When I was browsing through a fascinating, very early fire insurance map book of Vancouver in UBC’s rare book room, recently, I noticed a label that took me aback: “Negro Ill Fame”. I knew what “ill fame” denoted (a ‘house of ill fame’ or prostitution). However, the location of the house struck me as peculiar.
This post is a record of what I’ve learned about the house of ill fame to date. It is not the ‘last word’ regarding the house (I hope!). This post is intended to strike up a historical conversation on the subject.
Here is what I think I know, as of now:
- It was located, east/west, about halfway between Carrall and Columbia Streets and north/south about a block south of Pender, just about where Keefer would ultimately be.
- It was a wooden structure, and larger than I would have expected (compare it with other ‘DWG’s (dwellings) and the Chinese laundries in the same alley).
- It was near the ‘shore’ of False Creek. (The infill of the False Creek seems to have been a more gradual enterprise than I had formerly thought. Compare the shorelines in 1889, 1901 and 1912 maps).
- It appears to have been accessed via an un-named alley (at least officially un-named; perhaps locals had a name for it). ‘Canton Alley’ and ‘Shanghai Alley’ were nearby. But this lane seems to have been nameless.
- The block of Pender running parallel to the lane-way had a reputation for being a neighbourhood in which one could readily find a house of prostitution. These houses, however, to the best of my knowledge, were racially non-specific.
- It appears to have lasted in this location just a brief time. This may have been because the area was taking on an increasingly Chinese flavour and becoming, later, a rail hub for the Great Northern Railway (GNR). It could also be that the location was found to be unsuitable for attracting the clientele the house was, presumably, targeting (black males). It could be that this segment of the population was increasingly being pulled away from this area, perhaps attracted to what would gradually become Hogan’s Alley – southeast of this location, roughly at Main and Prior.
- The proportion of Blacks in B.C. in 1901 was much less than 1% (0.003%). I’m assuming that since Vancouver was the largest urban centre by that year, that the proportion was about the same for the city.¹
- No photos of the house nor its neighbours seem to be avaiable in public archives.
¹The same source, BC Black History Awareness, shows that population demographics for blacks in BC, as a proportion of the total population, have remained substantially less than 1% throughout census-taking history in B.C. (1871-2016). Indeed, the number of blacks in B.C. only began to exceed 1,000 in 1961. (Thanks to Jenn Friesen for asking a series of questions that led me to pursue this info).