A little over two months ago, Japantown lost a dear friend, Al Gordon, too soon, as it always is. Al was a very special friend to Nihonmachi Little Friends (NLF), and therefore a special friend also to the many children and families touched by the history and spirit of our 1830 Sutter Street building, and of the Issei women of the former Japanese YWCA who created it as their legacy to the community.
Al never got the public recognition he deserved, as it was not in him to seek recognition or praise, but all of us who worked for six long years to keep the Issei women’s gift alive know that Al was as responsible as anyone for saving the former Japanese YWCA building for our community.
In 1996, when the San Francisco YWCA announced its intent to sell the 1830 Sutter building for commercial development, evicting NLF and the other tenants in the process, our community came together to try to save the building. As a volunteer with Kimochi, which was thinking about buying the building, Al reviewed the building’s historical records, searching for documents evidencing the community’s involvement and contribution to the building’s construction in order to offset the SF YWCA’s asking price.
Al had a near photographic memory, which let him remember the myriad details of the boxes of historical records he reviewed. But more than that, Al understood what he was reading. He recognized that these records revealed a long-forgotten promise: To avoid the Alien Land Law, the Issei women of the Japanese YWCA had created a trust allowing the SF YWCA to hold paper title to the 1830 Sutter property for the benefit of the women and girls the Japanese YWCA served. Al correctly grasped the larger history and community story of the trust’s creation behind these sketchy records.
Although more evidence was uncovered during the six-year struggle, including the diaries of one of the Japanese YWCA’s founders, the documents Al unearthed, and his keen sense of their meaning, remained the heart of the case to reclaim the former Japanese YWCA property for the community.
In 1996, NLF faced eviction and the loss of one of its preschool sites. Today, as the building’s owner and caretaker, NLF tries every day to honor its inheritance of the Issei women’s gift by planting a small part of that legacy in our children, the seedlings of our future. For this we can thank Al for his insight and generosity and remember Al for his own gift to our community’s history and future. Al will be missed.
Cathy Inamasu is the executive director of the Nihonmachi Little Friends. She wrote this piece on behalf of NLF and its 1830 Sutter Street Committee.