Rebuilding a Neighbourhood

Concerns about the existence of slums in Vancouver were often expressed but rarely acted upon before the Second World War. One main reason, or excuse, for inaction was that there was no political will or ideological inclination to build social housing, so clearing away slums would simply reduce the overall housing stock and exacerbate the housing problem. And of course the depression years were not conducive to increasing government expenditures, for either social housing or slum clearance.

During WWII however, Canada took an abrupt socialist turn and established Wartime Housing Ltd., which built 25,000 homes for war workers nation-wide and another 25,000 for veterans after the war. Peacetime social housing however, as we think of it today, didn’t appear on the Vancouver landscape until the 224-unit Little Mountain project opened in 1954.

One of the more significant contributions to the slum clearance/social housing movement came in 1950 from University of British Columbia professor Leonard Marsh. In contrast to the passionate housing campaign led by Alderman Helena Gutteridge in the 1930s and 1940s, Marsh’s approach was that of a dispassionate social scientist. With the war over and the economy expanding at an unprecedented rate, the time for an ambitious and very modern solution to the problem of innercity slums seemed ripe.

The Regent Park housing project in Toronto had been completed shortly before Marsh began his study and was the first major social housing project in Canada. Rave reviews of Regent Park can be found in Leonard Marsh’s papers at UBC Special Collections, although a massive redevelopment scheme that will take up to 15 years is currently underway to rebuild it and make it liveable.

Although slum clearance is often associated with the political right, early proponents like Helena Gutteridge and Leonard Marsh were firmly on the left. After being steeped in the Fabian socialism associated with the London School of Economics in the 1920s, Marsh was recruited to head up McGill University’s new Rockefeller-funded program dedicated to studying Canada’s political economy, the Social Science Research Project, in 1930. As an intellectual left-wing breeding ground at a university where the Chancellor was also the head of the CPR, the program was eventually deemed too radical and was terminated in 1941.

Marsh then went to Ottawa, where he produced two works that have been considered major contributions to Canada. His 1940 Canadians In and Out of Work has been called a “neglected classic” and is the first major scholarly study of Canada’s national class structure, predating John Porter’s Vertical Mosaic by a quarter of a century. Marsh’s 1943 Report on Social Security for Canada was ignored by the government of the day, but later served as the blueprint for Canada’s postwar social security system.

After joining the UBC’s School of Social Work in 1947, Leonard Marsh turned his attention to Vancouver’s slum district in the East End. His report, Rebuilding a Neighbourhood: Report on a Demonstration Slum Clearance and Urban Rehabilitation Project in a Key Central Area in Vancouver, was also ignored by government when it was released in 1950, but would later be dusted off and used as the blueprint for slum-clearance.

One lasting consequence of the Marsh Report was that it rechristened a large portion of the East End “Strathcona,” taking the name from the elementary school. The boundaries Marsh set for Strathcona, as the object of his redevelopment proposal, “comprises about forty blocks east of Main Street, bounded by Hastings East, Gore Street, Glen Drive and the False Creek Flats.”

Strathcona wasn’t the worst slum area of the city, but was chosen because of its “critical town planning importance,” i.e., its strategic location in proximity to the waterfront and the central business and commercial districts, as well as being on the edge of that “ugly and badly-developed waterway,” False Creek.

Although Leonard Marsh was progressive for his time and his report a sincere attempt to improve the living conditions of the East Enders, many of his observations and conclusions about the area would make any city planner, heritage buff, or social activist of the postmodern 21st century cringe. What we would call green space, density, and mixed-use development, Marsh calls empty lots, over-crowding, and confused land use.

As an historical document, the Marsh Report provides a rare glimpse into mid-20th century Strathcona. Although Marsh’s clinical outsider perspective dominates the report and its conclusions, it also draws on a door-to-door survey that was conducted in approximately 70 per cent of the area. Below are photos that were taken around 1947 to illustrate the report. Click on the images to enlarge. Compare your own impressions with those in the captions.

2 thoughts on “Rebuilding a Neighbourhood

  1. Hi Lani,

    my name is Myron, I am working on my History PhD thesis on Vancouver’s “Urban Indians” at the University of Cologne and while doing online research I stumbled upon your website. It is hard to find secondary sources on Vancouver’s local history (especially when there is an ocean and an entire continent in between), so I am thankful for everything of high quality I can find online.

    I just wanted to say “thank you”,
    good luck with your historiography project!


  2. Thanks Myron.

    I can imagine how the distance would make your research challenging. That’s partly why I chose to focus on what was outside my front door for my grad research.

    I’m interested in hearing more about what you’re working on, and might be able to point you to some more sources. You can email me at laniwurm[at]gmail[dot]com if you like. cheers,

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