A lane by any other name
City leaving colonial era to honour lives of marginalized communities and people of colour
Shirley Jepson-young stands in the West End lane that is now named after her late son, Dr. Peter Jepson-young, who was diagnosed with HIV in 1986 and continued to advocate for the community until his death in 1992.
Two lanes in the West End will now bear the names of beloved neighbourhood figures, including Dr. Peter Jepsonyoung, who was diagnosed with HIV in 1986 and continued to advocate for the community until his death in 1992.
Vancouver still has a long way to go in order to have street names reflect the multicultural history of the city, and that of marginalized communities, said one city planning expert.
On Tuesday, Vancouver city council unanimously approved a motion to name two West End lanes after prominent locals: Dr. Peter Jepsonyoung and Vivian Jung.
“It’s just wonderful. Peter would be thrilled,” said his mother, Shirley Jepson-young, who still helps out at the Dr. Peter Centre, located behind the lane that bears his name, at Thurlow and Comox St.
“He was a young man who just loved being a doctor. He lost his vision after being diagnosed with AIDS but that did not stop him from helping others,” she said.
The Dr. Peter Centre was created in 1997 and today provides housing and care for hundreds of people living with HIV/AIDS.
Renaming the lanes is part of an initiative by the city of Vancouver to honour the lives and stories of city residents, including people of colour and from marginalized communities. In contrast, many of the city’s most prominent streets are named after white Anglosaxon men from the colonial era. Experts acknowledge the city has a long way to go if it wants to represent its diverse history.
Jung was the first Chinese-Canadian teacher hired by the Vancouver School Board. She also broke the city’s segregation policy for pools by swimming in a West End pool at the same time as white people. That’s why it’s so fitting that the lane will now bear her name, said John Atkin, chair of Vancouver’s civic asset naming committee.
“The lane is quite related to both her connection to the pool and a significant change in civic policy, but also to her family, who lived nearby,” the historian said.
Diversity is an important part of his committee’s mandate in naming new city streets and buildings, he added. But some critics say a bigger shift needs to happen.
Vancouver street names as a whole should reflect the city’s residents, both past and present, said Andy Yan, director of Simon Fraser University’s City program.
“It shows you the work we have ahead of us,” he said.
Less than 2 per cent of Vancouver’s streets and civic assets are named after women, Atkin confirmed, and even fewer are named after people from minority groups. There are a handful: a street in Vancouver’s new River District neighbourhood called Jack Uppal St. was the first in the city to be named after a South Asian person. City council approved that motion in 2016. That same year, Shanghai Alley in Vancouver’s Chinatown was given the moniker Lilian To Way.
Yan says dialogue about renaming streets is long overdue. He pointed out many of Vancouver’s streets are not named after people, but are instead numbered avenues or named after trees. He suggests they could be renamed.
Atkin acknowledged it’s not unheard of for governments to rename entire cities or neighbourhoods. But those kinds of shifts usually happen after a revolution or societal shift, he said. Russia and much of East-
ern Europe did exactly that after the fall of communism, he said.
Renaming streets can bring up logistical headaches for politicians who attempt it.
“If you rename something you’d have to rename not just the physical street but you’d have to change B.C. Assessment databases, map databases, city databases — there’s a cost to that,” Atkin said.
That’s why renaming city assets is not within his committee’s mandate, Atkins said.
And even when politicians do suggest a new name for an existing building or street, it may backfire.
Six months ago, a Vancouver School Board trustee suggested renaming the one-yearold Crosstown Elementary School after Won Alexander Cumyow, the first Chinese-canadian person born in B.C. There was significant opposition to the idea: School board trustees voted down the motion after dozens of parents signed a petition calling for them to do so.
Atkin suggested a gentler option: adding descriptors to street name signs. For new streets, such as Jung Lane, the descriptor would honour their contributions. For existing streets with names such as Trutch or Dunsmuir, the descriptors would make it clear that these people were responsible for abhorrent policies, he said.
Joseph Trutch was “a colonial official who was responsible for severely reducing the reservations for Indigenous people,” Atkins said.
“He did things that nobody would be proud of.”
For now, the city has only approved descriptors for new streets. The Jung Lane sign will read “barrier-breaking teacher” and Jepson-young sign will read “AIDS activist, educator.”
Ultimately, Vancouver is a city of newcomers, Yan stressed, and from a city-building perspective, street names are one way to shape the story a city wants to tell the world.
“How we name our streets is a statement of who we are and who we were and who we want to be.”
Shirley Jepson-young stands in the West End lane that will be named after her late son, AIDS activist Dr. Peter Jepson-young.
Bob and Shirley Jepson-young hold a photograph of their late son, Dr. Peter Jepson-young, at their North Vancouver home on Wednesday.