By Jon Osaki
Shattered tiles, forced removal, and broken promises. To those unfamiliar with San Francisco Japantown, some might think that the Peace Plaza is just another open space in the City. But, the cold, hard scape of the current design, is an unremarkable feature of a neighborhood that has never truly healed from the tragic history surrounding the plaza and all it represents.
A precious opportunity has finally emerged to turn the Peace Plaza into the type of open space that has been long awaited by the Japantown community. A complete redesign and renovation of the plaza is within reach if it remains one of the projects prioritized in the San Francisco’s Health and Recovery Bond that is being considered by the Board of Supervisors in June and eventually the voters in November. If successful, the bond allocates $25 million for Peace Plaza and would transform it into a multi-use open space that will be a critical center piece to the long-term sustainability of Japantown.
The Peace Plaza renovation project is not only vital to future of the community, but also deeply symbolic of the plight and struggles of San Francisco’s Japanese American community. As the first port of entry for Japanese into America, San Francisco is home to the first Japantown in the United States. When Japanese Americans were forcibly removed from their homes and incarcerated during World War II, the vast majority of possessions and property were lost forever.
When finally released from their imprisonment, many Japanese Americans returned to San Francisco and began to rebuild their shattered lives. Slowly homes were re-acquired and businesses reopened. Eventually, the population of Japanese residing in Japantown climbed back to near pre-war levels of approximately 5,000 residents and over 100 businesses. After years of struggle, Japantown finally re-emerged as a focal point for San Francisco’s Japanese American community. However, while Japantown was being re-established as a bustling, ethnic enclave, forces were in-motion that struck another devastating blow to the neighborhood.
Shortly after the end of WWII, policy makers and corporate interests targeted San Francisco’s Western Addition, which included Japantown, for redevelopment. The Western Addition, with a politically weak population of Japanese Americans and African Americans, was viewed as a prime location to create an expressway from the City’s westside to downtown. Though hailed as an opportunity for renewal, redevelopment ultimately resulted in a second forced removal from Japantown.
From the mid-1960’s through the mid-1970’s San Francisco’s Redevelopment Agency would invoke the legal instrument of eminent domain to forcibly evict thousands of Japanese American residents and businesses in the name of Urban Renewal. In the process, homes and commercial properties which would be worth millions of dollars in today’s real estate values were forcibly acquired for whatever the Redevelopment Agency offered. Japantown’s Peace
Plaza was built during the Area-1 (or A-1) phase of the Western Addition’s redevelopment on the very location where Japanese Americans were evicted from their homes and businesses.
After decades of wear and persistent leaks into the garage below, an attempt was made by the City to repair and renovate the plaza in 2001. What began as a genuine community effort to improve the plaza, which included major contributions from Japantown groups, businesses, and the Japan Center Garage Corporation, eventually fell apart. In the City’s haste to complete the project, the voices of community input were ultimately dismissed, and the plaza was redesigned based upon the preferences of City officials.
To add insult to injury, when it soon discovered that the construction of the redesigned plaza was flawed, the City proceeded to file a legal suit against the contractor. A settlement was reached, but the dollars recovered by the City quietly disappeared into San Francisco’s coffers. For decades, the Peace Plaza remained neglected and was allowed to deteriorate into a soulless, concrete symbol of Japantown’s dark and often forgotten history.
As Japanese Americans have always done, our community has made the best of the plaza. Though flawed and wrought with memories of displacement, the Peace Plaza has become the community’s gathering place. It serves as an essential location for Japantown’s festivals, celebrations, and historic commemorations. The Peace Plaza has been used to announce political campaigns, organize rallies and as a play space for the children of the community.
While the plaza provides a vital open space for Japantown, it could be much more. It could be a renown cultural attraction which brings visitors who patronize our local businesses. It could maximize opportunities for events and activities which support Japantown’s community organizations. It could be a tranquil slice of culture and history that draws families back to the neighborhood from which they were once expelled with nothing more than a worthless certificate of preference.
According to the Census, Japantown’s residential base of Japanese has declined by over 80% as a direct result of San Francisco’s redevelopment era. Those families and businesses will never return to this area and having the means to bring people back is critical to the economy of this neighborhood. The Peace Plaza is an essential aspect of Japantown’s future and having an open space which is fully functional and culturally appealing is vital to the long-term economic viability of the community.
San Francisco’s Recreation and Parks Department, which owns the Peace Plaza property today, has finally stepped forward to make things right. For the past several years, the SFRPD has supported a comprehensive planning process that has involved hundreds of community members and produced a design that finally reflects Japantown’s vision for the Peace Plaza. Today, our community has a shovel ready project that needs only the Board of Supervisors and the voters to fully understand and appreciate the opportunity it has before them.
While most do not dwell or even remember the fact that the City forcibly acquired ownership of the area where the Peace Plaza was built, San Francisco’s Japantown community believes it is time to make amends. Community members have witnessed massive City investments made in other parts of the Western Addition as restitution for the mistakes of redevelopment. Our community understands that San Francisco has many urgent priorities, particularly with the COVID-19 crisis, but Japantown has waited decades to have an open space that represents the needs and character of our neighborhood. The Japantown community has been more than patient and the inclusion of $25 million for the Peace Plaza finally represents a long overdue chance to heal.
Jon Osaki is the Executive Director of the Japanese Community Youth Council and Co-Chair of the Peace Plaza Committee.