When I first came to California I was warned to be careful about certain neighborhoods. I didn’t know what it meant until I heard about a tourist being robbed on a quiet street in San Francisco. He was surrounded by a group of little boys between eight to ten years of age each wielding weapons in broad daylight. I learned that the word “neighborhood” meant a lot more than a place where friendly neighbors live close to each other.
A neighborhood can be a territory with a definite boundary that is to be defined fiercely. The boundary is defined by social, economic, ethnic, sometimes religious and many other factors. Each neighborhood has its own history and ethos. Some neighborhoods are sunny and open while others are bitter and closed. I quickly developed that extra sense of detecting and avoiding hostile neighborhoods. Urban survival depends on it.
Then this summer, an incident happened in Buffalo, New York that made me think about the people who cannot afford but to live in neighborhoods where they are harassed for who they are.
The story is about an eighteen year old boy who was taking his girlfriend home. About a dozen boys attacked him with pieces of concrete block and racial slurs, “You don’t belong here.” “Wrong color!” “This is our ‘hood” and “Leave our women alone.”
Paramedics found the boy motionless on the pavement. He had his head cracked open. He had been stomped and kicked in the face so badly that his own father, an unemployed construction worker, could not recognize him. The young man’s name is Brian Milligan.
Brian survived the night of August 13 and is recovering. He is going to stay in the neighborhood because that’s where he lives with his parents. He is white. His girlfriend, Nicole Fletcher, also eighteen, is black. Brian is going to finish his high school education however long it might take. He and Nicole are still together.
Their story has only begun. As I wish them, the 21st century Romeo and Juliet, a truly happy ending, I think of some of the Japanese experiences in America I learned to relate. Historically in America, Japanese were not welcome in many neighborhoods. I am told that in Berkeley, for example, we were restricted to the area south of University Avenue and west of Shattuck. Even to that prescribed area, returning from concentration camps after World War II was not easy for the people of Japanese ancestry. Please do not correct me when I call it concentration camp. A relocation or internment camp does not have barbed wires all around it and guard towers with guns aimed at the people inside. Actually some of the guns fired and killed inmates deemed worthless. But that’s for another story.
The depth and intensity of seething bigotry that continued even after the war can be imagined when we read that a state senator urged the senate to keep California free of Japanese. It wasn’t so preposterous an idea at the time that the opposition had to bring in a wounded war veteran who was Japanese American. Los Angeles had its elected mayor who famously declared that no J[aps] were allowed back into his city.
Yet Japanese Americans returned and settled in any neighborhood they could afford. They started from scratch, many of them as gardeners. Did their children roam the streets in resentful despair? No, they went to school and stayed in school. They learned patience from their parents. Their parents and grandparents chose not to dwell on the collective memories of being spat on or having a warehouse or a barn burned at midnight. They had their eye on the future.
I do hope that Brian and Nicole will have the strength to be above the senseless strife and not fall into the cycle of violence and revenge. I hope they will build their life together, in their neighborhood, sound and intact. Real heroes are the ones, like our numerous nameless Japanese parents, who work quietly and courageously in the neighborhoods.
Kimi Takemura is the former Nichi Bei Times Berkeley Branch chief. The views expressed in the preceding commentary are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.