Make Way For The Freeway
You won’t find the Rose-Blanshard district on any 21st-century map of Victoria – but that doesn’t mean that it should be forgotten. Fifty years ago, the area north of the Memorial Arena, between Bay and Hillside, was a neighbourhood of small wooden houses built between 1890 and 1910, and carved into cheap apartments. But in the 1950s the City of Victoria, like many municipalities in North America, became interested in “urban renewal” programs, which maintained that crime and delinquency could be eradicated if “slums” were torn down and replaced with modern subsidized housing – and Rose-Blanshard became the city’s target.
(At left is a map of how the area's laid out today, and how it appeared in the 1960s, when Rose and McBride streets still existed. Thanks to John Bryant and Western Geographical Press for letting me use these images.)
Was Rose-Blanshard really a slum? Its houses were certainly old, but many who remember it say the district was mainly occupied by pensioners and working-class Chinese, Polish, and Italian families. “It was one of the most cohesive neighbourhoods we had,” says Niels Knudsen, who worked for the city’s engineering department at the time. Rose-Blanshard, he says, was a place of weddings, street parties, boulevard trees, and backyard vegetable gardens. “Considering the rest of Victoria, it wasn’t substandard. It was where you started in Canada. It was affordable housing.”
The city had different ideas. In 1961, the Capital Region Planning Board named Rose-Blanshard as the blighted area in the city most in need of urgent renewal, and listed nine reasons for the decision. Number One: “It contains a high concentration of the worst quality houses which are beyond rehabilitation.” Number Nine: “There is a need for low-rental housing.” Most telling were Numbers Three and Eight: “A major road, Blanshard extension, is required through the area,” and “When Blanshard links with the Trans-Canada and Patricia Bay highways, a new demand for motor-hotel use will be created in this area. Small lot ownership would hamper private land assembly.”
The city applied for federal and provincial funding for the renewal scheme, and in 1967 it got underway. The city contracted a retired navy commander, Harold V.W. Groos, to be its “information and relocation officer,” and his men went house-to-house, clearing out the neighbourhood. They offered owners a paltry $5,000 for their properties – and if tenants refused to leave, officials took crowbars to the doors (photo right) and evicted them. Over the next two years, the city bought and bulldozed more than 100 homes.
The city did build some new social housing: in 1970, it opened the Blanshard Court project, and the 184 units quickly filled up with grateful people who’d been living on social assistance. But that benefit had come at a considerable price. According to a 1973 UVic study, the pensioners and families who’d been forced out of Rose-Blanshard had to pay an average of 40% more for rent in their new residences. And much of the vanished neighbourhood, of course, is now occupied by a six-lane thoroughfare lined with strip malls.
PS A fascinating 1964 film about a similar urban renewal program in Vancouver is posted on Gordon Price's blog here.