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March 09, 2006

Ethnic Enclave dying? Who cares?

Hyphen magazine's blog reported recently that San Francisco's Japantown is up for sale. The commercial center of SF J-town is mostly owned by one company, Kintetsu of Japan. Their holdings comprise two malls and two hotels, and there's also an AMC movie theater nearby. The malls house around forty small, Japanese American-owned businesses. Kintetsu is offloading the malls and hotels and AMC is selling the theater ... and the Asian American community feels its center is threatened.

Okay, yawn, who cares, right? I mean we're at war, fer godssake. Plus, you didn't even know San Francisco had a Japantown. Obviously it was pretty much dead already if you didn't know about it. So really, why should you care?

Well, it's not a quick answer. To understand it, you have to know something of the history. You see, SF J-town is only ... already ... a hundred years old. After the earthquake and fire of 1906 leveled San Francisco's Western Addition, a 30-some-block Japantown sprang up like weeds in the cracks. The usually celebrated Federal Housing Act of 1934, an attempt to offer Depression-impoverished whites a new chance, also identified racial districts and made housing loans available to minorities only in their specific ethnic enclaves, encouraging geographical racial segregation. So in the first half of the century, the new influx of Japanese American immigrants found its locus in this district.

In 1942, the SF "Little Tokyo" community was cleared when Japanese Americans on the west coast were rounded up and sent to internment camps. Here's not the place to write about the cultural and personal devastation wrought by this chapter of history. Suffice it to say the JA community never fully recovered. The Western Addition's multicultural Fillmore District, which included Japantown in the north, received a huge influx of African Americans migrating from the South to industrial jobs on the West Coast during WWII; many of them took over areas vacated by interned Japanese. After the war, the Fillmore corridor was largely African American to the south (and thriving at that) and Japanese American to the north.

Thriving or not, the urban renewal projects of the 1950's began a systematic clearing of both the Af-Am and JA sections of the Fillmore, often using eminent domain, which left formerly thriving community members propertyless. Especially when Geary Street was widened into an 8-lane street right at its intersection with Fillmore Street, a huge geographical barrier was driven (literally) between the JAs and Af-Ams. Subsequent organizing in the 1960s slowed the "slum clearances" in J-town, and later investment by the Japanese government and Japanese businesses brought Japanese-American-centered commercial development to the area.

The Asian American Movement of the late 60s and early 70s (modeled after the Af Am civil rights movement) was the background for much of this community organizing. The children of interned JAs who grew up knowing nothing about internment were rediscovering this history and creating a treasury of information, documentation, and cultural expression about Asian American history and identity. In 1971 the city-sponsored Japanese American Community and Cultural Center of Northern California was founded, giving the community a cultural locus and putting the official seal of approval on Japanese American community continuity. By this time, however, most of the JAs had moved out of J-town. J-town became more of a cultural and commercial center than a residential one.

During this time of JA consolidation, the African American community was being displaced by wave after wave of clearings pushing them farther south, into the Bayview district, or containing them in smaller and smaller areas of the Tenderloin and the Fillmore. The still-thriving segment of the African American community moved to the suburbs, especially across the Bay, and the rest were contained in housing-project-heavy areas.

Have a looky here now:


This map shows income levels in San Francisco from the 2000 Census. The darker the green, the poorer the area. The two darkest green values form what is roughly a large "Y" shape on the right half of the map. The upper right tip of the right arm of the Y is Chinatown. Below that , on the diagonal, is the African American and Vietnamese immigrant-heavy Tenderloin (above Market St.) and the South of Market warehouse district (below Market). The trunk of the Y is the Latino-dominated Mission District. the square to the bottom right (off the Y) is the Potrero Hill Projects (Af Am heavy). And the left-hand arm of the Y is the Af Am dominated Fillmore District discussed above. (The poorest, darkest green areas aren't showing up on this map because they are to the south of here.)

Now go back to the tip of the left arm of the Y, where that big Fillmore rectangle of dark green is. It is bounded in the north by Geary Blvd., and just north of Geary is a medium green, medium-income strip, two blocks deep and about ten blocks long, pressured on three sides by the white and tan of upper-income communities, and on one side by the dark greens of the impoverished. Guess what that is. Right, that's Japantown.

What I'm trying to get at is that J-town is that thing, that geographical model minority buffer zone set up between more affluent white communities and impoverished black communities. When you look at Asian American enclaves all over the US, you'll see that they are geographically, literally, buffers between black and white, poor and rich. This was apparent from New Orleans' 30-year-old Vietnamese American community, which was destroyed in Katrina (Wendy Cheng writes about this in issue 8 of Hyphen magazine and you can access maps of racial concentrations here), and it is apparent in every major American city.

When you look at the destruction of traditional Asian American enclaves all over the US, you'll see that they are inevitably inner city or centrally located areas that are being pressured either by financial districts (as is San Francisco's Chinatown) or by wealthy residential areas (as is San Francisco's Japantown). The population of major ports of entry has reached a critical mass. At this point, people care less about their neighborhood being buffered from poor and dark people, and more about having a place to live in at all. Thus, the middle-income, middle class, middle race zone gets pushed out because they can afford (barely) to go elsewhere. Only the wealthy and the destitute (who will be out on the street otherwise, and often end up there anyway) can stay.

Now that we know where the money is, let's look at where the Asians are:


Remember while you look at this: the darker the green, the more Asians. The darkest greens are in the upper right and the lower left. The upper right is Chinatown, where impoverished new Chinese immigrants go, and below that the Tenderloin where impoverished Southeast Asian immigrants abound. The lower left is the outer Richmond, which is heavily middle-class East Asian immigrants, 1.5's and second generation. The dark olives are in the Tenderloin (poor, immigrant Vietnamese) and the heavily middle-class East Asian Richmond and Sunset (lower and upper left).

By the time you get to medium green, you're down below thirty percent Asian. Funny, isn't it? You can still see the little strip of J-town (the little strip of medium green in the center, right where it says "Geary Blvd.") but this time it's not because it's a buffer economic class between rich and poor, but rather because it's a strip of bridge connecting the working class immigrant Asian communities of downtown (right) with the middle class immigrant and second generation Asian communities of the Avenues (left).

(Note: the big divide between upper and lower on the left is Golden Gate Park. There are several arteries through the park, and if you were driving downtown you'd want to go north first, then take Geary through Japantown, into the financial district. It's quicker than going through the hills on the lower center.)

J-town has become a connective corridor.

Before doing this analysis that you see here, I didn't realize that J-town was geographically a bridge between poor, crammed ethnic enclave and wealthy, nominally ethnic suburb, but I was aware that it was exactly that culturally. For years, the pan-ethnic Asian Pacific American community of San Francisco has been using J-town as a center of organizing and meeting for a number of reasons. By virtue of its geographical centrality, it's easily accessible from all points of the city. It's pleasantly middle-class, not cramped and dirty and drearily poor like Chinatown. You can find parking there. Plus you can go there to be entertained. There are bars, restaurants, shops galore, a movie theater -- there even used to be a bowling alley.

But it's not just geographical. Because of the history -- the clearing of the Japanese Americans and their partial return; the city-approved cultural and commercial centers -- J-town has become a kind of cultural/commercial/organizing center for the entire Asian Pacific American community of San Francisco. The J-town merchants have close ties to Asian American organizers and will let us organize cultural events in their commercial spaces. There are several nonprofit cultural organizations with their own spaces in J-town, who produce their own events, activities and classes, and who will offer space to other non-profits for the same purpose. In J-town I've organized and participated in: creative writing classes, a low-income teen web design class, multiracial advocacy meetings, readings, film screenings, dance performances, language classes, bilingual newpaper redaction, zine workshops, panel discussions, angry community town hall meetings, 9/11 vigils, days of remembrance, and on and on. And that's not to mention the karaoke.

Being an in-between class/race, Asian American communities have been pushed hither and yon throughout the last century and a half, now serving as scapegoat, now serving as protection. We have adapted and adapted. Since the late 60s, one of our methods of adaptation has been to form nonprofits which turn the locus of the community culture from a geographical space into a virtual space -- located in the idea of the organization rather than in a particular storefront or building. The internet revolution took this one step further, by placing the idea of the organization online. Asian Americans took to online organizing like fish to water, mainly because we were already organized abstractly, virtually ... because our history in this country has not been a history of owning the ground beneath our feet.

But adapting to geographical containment in this manner is not enough. We stay alive by compromising with racist government policies, but we thrive when we can come together in the flesh. When we have a geographical space to go to, we have an actual connection to people not directly involved in online/virtual organizing, which is necessarily a province of the thriving middle-class, latter generations. Since Asian American organizers were driven out of Chinatown in the 70s by rising rents and evictions, we've lost touch with the poorest immigrants of our communities. But through J-town, which has big Asian grocery chains, big Asian language bookstores, and even Asian-style dollar stores, we can at least connect physically, if only passingly, with all of the Asians, of all classes and ethnicities, in San Francisco. And they, brought near the centers of cultural organizing, have the opportunity to connect with us.

J-town, pushed by the city to become a buffer zone between poor African American Fillmore, and rich, white American Western Addition/Marina, made of itself a bridge between classes. Now that real estate pressure in the city is such that buffer zones are no longer needed or wanted, the city will allow -- or even push -- J-town to die. The destruction of Japantown's commercial center, through a laissez faire policy from the city, would result in a loss of this opportunity for different classes and generations of Asian Americans to connect physically. Whites don't need J-town anymore, but J-town still needs J-town. Because J-town, for a century now, has offered much much more than merely a space for the people who actually live or conduct business there. It's become a center of pride and identity for a community that is still almost entirely ignored by mainstream America at its upper levels, still stereotyped and mocked at its middle levels, and still excluded and disadvantaged at its lowest levels. Asian America still needs to do its thing, and as long as that is the case, we need J-town.

(Check out all this data on American Factfinder, an extremely cool website with maps and data breakdowns of the US Census.)


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Wow, Claire. Thank you for this illuminating post on something (I'm sorry to say) I'd never given any thought to.

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