Plan for commemorative garden draws mixed reactions


Proposed Issei Commemorative Garden. by Shigeru Namba

Proposed Issei Commemorative Garden. by Shigeru Namba
Proposed Issei Commemorative Garden. by Shigeru Namba

As part of the 110th anniversary of San Francisco’s Japantown, the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California proposes to build a Japanese garden commemorating the Issei pioneers that settled in the neighborhood after the 1906 earthquake. Following a July 7 meeting, the community center held a second informational meeting Aug. 11 at the cultural center to solicit public comment. The garden, however, faces some opposition from a few neighbors living near the proposed garden’s site.

According to Paul Osaki, executive director of the culture center, San Francisco’s Japantown once spanned some 30 square blocks in the Western Addition neighborhood. The community was twice uprooted; first by the mass incarceration of Nikkei during World War II and then again starting in the 1960s through urban redevelopment.
Osaki said thousands were forced to move and nearly 300 businesses were lost due to redevelopment. “One of the only things that was spared was the Cottage Row Historic District,” he said.

The Bush Street-Cottage Row Historic District is a cluster of homes and cottages dating back to the 1870s and recognized in the National Register of Historic Places. While not historic itself, the district includes a city-owned lot that has since become a mini-park under the care of the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department. Osaki said the neighborhood, spared from redevelopment, would be the only part of Japantown that Issei would recognize if they were to see the neighborhood today. Osaki said he hopes to build a park there to “enhance the historic designation of the park” by publicly recognizing the historic Nikkei presence in the district.

To aid in installing the project, Osaki said the garden will be designed pro bono by landscape gardeners Shigeru Namba, who designed the private Japanese garden for Oracle CEO Larry Ellison’s estate, and Isao Ogura, who worked with Namba on the Tanforan Assembly Center memorial.

Osaki shared images drafted by Namba on the garden’s conceptual design. The garden would feature a formation of large rocks simulating a waterfall on the left side and a rock wall simulating the stone foundations found in Japanese castles.

“The idea behind (the stone wall) is, … it took an entire community to build those castles,” Osaki said. “And it was the Issei that helped bring the community together to build the foundation of what we call Japantown today.”

The rest of the garden, Osaki said, will use drought resistant plants and require minimal maintenance. It will incorporate up to two cherry blossom trees and two Japanese pine trees.
Osaki told the Nichi Bei Weekly he estimates the project will cost around $30,000 and the garden would be constructed with private donations. The ongoing maintenance would be handled by the city after construction.

While the installation of the Japanese garden hinges upon the city reviewing and approving the project, Osaki said he hopes to dedicate the park by the end of this year within the 110th anniversary celebration. “I hope to be able to do it while some of the Nisei generation is still around, some of the people who actually grew up here,” he said.

According to the Recreation and Parks Department, the city is currently waiting for a “final proposal” from the community that establishes “broad neighborhood support and consensus.” A statement from the department said the project sponsors must work with the city supervisor’s office and “other key stakeholders” to produce the final proposal.

Many of the comments made during the meeting favored the garden, with people saying it provides a physical historical reminder that the neighborhood had once been inhabited by Japanese Americans who were forced out by the wartime incarceration and redevelopment. However, a few residents in the historic district also spoke out against the plan.

Marvin Lambert and Mary King, who have lived together on Bush Street within the historic district since 1986, said Osaki had no right or basis to construct the garden in the mini-park. Lambert disputed the Nikkei presence on his block and King said Osaki had not been interested in the park up until recently, when it was beautified by the city.

“We worked so hard to get this park to where it is and it is difficult and painful to have someone try to piggy-back on our efforts, no matter how well-intentioned he is,” King said in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei Weekly. King had helped organize community cleanups of the park and said she was part of meetings discussing future plans for the mini-park over the years.

King contends that the Japanese garden is “inappropriate for the space and would be better suited for a location closer to Peace Plaza where it would be adjacent to other memorials of historical value to the Japanese heritage.”

Lambert disputed Osaki’s claim that Cottage Row lies within Japantown and had once been known colloquially as “Japan Street” at the meeting. Lambert and King say any project commemorating the historical residents of the neighborhood should include the founders, Japanese Americans, African Americans and gay residents in the neighborhood who lived in the area throughout its 140-year history.

Osaki defended the Nikkei ties to Cottage Row saying the 1982 historic district’s nomination form is factually accurate and added he was open to examining the garden within the context of a larger project commemorating the area’s other residents when it is formally proposed. “When that time comes for a larger usage plan of the park, then there can be a discussion,” he said, adding the Japanese garden would take up only a small portion of the mini-park.

Osaki also told the Nichi Bei Weekly the meetings were open to the public and that if other residents had criticisms, they should have submitted their comments indicating so.

Following a door-to-door inquiry of the historic district, the Nichi Bei Weekly found two other residents who expressed reservations with the garden’s plans, one over the city’s ability to maintain a Japanese garden and the other over whether the Japanese garden would thematically fit the current character of the neighborhood. There were also a few residents in favor of the project.

According to the Recreation and Parks Department, it is up to the project sponsors to schedule any additional meetings to address the project, though staff will attend to answer any questions.

One response to “Plan for commemorative garden draws mixed reactions”

  1. Phyllis Joseph Avatar
    Phyllis Joseph

    I strongly support the Cottage Row Issei Garden Project. The exile and displacement of these families deserves to be memorialized.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

See the 2024 CAAMFest