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Growing Up Japanese American in Crenshaw and Leimert Park

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39th Street Elementary.JPG
Thirty Ninth Street School, Los Angeles, Grades A1 & B2, May 1958 | Photo: Courtesy of Evelyn Yoshimura and Bruce Iwasaki (pictured left of the teacher)

For close observers, signs of a Japanese American presence are visible throughout the Crenshaw district. Tract homes with finely sculpted Japanese gardens. The Asian-inspired architecture of the Crenshaw Square shopping center, home to Tak's Coffee Shop. A scattering of Japanese American small businesses and organizations along Jefferson Boulevard between Crenshaw and Arlington, including a longstanding credit union, a senior citizens center, and the dormant site of Grace Pastries.

All are testament to an ethnic community currently comprised of roughly 1,000 residents in and around the district, but once home to the largest concentration of Japanese Americans in the continental United States a half-century ago. The story of Crenshaw, which began as a segregated and restricted white neighborhood before World War II, provides a window into the rise of Los Angeles as a global city defined by a poly-ethnic culture.

While Crenshaw would later become known as a predominantly African American and increasingly Latino neighborhood, Japanese Americans stood at the forefront of the drive to break down racial exclusion and restrictive covenants in the years following World War II. At a time when nonwhite residents routinely experienced discrimination when seeking homes and mortgages, Kazuo K. Inouye launched the Kashu Realty company. The year was 1947 -- one year before the landmark Shelley v. Kraemer ruled state enforcement of racial covenants unlawful. His pursuit of customers coincided with a desire to bust open previously all-white blocks for Black, Japanese, and Mexican American homeowners.

In a 1997 interview conducted by Leslie Ito for the Japanese American National Museum, Inouye, an honorably discharged veteran of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, recounted, "I was overseas, and I killed a bunch of Nazis and fought for democracy." He went to war with America's enemies, but remained incensed with the "red neck senators" and racists who forced him and thousands of other Japanese Americans to be incarcerated at Manzanar. "I got a German luger that I brought back," he once declared to a white rival realtor, who tried to prevent a Japanese American family from moving into their recently purchased home. "I'm going to shoot you between the eyes."

Inouye was a member of the Nisei generation -- the children of Japanese immigrants -- whose lives were uprooted by the wartime internment order. The Nisei would come to be portrayed as quiet, passive "model minorities," seeking assimilation into the white American mainstream. Their reality was far more complex and contradictory.

The old Kashu K sign on Jefferson Blvd | Photo: Google Maps
The old Kashu K sign on Jefferson Blvd | Photo: Google Maps

True, many experienced a degree of upward mobility and acceptance that allowed them to move to suburban areas and have professional careers in ways that transcended the overt white supremacy they once endured. But the majority of Nisei kept Japanese American family, friends, and community institutions at the center of their lives.

Postwar Crenshaw epitomized the Nisei quest to move away from the old ethnic ghetto of Little Tokyo, while establishing new roots in the Westside. Their pattern paralleled that of pioneering African American homeowners, who first concentrated in the Central Avenue district, then moved near USC before World War II, before reaching Crenshaw and Leimert Park in the late 1940s and 1950s.

Growing up in Crenshaw was at times a trying experience for the children of the Nisei, known as the Sansei (third) generation, generally born during the baby boom era. But for most it was a unique and memorable experience. I spoke with three Sansei who moved to Crenshaw as young children when much of the district was still majority white. They later came of age during the turbulent 1960s, as Crenshaw became a national model for racial integration and a hub of black and Japanese American political activism.

During the 1950s, Sandy Maeshiro (b. 1949) moved with her family to a small "Spanish-style" house in the "Avenues" section of Crenshaw centered on the Jefferson business strip, where a wide range of Japanese American businesses were congregating. "There was a lot of white flight," she recalled.

Even at an early age, racial tensions were notable. "I had friends of all different backgrounds," Maeshiro stated. "But on my block, my best friend was a black girl who lived down the street. There was a white family, and they would let me in the house but not her."

Soon enough, that white family and most other whites moved away. "I heard them saying it was changing, so they had to move," she said. "Every time somebody moved, they were replaced by an African American family."

Like many Nisei dispersed by the internment, Evelyn Yoshimura's parents returned to L.A. in 1951 following a temporary stay in Denver. Similar to national patterns, white flight emerged in Crenshaw only after white resistance failed. Born in 1948, Yoshimura told me, "I remember distinctly driving around Crenshaw near Dorsey [High School] and this white lady telling us, 'We don't sell to Japs.'" While her parents were not wont to object openly, she recalled her mother referring to their antagonist with the Japanese words for "white witch."

Yoshimura's longtime friend, Mike Nakayama (b. 1948) began school at Sixth Avenue Elementary when most of the student body was black or Japanese American. While in second grade, his family moved to Leimert Park, where relatively upscale homes sat on the "good side" of the tracks south of Exposition.

This short move was a journey into a brand new social environment. Unlike the "Avenues" section of Crenshaw, Leimert Park and areas near Baldwin Hills had recently begun to be integrated or had not begun at all. "The Jungle," Nakayama recalled, "that used to be all white." Experiencing culture shock, he remembered thinking, "I am not white, and I will never be what everybody is saying is the ideal."

The kindergarten class at Cienega Elementary, 1958 | Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library
The kindergarten class at Cienega Elementary, 1958 | Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library
A class photo from Virginia Elementary School. On the far right is the first grade teacher who taught at this school for 14 years, 1946-1950 and 1953-1962. Located on the far left is Bessie Bruington-Burke, the first Black teacher and later the first Black Principal of the whole West side. 1954 | Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library

But Leimert Park was in the midst of demographic change too. Nakayama reflects on his experience at 39th Street School. "By the time we got to the sixth grade, there were only four or five white students." When he matriculated at Dorsey High, "They told us that we were the most integrated school in the United States."

The Japanese Americans integrating Leimert Park were a mix of educated professionals, shopkeepers, and gardeners. Business establishments like the famed Holiday Bowl and Crenshaw Square, both unprecedented Nisei developments, also began to take root to serve the rising Japanese American and increasingly multiethnic population.

Their black neighbors comprised an even more diverse grouping, as popular artists like Ella Fitzgerald and Nancy Wilson settled into choice homes. When Yoshimura moved to a house on Hepburn Avenue, she was one block over from Nakayama and one block down from Ray Charles. Though she was "more into Motown," Yoshimura recognized his piano playing as she walked past his house coming home from school. Recounting a more vivid tale involving the blind musician, Nakayama swears, "I've seen Ray Charles drive a white Cadillac."

Maeshiro's family moved to Leimert Park in 1960. "Mayor Bradley lived down the street," she recalled. "We used to see him every day."

Bradley was one of the first nonwhite residents of the neighborhood that would define his political identity and serve as his primary base. He had purchased his Leimert Park home in 1950. Actually, to evade the racist conflicts that had besieged other black buyers, Bradley commissioned white colleagues to purchase the house and transfer it to him.

Bradley's life and career reflected the pursuit of integrationism. Starting in 1964 and picking up steam in the aftermath of the 1965 Watts Rebellion, the Crenshaw Neighbors homeowners association took up the cause by promoting what liberal advocates termed "neighborhood stabilization." In essence, they sought to preserve integration by uniting diverse residents in a campaign to convince existing white homeowners that there was no need to flee, and persuade new white residents that it was safe to come.

Although a Nisei participant in Crenshaw Neighbors, John Saito understood the appeal of radical politics for the younger generation unsatisfied with the gradual progress and moderate temperament tied to integrationism. The "illusion" of Asian American assimilation, he wrote in 1968, was sustained by the fear that "rocking the boat" might jeopardize their "comfortable" position. With the Black Power movement rapidly gaining momentum, "The faint voice in the background will become stronger," Saito proclaimed, "and we will hear more and more of 'Yellow Power.'"

City Council members Rosalind Wyman and Tom Bradley pose with a group of school children at City Hall, ca. 1953. | Photo: Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library
City Council members Rosalind Wyman and Tom Bradley pose with a group of school children at City Hall, ca. 1953. | Photo: Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library

Various forms of oppositional consciousness were taking root among Japanese Americans in the 1960s. The Ministers gang defended Japanese American pride and turf within Crenshaw and squabbled with the "surfers" -- suburban interlopers who exemplified organized white power in the eyes of many Sansei youth.

Nakayama looked up to the Ministers, as he surmised American society was far from a level playing field. "This is kind of a jive effort," he recalled. "This game was fixed and not in my favor. And so I started carrying resentment around." He got into fights with white and black kids, before eventually bonding with numerous African American friends.

While less overtly confrontational, Maeshiro became immersed in the writings of James Baldwin and discussed social issues with her parents. While her grandmother was sometimes reluctant to attract black customers to her beauty shop, her parents' business survived by serving a diverse clientele. "Treat everyone the same," they implored.

Yoshimura noted that racism led her to "disengage" from society as a youth. The emergence of Black Power, however, spoke to her. She remembered an "a-ha" moment as a teenager. "Hey Asian Sister," a strange voice called out as she walked toward Boys Market.

"Nobody had ever called me that before," she continued. "I was either a Japanese girl, Oriental or some derogatory thing, but nobody had ever called me an Asian sister. And I turned around, and it was a guy selling Muhammad Speaks. He smiled at me, and I said, 'I like the way that sounds.' And he said, 'Yeah, it sounds good.'"

All three dedicated their lives to activism and social justice during their college-aged years. For Nakayama, this occurred after a life-changing stint in Vietnam as a Marine. Nakayama became a vocal and militant critic of the government that awarded him one Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts. He protested the war by helping high school students organize walkouts, and testifying about the racist invectives ("gooks," "slants,") hurled by U.S. soldiers at both the Vietnamese (friend and foe) and at Asian Americans like himself.

A "cultural revolution" was sweeping through much of the Sansei generation. The emergence of Black Power, the rise of the Black Panthers (and their popularization of Mao's Red Book), the proclamation of ethnic pride, and the turn toward natural hair and cultural styles -- all had a profound impact on Nakayama and his Sansei activist peers. They mobilized to get other Asian Americans "to see the relevance" for their lives and communities.

Nakayama worked with Yoshimura to organize the Asian American Student Alliance at CSU Long Beach, where they demonstrated against the war and allied with other students of color to fight for Ethnic Studies. Around the same time, Maeshiro became politicized at UC Santa Barbara, then realized she needed to leave the predominantly white campus to discover her mission and connect with the world. In 1970, she joined the Venceremos Brigade and spent three months immersed in Cuba.

The three Sansei activists all made their way back to Crenshaw. While Little Tokyo served as a political hub, Crenshaw was also home to many of the Asian American Movement's most prominent entities. For instance, Westside Collective gathered a grouping of young Asian (mostly Japanese) Americans to study and organize while living together in a spacious old home near 23rd Street and Arlington.

Cover of Gidra, October 1972 | Illustration: Alan Takemoto

Gidra newspaper was headquartered at Jefferson and Tenth Avenue. Yoshimura was a fixture within the collective that published the underground publication, which served as a forum for the movement developing both locally and nationally. To this day, Gidra articles on racism, the Vietnam War, and Asian American activism are regularly assigned as core texts in Asian American Studies.

Nearby, the Yellow Brotherhood (YB) worked to organize and empower Asian American youth, who in defiance of "model minority" imagery were dropping out of school, joining gangs, getting arrested, and becoming addicted to drugs. With Nisei parents often feeling helpless or stuck in denial mode, thirty-one Sansei in Los Angeles died of drug overdoses during the summer of 1970 alone. YB stepped into this vacuum by promoting "Third World consciousness," self-awareness, and critical education. They worked with the CSU Long Beach activists like Yoshimura to gain admission and mentoring for low-income Asian Americans through the Educational Opportunity Program.

Though it reached out to youth throughout the region, YB had deep roots in Crenshaw and the "Westside." Many of the group's founders were former leaders of the Ministers, who turned to political activism following terms in prison or Vietnam. Their trajectory followed that of notable figures in the Black Panther Party and Brown Berets. In fact, two members of the Yellow Brotherhood had originally joined the Black Student Union at Los Angeles City College.

One block west of the Gidra office, Maeshiro returned from Cuba and worked with a consciously multiracial collective of radicals to open the Storefront, which aimed to promote "Third World unity" within the diverse Crenshaw community. "Working just in the Asian community was very limiting," she explained. "We consciously wanted to do something different that was neighborhood-based." The Storefront launched a bookstore, "creative workshop" for youth, film series, and newspaper. One of its most popular programs was a food cooperative. Many of the group's members had grown up in the neighborhood.

While these consciously radical collectives and projects burned brightly during the 1970s, most would flame out by the end of the decade. These initiatives, however, served as direct and indirect forerunners to numerous Japanese and Asian American community organizations, social service agencies, and political associations. Many who participated in them became lifelong activists and community advocates.

Crenshaw continued to change, as well. Fearing rising incidents of crime or seeking newer dwellings, Japanese Americans began their own exodus from the district during the 1970s -- generating flak from some quarters that they were replicating the flight pattern that whites established two decades prior. But some consciously chose to remain, including the parents of all the Sansei I interviewed.

And Leimert Park remains embedded in the hearts of those who left too. After returning to finish college and going on to a career in teaching and counseling within the public schools, Sandy Maeshiro lived in various neighborhoods throughout the region. But her father has stayed in the same home for more than a half-century.

Five years ago, Maeshiro's daughter, Yuriko Anderson, joined him in Leimert Park. Conveying that she always felt comfortable there, Anderson notes that she went to Japanese language school in Crenshaw as a child. She shares a local connection with her husband, Julian, an African American alumnus of Dorsey High.

I asked Maeshiro how she felt about her daughter and son-in-law living on the same block she grew up on and raising two of her grandchildren there. "I think it's great," she replied.

Members of the Yellow Brotherhood in Los Angeles, 1971 | Photo: Unknown
Members of the Yellow Brotherhood in Los Angeles, 1971 | Photo: Unknown

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