THE GREAT DIVIDE: Community discusses redistricting in S.F.’s Japantown

San Francisco Board of Supervisors Working Draft. courtesy of San Francisco Redistricting Task Force

Concerned members of the Japantown community and those of neighborhoods surrounding the ethnic enclave met on Feb. 3 to discuss the potential redistricting boundaries of San Francisco’s voting districts.

One of the proposals suggested drawing a boundary that would result in the area north of Geary Boulevard leaving Japantown’s District 5 for District 2, which includes Pacific Heights and the Marina.

Every 10 years, the U.S. Census Bureau compiles data about “the nation’s people and economy.” The city must then determine whether its supervisorial districts “meet the legal requirements established by federal, state and local law,” the City of County of San Francisco Redistricting Task Force states. If the districts do not comply with these requirements, the task force must redraw the lines, the process which is known as redistricting.

The new boundaries will also affect San Francisco’s supervisorial districts for the next 10 years, prior to this year’s elections.

About one dozen people attended the meeting, which was held at the National Japanese American Citizens League headquarters in Japantown. The attendees included: District 1 Supervisor Eric Mar, and Calvin Welch and Fernando Marti from Community Unity, an informal coalition of community-based organizations organized by the San Francisco Information Clearinghouse (where Welch and Marti are employed).

Three proposals on the voting boundaries concerning Japantown were discussed during the two-hour meeting. The proposals include: keeping Japantown in Supervisor Christina Olague’s District 5, moving the ethnic enclave north to Supervisor Mark Farrell’s District 2 or moving it west to Mar’s District 1.

The Great Divide
Throughout the meeting, Japantown community members emphasized that Nihonmachi should not be split by Geary Boulevard. Jon Osaki, executive director of Japanese Community Youth Council, questioned the motivation for drawing that boundary.

Richard Wada, a member of the Japanese American Democratic Club, called it a “convenient place” for redistricting planners. “It wasn’t always a freeway. It’s a border imposed by redevelopment,” Wada said, referring to the government-led effort which forced much of the ethnic enclave’s residents and merchants out.

“Squiggle the (voting) lines all you want, as long as we (the Japantown community) can have a legal foothold,” said Bernard Choden, an experienced city and regional planner.

Choden stressed that Japantown must organize and be willing to show that it has the resources to take action by going to court to secure the lines it wants.

Historically, both sides of Geary have been a part of Nihonmachi’s history. Rose Hillson, a Japantown advocate, noted that Japantown incorporates both the northern and southern sides of Geary Boulevard.

“For a long time, Japantown has been associated with the Fillmore District,” she said. “Businesses like Yoshi’s and the Rosa Parks Elementary School are a part of Japantown. That part of this history should be retained.”

The Japanese Bilingual Bicultural Program at Rosa Parks Elementary School has its roots in preserving the Nikkei cultural identity.

“We’ve had a relationship (with the Fillmore) since after World War II and after redevelopment,” added Hiroshi Fukuda, board president of the Konko Church of San Francisco. “Our community interest lies in District 5, not in District 2 with Pacific Heights and the Marina.”

The Divisive Issue
What was more hotly debated, however, was where Japantown would go if it does not join District 2. The city is required to distribute the population equally.

According to the city charter, population variations between districts should be limited to one percent of the statistical mean “unless additional variations, limited to five percent of the statistical mean, are necessary to prevent dividing or diluting the voting power of minorities and/or to keep recognized neighborhoods intact; provided, however, that the redistricting provided for herein shall conform to the rule of one person, one vote, and shall reflect communities of interest within the City and County.”

Mar said he would welcome the Japantown community, should they be open to the idea. As for “maintaining ethnic communities, I hope you would be open to District 1,” he said.

Mar said that the ethnic communities within his district would share interests with those of Japantown. According to Mar, District 1 encompasses many working class families and neighborhoods of many former immigrants. He said he would be a “strong advocate for keeping Japantown together.”

Karen Kai, who moderated the meeting, noted that Japantown’s inclusion in either District 1 or 5 remained unclear. People were in disbelief upon hearing that Japantown was proposed to be in District 2, she said. They were, however, willing to entertain the idea of the ethnic enclave joining District 1, she added.

Welch, who said he was part of the first redistricting committee in San Francisco in the 1970s, stressed that progressive neighborhoods must come together and secure six districts with progressive votes to maintain a majority in city hall.

“We need an 11 district plan that gives at least six community-oriented supervisors which can collectively support each other and maximize,” he said.

“Communities that are strong will not be split by political boundaries,” he said. “Japantown is going to be Japantown. The question is, what politics will be in play.”
By including Japantown in District 5, Welch said the boundary between District 5 and 8 would have to be moved. Japantown, he argued, should move to District 1 if District 5 was unable to accommodate it.

Robert Sakai, former owner of the now closed Uoki Sakai grocery store in Japantown, expressed concern about a potential move from District 5 to District 1. “We’re close to collapsing. We lack the strength to keep Nihonmachi together. If things don’t work together, we will cease to exist,” he said. “It’s gotten weaker … we need all the help we can get.”

Patricia Scott, executive director of the Booker T. Washington Community Service Center, was also hesitant about Japantown’s potential relocation to District 1. The community service center was previously located in District 5, but was placed in District 2 after the 2000 census. Scott said her voice was marginalized, as most of the people she served out of the 800 Presidio Ave. center were constituents of District 5. Scott said that Booker T. and Japantown have worked closely together in the past, and maintains that both the center and Japantown belong in District 5.

At a Feb. 6 meeting with the Redistricting Task Force addressing District 2, community members Robert Rusky and Karen Kai argued to include Japantown in District 5, Rusky said in an e-mail. The task force agreed and moved the current proposed boundaries for District 5 up to Pine Street between Gough Street and Steiner Street. The new boundaries are similar to those currently proposed by the independent community committee that Welch and Marti are a part of, though their map extends up to California Street. The aforementioned boundaries, however, do not include the Booker T. Washington Center and the Westside Courts public housing, the latter of which is located on Sutter Street.

In another map produced on Feb. 4 by community members of Japantown and the surrounding Fillmore area, the District 5 proposal extends up to California Street and includes Booker T. and the Westside Courts public housing.

The Redistricting Task Force must present a final plan, which outlines the new supervisorial district lines, to the Board of Supervisors by April 15, 2012.
Those gathered at the meeting on Feb. 3 decided to hold an informational meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 6:30 p.m., at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California, 1840 Sutter St. The meeting’s organizers encouraged community members to attend the meeting to learn about redistricting and provide feedback on the boundaries.

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  1. […] of the San Francisco Redistricting Task Force will hold a community meeting Feb. 29 to discuss the effects of the redistricting as well as ask for the neighborhoods’ input on the […]

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