In 2013, I wrote about this photo (above) that I found while working at the CBC Archives. It was one of a series of images shot by CBC Vancouver contract photographer, Franz Lindner, in 1960 as part of an assignment to illustrate a CBC Times (programming guide) feature for a radio documentary on drug addiction in Vancouver. At that time, I focused my research on figuring out where this photo was taken (218 East Georgia Street) and if the building still existed (it does).
This first pass at research/inquiry satisfied me at the time and I put the story on hold for a few years. However it was consistently on the back of mind and I was always keeping my eye out for and collecting any piece of information I could find on Sarah and her café in my research travels. I wanted to know who Sarah Cassell was and how did she, and her café, fit into the (hi)story of Vancouver. This historic area of the city (Hogan’s Alley/Strathcona/Chinatown) is full of tales of strong women who had their own businesses – Rosa Pryor, Viva Moore, Leona Risby, to name a few. Well here is the story of another one – Sarah Cassell.
Around 1957, Sarah’s Cafe opens at 218 E. Georgia, a 3-story wood frame building built in 1906. Mrs. Sarah Cassell is listed in the directory as the proprietor. She operates her café here – serving “full course meals & de-luxe hamburgers” until around 1962/63. However, this is not where Sarah Cassell’s story in Vancouver begins. It starts a few years earlier, around the corner at the Stratford Hotel.
From the 1920s to the 1970s the Stratford Hotel (at the corner of Gore and Keefer) was a popular temporary home to loggers and other workingmen while they were in the city during the off-season. It should also be noted that for a period of time during the 20th C, the Stratford was one of only two hotels that admitted black guests in Vancouver.
The Stratford Grill was a street level (619 Gore) café that was part of the Stratford Hotel building; serving both hotel residents and the general public. According to the 1951 City Directory the proprietor of the Stratford Grill was James M. Cassell who resided at 1152 Richards. Sarah Cassell’s death certificate (via BC Archives Vital Statistics) lists James M. Cassell as her husband at the time of her death in 1989. What is intriguing, however, is that this is the only time that James Cassell appears in Vancouver directories, he seems to completely drop out of the picture (almost as quickly as he appeared). He does not appear to be living in Vancouver past 1951, nor prior to 1951 for that matter. James Cassell is also not mentioned in Sarah’s obituary in the Vancouver Sun. The following year, 1952, Mrs. Sarah Cassell is listed as the proprietor of the Stratford Grill and she stays as such until 1956 when she opens the self-named Sarah’s Cafe at 218 E Georgia.
Sarah Cassell was born Sarah Jane White on January 10, 1910 in Tuitts village on the Caribbean island of Montserrat. How and where she spent the first 40 years of her life is not known. It is also not clear from the information I have gleaned so far, when exactly Sarah arrived in Vancouver. Sarah Cassell does not appear in the city directories prior to 1952. This, combined with the information about James Cassell from the 1951 city directory, suggests that Sarah Cassell did not arrive in Vancouver until 1951 or 1950 at the earliest. Her obituary states that she ran Sarah’s Café from 1951 to 1984. So it is likely she was running the Stratford Cafe along with James Cassell, and then took over the entire business after he left town for whatever reason.
From 1951/52 to around 1961 Sarah Cassell is living in a row of houses at 703 Dunlevy St., right across the street from McLean Playground. Also living at 703 Dunlevy is David White a CPR Porter and Sarah Cassell’s son. Eventually this entire square block (along with 3 others) was demolished to make way for the MacLean Park housing complex forcing residents to find alternate housing. In the early 1960s (around 1962), Sarah Cassell and her son David move from their home on Dunlevy to 239 Union Street, directly above Valery’s Chicken & Steak House (241 Union).
Ms. Cassell runs her cafe featured in the photo by Franz Lindner at 218 East Georgia for 7 years. When the restaurant space below/beside her home becomes available around 1963, Sarah’s Cafe moves to 241 Union Street. Prior to that time, this location had been the home of Valery’s Chicken and Steak house for about 12 years run by a woman named Valery Nechia (yet another story!). Curiously, for the last year that Valery was running the restaurant at 241 Union, it was called Todd’s Café. According to the city directories by 1962 Valery Nechia was now a widow, living in Mount Pleasant and was now working as a dressmaker.
For about 20 years, from 1963/64 until 1984, Sarah Cassell runs Sarah’s Cafe on Union Street and lives above. During much of this time Sarah’s son David is also living with her and working at Canada Post (and helping out at the restaurant on occasion).
OK, enough of the tangible facts. I now knew how Sarah fit into her neighbouhood physically – living and working within a boundary of a few blocks starting in 1951. But what about the intangible facts? What was Sarah Cassell like as a person? What did she look like? And what was it like to eat at her restaurant? Surely, there would be more information out there? How does someone live and operate a restaurant in a neighbourhood for over 30 years and not leave an impact?
I started to scour online and printed resources about the area and the neighbourhood. No mention of Sarah and her cafe. Some expert assistance was needed. I contacted writer Wayde Compton who, among many other things, co-founded the Hogan’s Alley Memorial Project. While Wayde did not have any personal experience with Sarah Cassell or her cafe, he said that his mother recalled going there. He then suggested I contact Elwin Xie, who grew up on Union Street in the 1960s and 70s and who’s family owned and operated Union Laundry at 274 Union St. [Side note: Elwin’s father, Harry Yuen fought the City’s expropriation of his property until the bitter end]
Elwin told me that his first experience with western food was at Sarah’s Cafe, specifically he recalls he had his first taste of french fries at Sarah’s. Elwin said it was a really a treat eat at her cafe, as it was a big change from his mother’s Chinese home cooking. Elwin recalled that Sarah ran her cafe as a one-person operation, she took the orders and then went to the kitchen to prepare the food all to a soundtrack of county music (CKWX) playing on the radio.
Elwin remembers Sarah as a kind woman in a wig (not uncommon for many women of that era to wear wigs of convenience) who would always ask after his mother. Elwin told me that Sarah would get her cafe linens laundered at Union Laundry. Often, Elwin was charged with picking up or dropping off laundry for Sarah’s Cafe. Even after his father’s laundry business was expropriated and torn down to make way for the Viaduct, he still had contact with Sarah. He assisted her during her move from Union Street to Bill Hennessey Place housing on Jackson St. in 1984. This is the same time that Sarah closed her cafe business at the age of 74, likely due to health reasons.
I recently participated in a Hogan’s Alley walking tour – part of the Heart of the City Festival – lead by Randy Clark who grew up in the neighbourhood in the 1960s. He talked about Sarah’s Cafe which was located directly across the street from the house he lived in with his family:
“[His] grandmother’s place [Vie’s Chicken and Steaks] operated in the evening and Sarah owned the café and the only other person I ever saw working in Sarah’s café was her son (David). So Sarah ran that café , for the most part, on her own and it was quite a neat establishment for people who worked during the daytime and lived during the daytime. Whenever we wanted french fries during the daytime prior to the restaurant being open in the evening, we went across the street to get them from Sarah’s. It was a great place and obviously was impacted also by the transition of the new viaduct coming into this area.”
I am sure Randy is right in saying that Sarah must have been greatly affected by the stress of seeing her neighbourhood being ripped apart (literally). Starting with the development of the McLean Park Housing development, through to the construction of the Viaduct. It takes a strong person to continue carrying on in the midst of chaos and division. And that is exactly what Sarah did, running her business though the 1970s and into the 1980s.
After trying many different search phrases, and drilling down deep, I finally located other recollections of Sarah and her cafe online. In 2009, George Lee made a comment on the Hogan’s Alley Project blog post on Vie’s Chicken and Steak House:
“Does anyone remember Sarah’s Cafe…? It was a one story house made into a cafe and her son worked for the Post Office. I used to have lunch there all the time and I’ll always remember her as a very jovial black lady. A lot of the police and city workers used to eat in the back rooms.”
Contemporary Cree artist, Judy Chartrand, lived on Union Street as a child in the 1960s. On the “Family” page of her website she recalls:
“Our house was located two doors down from Sarah’s Cafe, a small business owned by a Black woman who used to give us candy. I don’t remember ever going into her cafe to eat, probably because we were so poor ourselves.”
So far we can establish that Sarah Cassell was a kind and friendly woman, who worked hard, was independent, strong and resilient. She had two children and was not only a grandmother, but also a great grandmother with many friends. Her long-running cafe served the residents of this working-class neighbourhood and those that worked in the area during the day (perhaps even the construction workers building the viaduct across the street?). Since her business operated during the daytime, it didn’t attract the lively nighttime crowd that a place like Vie’s did. Therefore, there are no mythical tales of a young Jimmy Hendrix coming in for a burger and fries, or late night visits from visiting Jazz musicians. It just wasn’t that kind of place. Sarah’s Cafe was the place in the neighbourhood to get, as Randy Clark said, your “daytime fries” and simple cafe fare served with a smile. But that doesn’t mean Sarah’s story is less worthy of telling than any other story from the rich history of this neighbourhood.
I am sure there are more stories and memories of Sarah and her cafe out there. I still have many more questions than I do answers. So if you have any memories or photos of Sarah Cassell or her cafe please let me know, I’d love to hear from you!
It’s funny how one thing leads to another (and another, and another…) You are researching one topic, and then you are led down a completely different path of discovery. I love that! It is exciting, but it can also be time consuming. What started out several years ago with a single photograph from the CBC Vancouver Archives turned into another tale of Black Strathcona.