#61 Street fighting men
The Last Gang in Town: The Epic Story of the Vancouver Police vs. the Clark Park Gang
by Aaron Chapman
Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2016
$24.95 / 9781551526713
Reviewed by Lanni Russwurm
First published Dec. 8, 2016
In The Last Gang in Town, Aaron Chapman tells the story of the Clark Park Gang, named after their hangout in Clark Park at East 14th Avenue and Commercial Drive in East Vancouver.
Reviewer Lanni Russwurm traces the background and early years of the “Clark Parkers” in the 1960s, determines their part in the Rolling Stones Riot on June 3, 1972, when dozens of Vancouver Police were injured, and discloses the secret and comprehensive undercover response to the gang by the VPD — Ed.
Aaron Chapman’s latest foray into Vancouver’s history, The Last Gang in Town: The Epic Story of the Vancouver Police vs. the Clark Park Gang, deals with juvenile delinquents and the police who chased them nearly half a century ago.
The backdrop of Vancouver in the late 1960s and early 70s is almost as interesting as the main subject in that it shows us a city that has practically ceased to exist. Back then, this was a low-rise, working class town. The now-ubiquitous Vancouver Special house type hadn’t yet taken over like an invasive species, and even regular people could afford real estate, at least east of Main Street.
For some folks, like the mayor at the time, most of the city’s problems could be blamed on the draft-dodging, grass-smoking hippies who colonized Kitsilano, hawked copies of the Georgia Straight newspaper in Gastown, and loitered on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery.
But Chapman isn’t concerned about the exotic hippie counterculture. Most of the teens who populated the Clark Park Gang had long hair, but would be better classified as greasers or rockers: working class, dyed-in-the-wool East Vancouverites, usually clad in mackinaw jackets and Dayton boots. To overcome boredom and avoid dysfunctional home environments, they spent their time in the park, drinking, fighting, and engaging in various other shenanigans of often dubious legality.
Several neighbourhoods boasted their own park-based youth gangs, but by the turn of the 1970s, the Clark Parkers had reached the apex of park gang infamy.
The book begins with the pre-Expo 86 social landscape of Vancouver, followed by a chapter on the Juvenile Detention Home, where wayward teenagers could network and school each other in criminality. Chapman then briefly surveys the evolution of Vancouver’s mid-century youth gangs preceding the park gang era, such as the zoot suiters of the 1940s and the 1950s gangs with names like the Alma Dukes.
In the chapter entitled “The Good Old Bad Old Days,” we are treated to the quirky history of Clark Park itself before meeting the hooligans who made it their headquarters in the 60s.
The story really gets going in the aftermath of the 1972 Rolling Stones riot, one of several riots detailed in the book. Its origins appear to lie with a Marxist-Leninist group called the Youngbloods that tried to ally with the Clark Park Gang to storm the gates and/or fight the cops.
The Clark Parkers were invited to the Youngbloods’ activist house where they were plied with beer and weed, but the apolitical gangsters weren’t enticed by the revolutionary rhetoric enough to stick around once the refreshments ran out.
Unfortunately, no surviving Youngbloods or activists from the (apparently) affiliated Georgia Grape newspaper (founded by former Georgia Straight radicals) were tapped to clarify (or obfuscate) what role the Youngbloods actually played in the riot.
Considering that the police blamed the Clark Park Gang for orchestrating the riot and essentially used it to justify starting their own gang war with them, it’s not an unsubstantial omission.
The police response to the riot was to ramp up their efforts against the Clark Parkers. Burly cops with undercover experience were recruited to a new, dedicated “Heavy Squad,” or H-Squad. Dressed in typical East Vancouver attire, H-Squad members threatened, harassed, and occasionally assaulted Clark Parkers.
Surprisingly, as Chapman reveals, H-Squad was formed with the blessing of the provincial Attorney General. We can only hope that this police response illustrates what a different world Vancouver was than the city we know today. Indeed, Chapman notes that one factor leading to the demise of H-Squad was a dramatic shift in the local political culture when progressive social democratic parties ousted old school conservatives from power both municipally and provincially in 1972.
The heat from H-Squad didn’t scare the Clark Parkers straight, as perhaps was intended, but it did bring some blowback from neighbourhood parents who were tired of their offspring being profiled and harassed, as well as activists who used their access to the Georgia Grape to publicize the bullyboy police tactics.
Of course, other residents were elated that something was being done to combat the petty crime, noise, and violence that was now associated with Clark Park.
The story climaxes with the fatal shooting by police of a 17-year-old Clark Parker, followed by a legal drama that demonstrates the polarization of public opinion on the issues raised by the Clark Park Gang saga. The author follows the court in concluding that the shooting was accidental, but to his credit lays out the evidence (and lack thereof) so that readers can draw their own conclusions.
The book’s greatest strength is the wealth of primary source material used to tell the tale, especially extensive interviews with both police and Clark Parkers. Having researched this topic before, I can attest that the available documentary record of the Clark Park Gang has increased exponentially with the publication of The Last Gang. Declassified police files and photos of the Clark Park Gang and H-Squad further round out this history to make it more accessible to the reader.
Chapman does a fine job of weaving the extensive but sometimes inconsistent and contradictory testimonials of aging baby boomers recalling events from over four decades ago into a coherent and compelling narrative.
Readers looking for an entertaining true crime story as well as those seeking a deeper historical meaning or a better understanding of their city alike will find The Last Gang a worthwhile and enjoyable read.
Lani Russwurm researches and writes about Vancouver history for his Past Tense Vancouver blog. He is the author of Vancouver Was Awesome: A Curious Pictorial History (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2013) and has contributed to numerous local publications and history projects, including Vancouver Confidential (Anvil Press, 2014).
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