As we continue our year-long series profiling Vancouver’s neighbourhoods, an obvious question comes up: How and when did these neighbourhoods come into existence?
You might be inclined to believe the city drew up the boundaries about 100 years ago, but you’d be wrong — as I clearly was.
Digging into the creation of Vancouver’s neighbourhoods has involved a bit of sleuthing. There is clearly some institutional memory loss, but luckily we have knowledgeable people living in our midst. I contacted Gordon Price, former city councillor and treasure trove of neighbourhood information, who sat on council from 1986 to 2002. He supplied nuggets of information, but suggested I talk to former NDP MLA Darlene Marzari, who sat on council in the early 1970s. She had even more information, but said Margaret Mitchell, a social activist who pioneered community development in Vancouver, was the person to contact. Mitchell, who later became an NDP MP from 1979 to 1993, told me about a man named Ernie Hill.
The first official map defining the city’s neighbourhoods can be credited to Hill. He was a social planner working — not for the city — but for United Community Services, better known today as United Way. Neighbourhoods weren’t official until 1964 when Hill introduced a local area approach to planning in Vancouver to decentralize workers and coordinate services within 22 local areas. Hill’s criteria to establish the boundaries took into account the location of community centres, libraries, schools and post offices to create neighbourhoods that were manageable in terms of the planning and delivery of services. After extensive consultation, the boundaries he created have remained the same since 1967 when the city’s population hovered around 410,000. (As of 2011, the city’s population was 603,502.) Consistent boundaries enable the city to track demographics and how neighbourhoods change over time. The c ity has ordered and published census data on those boundaries every census since 1971.
But I asked Mitchell why the city didn’t take responsibility to define the neighbourhoods? “They weren’t interested in that,” Mitchell says. “They were only interested in getting freeways through the city and ruining neighbourhoods like Strathcona... [the United Way] assumed planning responsibilities in those days and then it eventually shifted over to the city.”
That the divvying up of the city into defined neighbourhoods came from the head of planning at United Community Services shouldn’t come as a complete surprise, given the United Way has always played a role bringing together government, universities, advocacy groups and community leaders to bring about social change.
Mitchell recalls Hill having a good a sense of humour, an ability to work with people at the grassroots level while being a smart “decision maker.” “He worked at it from the point of view of bringing agencies together,” recalls Mitchell. “He was involved in the physical planning, not the neighbourhood involvement. That’s what I did.”
Hill’s work supplied a geographical template for Mitchell’s work and helped coordinate funding and workers from different agencies. After surviving ovarian cancer in the 1960s, Mitchell focused her efforts on helping people to organize and improve life, particularly in the city’s poorer neighbourhoods and within social housing complexes such as Little Mountain, the city’s first public housing project. “The goal was to engage poor people, especially single mothers,” said Mitchell, now 87. “They were people with no voice but lots of potential but were not recognized because they were poor.”
Mitchell published a 107-page “community development scrapbook” in 1975 titled Don’t Rest in Peace — Organize that looked back on almost five years of community development neighbourhood by neighbourhood until the city withdrew funding for area councils on the recommendation of the city’s social planning department. The “scrapbook” is gold mine of information for anyone interested in community building and what the city’s neighbourhoods were like in the early 1970s. Mitchell’s lifelong goals have always been to empower citizens, democratize services and create community. (You can read her life story in No Laughing Matter, which she published in 2008.) Four decades ago, her focus was empowering people living in poverty. The demographics of the city have changed considerably since 1970 and a newer challenge is to engage and empower immigrants who speak English as a second language or don’t speak English at all. It’s fairly common to hear people in Vancouver complain about certain ethnic groups failing to show interest in their neighbourhood or in community building. Does it really just come down to a language barrier? Of course not. Mitchell, however, thinks it’s a two-way street.
“Maybe it’s longtime residents not interested in getting to know newcomers,” says Mitchell. “You always have to take the initiative. If only we could encourage that as a way of life.”
Words to live by — no matter what language you speak.