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- Little Tokyo
The following text is excerpted and edited from an interview with Naomi Hirahara, author of the book "Green Makers: Japanese American Gardeners in Southern California." We talked about the history of the Southern California Gardeners' Federation:
"At one time [in the 1950s] there were about five to eight thousand Japanese American gardeners working in Southern California, so they created the Gardeners' Federation. It was basically so they could mobilize, as it was a time in history where they felt discriminated against by tests and licensing requirements -- they felt they needed to come together in numbers to contest this. They used it to train each other, and to get medical insurance. They officially incorporated in the 1950s, and then they eventually appropriated on the fringes of Little Tokyo, sometimes called Toy Town.
"It was like any membership club -- as a member you would get discounts on gardening equipment, on pick helmets, fertilizers, and they would have contracting classes so that you could get training on pesticide use. And they would sell 20 pound bags of rice.
"The Federation was a meeting area. There was at one time about 23 associations all throughout Southern California. But this was the central meeting area, so they would have these official meetings and they would use Robert's Rules -- they were very official. I had to give a report when I did my book, and I felt like I was in a congressional hearing because I had to use a microphone. Other regions had their own buildings, but most of the time they would meet here in Little Tokyo.
"[The Gardeners' Federation] still exists, although there's not as many Japanese American gardeners. It's really important for the survivors, like the widows of gardeners, because they are still on that medical insurance. They still participate in the community in various cultural events in Southern California.
"The Southern California Gardeners' Federation actually has prime real estate in Toy Town, but because of diminishing numbers, and now with Home Depot and these big box companies, there is no need for a cooperative. So they now are looking for someone to lease their space, not the whole space, but some.
"I think just like other industries, the children of the gardeners have chosen not to stay in that profession. And in fact, in terms of the gardeners, they did not want their children to be maintenance gardeners. It's one thing to be a landscape architect...
"It's an industry where people get their start, and now you have immigrants from other countries that are starting out in that profession. All you need is a beat up truck -- although nowadays they have nice trucks -- but back then a beat up truck and a push mower and you're okay. These days you need a little bit of a nicer truck and a little bit of a nicer landmower, but if you're a hard worker, it was all up to you, how much you work and how much you made."
Photos by Justin Cram