The City of Vancouver will likely vote Wednesday on naming its first street for a Black woman — but the path to Nora Hendrix Way illustrates the contentious politics behind place-naming.
Council is being asked to approve a recommendation by the city’s Civic Asset Naming Committee to name a road being created for the new St. Paul’s Hospital after Nora Hendrix.
The grandmother of famed musician Jimi Hendrix, Nora was an important member of Vancouver’s Black community. She co-founded the Fountain Chapel — the city’s first Black church — and was a cook at Vie’s Chicken and Steak House, both key parts of the city’s Hogan’s Alley community eventually displaced through development and construction of the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts.
“We wanted to recommend a name that was relevant to the neighbourhood,” said John Atkin, co-chair of the city’s committee.
“Having the street pretty much point at the chapel … Nora Hendrix Way will be, I think, a really good honour.”
However, one of the largest groups that advocates for Vancouver’s present and past Black community isn’t particularly happy.
Lack of consultation
“I’m trying to find something positive to say here,” said June Francis, co-chair of the Hogan’s Alley Society.
For years, the organization has been negotiating with the city over the revitalization of the area, lobbying for the creation of a community land trust when the viaducts are torn down.
Francis said the city’s asset naming committee didn’t consult with them on the name recognition. She worries that the naming of a one-block street for Hendrix “boxes us in” for greater recognition of her. And she’s concerned that the city will stop actively engaging with the Black community after the work of a street name is done.
“They want to get a big, symbolic pat on the back for Black History Month,” she said.
“And they’ve done it in a way to give themselves credit without truly making fundamental and substantive changes. And we’ve said to them symbolism is not what we’re looking for. We’re looking for real change.”
Francis said council should only approve the change if there’s a full commitment to work with the Black community in the area going forward — and doesn’t believe that bar has been met.
“If the city is intending to redress the displacement of the Black community, they cannot possibly redress it by ignoring and erasing us again.”
Atkin said the committee reached out to the Hogan’s Alley Society early in their process, but admitted there wasn’t formal consultation.
He pointed out that since the committee was formed, Vancouver had made strides in naming more civic assets for women and people of colour that contributed to the city’s history.
“When the committee is looking at new street names, one of the real considerations is trying to make it specific so that it’s relevant to the site and also getting away from the previous practice of just naming stuff after people that might be important to the history of settler Vancouver,” he said.
Amina Yasin, chair of the Canadian Institute of Planners social equity committee, said in general municipalities haven’t moved beyond symbols like place-naming when it comes to grappling with historical treatment of marginalized groups.
But she said those symbols do matter — provided they are done in consultation.
“Naming exercises are an important pastime and practice for Black communities spanning back to the African continent,” she said.
“So, yes, it would be significant to have a street named, but it would have been a great joy for the Black community, rather than an act of symbolism, if we were actually consulted.”