture. New social housing was built. The high-water mark was the creation of the annual Powell Street Festival. This cultural Renaissance could not stem descending physical and social changes straining the Powell St. (Japantown) social fabric. Newly organized one-way streets made Japantown a “drive-through community.” The redevelopment of Gastown pushed low-income residents east. Downsizing of the mental hospitals led to an influx of unsupported mentally ill people. Zoning changes reduced ground-level retail opportunities. Welfare reduction policies and social housing cut-backs left little spare money for discretionary funding. Homelessness in the area, and the city as a whole, doubled. Self-medicating drug use increased and so did the black-market in prescription drugs. Policing actions of the 1970s and 1980s, that moved prostitutes from the nightclubs and hotels to the streets, coincided with the beginning of a series of murders and disappearances of prostitutes, most who had worked in the DTES including the Powell Street area. Once again, collective actions to overcome adversity are arising to work for more social and affordable housing, improved welfare rates, zoning changes to restore retail and treatment centres. Residents are initiating grassroots self-help projects such as the Kalayaan (Freedom) Centre for Filipino Canadians and the intentional cooperative community formed at Jackson and Cordova. Over and over again, community involvement has improved the neighbourhood as residents, with some government assistance, have shown how people can help themselves and each other. From the Kalayaan Centre to the Firehall Arts Centre, from the DTES Heart of the City Festival to the Oppenheimer Park programs and Powell Street Festival, artists, cultural groups and residents are producing art and giving voice to the community. Community ceremonies honour the departed. Powell St. (Japantown) is a vibrant community with a lively cultural life, retired seniors, people on disability, hard working residents, family homes and over 150 children. Powell St. (Japantown)’s long-term residents and artists like to live, work and study in the area for its history; its ethnic and economic diversity; its live-and-let-live spirit and human scale; its quality of life, its cultural wealth and its potential. Consistent with its history, Powell Street (Japantown) is still an amalgamation of communities sharing several city blocks that feature the oldest buildings in the city – including some of its nicest Victorian houses, last of their kind. Here are some of Vancouver’s most storied public spaces and important centres for the Japanese, Chinese, Aboriginal and other communities. Despite the low incomes of the majority of its residents, it’s a functioning and stable neighbourhood. Year after year, it continues to survive and renew itself. The current debate around the area’s future is but a continuation of the story of the place: how does the community share the place and accommodate long-term residents and others who also have a stake in it? To see the full report in PDF format, click here. To read the complete Historical Cultural Review, click here