Vancouver in 1950 had a “grave problem of hoodlumism,” according to the Vancouver Sun. “Gangs of cowardly clowns in zoot suits, tanked full of malevolence and loganberry wine, are defying law and order in the city of Vancouver.” An estimated 10 to 12 neighbourhood-based youth gangs were active in the city, with membership rolls ranging from 20 to 100.
The most notorious gang in 1950 was the North Burnaby Gang from the Hastings and Sperling area, which had around 100 members and was responsible for the spate of violence that inspired the Sun’s profile of gangs. Most of its members sported crew cuts, although some had Mohawks (referred to as “Iroquois” or “Huron” in the paper).
There were other street corner gangs at Nanaimo and Hastings, Main and Twenty-fifth, Commercial Drive (then called “the Drag”), Fraser and Kingsway, and Joyce and Kingsway. An anti-Semitic gang around 16th and Oak was a precursor to fascist gangs that roamed Vancouver in the 1960s.
Young hooligans from both sides of town went to Modernize Tailors in Chinatown to buy “strides” – baggy zoot suit pants tapered at the ankle – which by 1950 accounted for 95% of the shop’s business. Ray Culos, a local historian raised in the East End, recalled in a 1970s interview “wearing those outlandish clothes. I had a hat that was right out of the ‘Li’l Abner’ column, great big hat, and a long fingertip white jacket with great black ’strides.’ I had a 36 [inch circumference] at the knee, and 12 or 13 at the ankle!”
Youth gang activity varied and evolved over time. Many were simply tight-knit groups of friends whose teenage hijinks occasionally got out of hand. Culos remembered doing “things that were on the borderline of being wrong, I suppose. But I don’t remember anything so serious that we would be hauled in front of a judge – it was an attitude.”
Some youth gangs, however, were indeed criminal outfits. In the late 1940s for example, a Fagin-type adult mastermind was reportedly recruiting Vancouver youth and training them in auto and auto parts thefts.
The area now known as the Downtown Eastside spawned gangs consisting of “mostly hopheads and minor felons,” according to the Sun in 1950. The Button Gang was one such group that had recently been broken up by police. They were “minor pilferers” based out of a few hotel rooms, but who didn’t get involved in affrays with other gangs.
Gang violence usually involved fisticuffs with other gangs, but switchblades became more common as the ’50s progressed. In one fight, a Beretta was used. Gang warfare typically took place around dance halls catering to youth, such as Happyland at the PNE, Teen Town at the Victoria Drive Community Centre, and the Alma Academy in Point Grey.
Teenagers not involved with gangs could also find themselves caught up in fights, especially if they ventured out of their own neighbourhoods. One fight outside the Blue Danube at Hastings and Victoria in 1955 ended with the death of 19 year-old Buddy Pearson, a celebrated local boxer. Pearson held his own in a fight against two other boys who taunted him about his curly hair, but died later while being driven home by friends. Police concluded that Pearson died from a boxing-related injury “which could have been aggravated by any bump or knock.”
The Province incorrectly reported that Pearson was “believed to have been one of half a dozen youths who became involved in a fight” outside the club, which suggests how easily teens might be lumped into the category of gangster based on little more than the clothes they wore and the places they frequented. Another fight outside the Blue Danube a couple of weeks later escalated into a riot when 300 boys in zoot suits and girls wearing bobby socks rushed out of the dance hall to join the mêlée. The News Herald reported that it began as retaliation for Pearson’s death, and that “at the height of the pitched battle, one youth shouted ‘Lets get the punks that got Pearson.’” According to the Province, however, relatives of those charged said it had nothing to do with Pearson. His sister insists that Buddy was in no way involved in gang activity and points out that young gangsters and non-gangsters alike all wore “strides,” including the girls. No doubt the media fueled the moral panic about youth gangs and juvenile delinquency through its sensational and not-always-accurate coverage of gang and youth activity.
Another development in the evolution of youth gangs was the advent of “ramblers,” teenagers with vehicles that allowed “flying squads” to quickly and easily intrude on enemy territory. One night in 1947, three truckloads of East Enders headed to Kerrisdale to retaliate for a brawl the night before outside Happyland. Seven police cars and two paddy wagons arrived at Forty-first and Granville to find a crowd of around 300 spectators blocking the street outside Aristocratic Hamburgers as the two factions were preparing to rumble. After about two hours, a police sergeant was able to persuade the East Enders to retreat to their own turf, but nine Kerrisdale youth were arrested for refusing to disperse.
Street corner gangs gave way to park-based gangs in the 1960s. The Riley Park and the Grandview Park gangs were two notorious ones, but it was the Clark Park Gang that police targeted for special attention with a “Heavy Squad” equipped with baseball bats.
The park gang era reached its climax at the Rolling Stones Riot in 1972 at the Pacific Coliseum. A revolutionary Marxist gang from East Vancouver called Youngblood had, according to the Province, teamed up with the Clark Park Gang to orchestrate the riot. Thousands of fake tickets were printed and sold, creating an angry mob willing to fight its way into the show. The subsequent fracas included not only fisticuffs, but molotov cocktails and a homemade bazooka that shattered the sternum of a police officer with a railway spike. It ended with twenty injured police and two bomb throwers in jail.
Two decades earlier, BC Senator Tom Reid warned that members of troublesome “zoot suit bands” would be “among the first to join any Communist movement in Canada,” and that they should be given the lash when found guilty of any offence as a deterrence. The Rolling Stones Riot was the closest Reid’s fears came to materializing, and the gangs plaguing Vancouver since have been decidedly capitalist.
For more on Vancouver’s youth gang history, see Michael G. Young “The History of Vancouver Youth Gangs: 1900 – 1985″ (PDF)