Gangland Vancouver

North Vancouver, 1958, by Fred Herzog

North Vancouver, 1958, by Fred Herzog

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.

From the window of Modernize Tailors, a photo showing the "drapes" or "strides" that were the store's bread and butter in the 1950s.

From the window of Modernize Tailors, a photo showing the "drapes" or "strides" that were the store's bread and butter in the 1950s.

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!”

"Zoot Suit Yokum" from Al Capp's Li'l Abner, April 1943

"Zoot Suit Yokum" from Al Capp's Li'l Abner, April 1943

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.

Local boxer Buddy Pearson died after a fight outside a dance hall at Hastings & Victoria. Photo: News-Herald, reprinted in Inside Fighter: Dave Brown's Remarkable Stories of Canadian Boxing by Tom Henry (2001, Harbour Publishing)

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)

19 thoughts on “Gangland Vancouver

  1. Great history lesson, thanks.

    Damn Zoot Suit Kids 😉

    Too bad gang violence has escalated dramatically since those days.

    • This blog should be cited as a fine example of the what not to believe on the internet. So many errors, so little time. First of all Buddy Pearson did not take part in a gang fight outside Happyland but rather in an altercation of shoving after two youths teased him about his blond curly hair outside the Blue Danube Hall on east Hastings (Vancouver Province March 5, 1955). He died from an aneurism, a congenital brain defect that could have happened at any time. He had nothing to do with gangs and there was no retaliation fighting the next day. Strides were worn by most of us, even the girls, and one didn’t have to be a gang member to go to Modernize Tailors. Finally, the photo shown here is NOT of Buddy Pearson and I should know because I am his sister. Please amend this.

      • ivy, if buddy pearson the boxer was your brother, then we are related as he was my dad’s cousin. i did not know that he had a sister.

      • Hello Ivy,
        I think my dad (Ted) just left a comment on here for you about us being cousins. We are doing our family tree and would LOVE to have to have a chat with you either by email or phone. My email address is:
        Looking forward to hearing from you. Shirley

      • Hello Ivy
        We have been doing a little research on family history and by researching Buddy Pearson your name came up in an article. We knew Buddy’s sister’s name to be Ivy.
        Perhaps we could talk with you sometime by email. We are your cousins from Kirkland Lake, Ontario. Perhaps you might remember us – Your Uncle Johnnie’s family.

    • Hi Ivy.
      Thanks for your comments. I appreciate your criticisms and would be happy to do an update. That’s actually one of the things I like about using the internet: unlike books or other traditional media, it’s not written in stone and is easily corrected. And once in a while someone like yourself steps up with knowledge about a story to point out errors, which is less likely to happen in the normal course of research or if it were published in some history magazine or book.

      I’m generally pretty careful about sticking to what my sources say, but like any historian, that means what I write will reflect any errors in fact or interpretation contained in those sources. Unfortunately, newspapers are the main source for the stuff I write about, and they can be very unreliable at times, as reporters working on deadlines and with an eye to selling papers too often rely on stereotypes, assumptions, and sensationalism. And of course, like anyone, I occasionally make mistakes.

      In this case, I used an article from the News Herald (26 March 1955) entitled “300 Teenagers in Riot over Fighters Death.” Here’s the full excerpt relating to your brother:

      The fight is believed to have broken out over the death last month of outstanding Canadian boxer Buddy Pearson, 19, who died after reportedly being involved in a battle with a gang of youths following a dance at the same hall.

      Police found the boxer had died of an old ring injury which could have been aggravated by any bump or knock.

      At the height of the pitched battle, one youth shouted ‘Lets get the punks that got Pearson.’”

      So yes, the retaliation fight wasn’t the next day as I wrote, but according to the News Herald, there was one weeks later. I’ll check out the Province article you referred to, (hopefully tomorrow), and see what the Sun has to say before making an update.

      I’m actually working on another piece that will clarify that not every young person who wore strides/zoot suits, liked swing music, or socialized with groups of friends at cafe’s or dance halls was a thug, criminal, or street fighter. I didn’t actually write that everyone who shopped at Modernize was in a gang, but I see how that impression comes across.

      As for the photo, I got it from the Vancouver Public Library. A search for “Buddy Pearson” brings up 3 photos, and they all look like different kids. “Child boxer” turns up 6 photos attributed to Ray Munro from the Province and the same date. If you wouldn’t mind taking a look and seeing if one of them is indeed your brother, I can simply replace it. Otherwise I can just remove the photo.

      Thanks again for your feedback.

  2. So happy to find a new article on your site, they’ve been all too infrequent.
    Very interesting, as always.

  3. Pingback: Street Fighting Men « Past Tense

  4. This is much better Lani and I thank you for trying to give this subject a bit more balance. However, from what my family learned of the night in question, no blows were ever exchanged by my brother and the others, only a lot of shoving. But, then this might be subject to interpretation. As a teenager growing up in those times I can only remember some faint reference to the subject of gangs; they certainly were not front and centre in the consciousness of anyone I knew. A friend of ours, Jim Johnson, was the mayor the Teen Town on Victoria Drive and I plan to send this on to him to hear what he has to say on the subject. We were mostly pretty peaceable kids looking for a dance on a Friday night – by today’s standards downright boring. By the way, On Wo was another good place for strides and a little less expensive than Modernize. Ivy (Pearson) Pye

    P.S. I, too, am an alumnus of S.F.U.

  5. I’d like to thank you by name in a book I am writing because I found your blog most helpful when writing one of the stories set in 1950s Vancouver.

      • I’ll send you an invite if I have a launch in Vancouver. The book, called Floating Like the Dead, comes out next spring with McLelland & Stewart. And “Spring-Blade Knife,” is the story your blog helped me with a great deal.

  6. Pingback: The Rolling Stones Riot, Vancouver, 1971 « Shrine of Dreams

  7. Omg! How the memories come flooding back. The only one you missed was the murder at Kitsiliano Beach in the 50s where a whole bunch of people stood by while the fellow was beaten to death. I do remember the accused dedicated his eyes after death. Do you have any recall of this or could you find out some news on this as I was there.

    • Hi Charlene, I don’t recall that incident, but I’ll see what I can dig up. From what I do remember when researching this is that the papers in the 1950s were pretty dense with reports of zoot suit shenanigans and seemed to blame every petty crime by anyone under 25 on zoot suiters, so it’s not surprising that a serious incident failed to stand out in all the hoopla.

  8. Hi Charlene, I lived close to Kits beach where I believe Bill Graham was the fellow who kicked another guy to death right on the beach in front of a large crowd of people in the 50s. Graham’s sister was present as well, urging her brother to kill the other fellow. Yes you are right he did give his eyes to be donated to the blind. GRAHAM WAS INTOXICATED ON ALCOHOL AS I REMEMBER. ( whoops cap locks)……It stands out in my mind that my mother was thoroughly disgusted that not one person stepped in to stop it. I found out later from people that were present at the time, were threatened, not to interfere or they would get the same treatment, as Graham had some hooligan friends watching. If my memory serves me well I believe that is some of the facts surrounding that murder case. Near as I can remember the year was between 56’and 59′.

  9. Pingback: Early Vancouver Youth Gangs | Past Tense

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