Preserving California’s Japantowns will call upon Berkeley’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) Thursday to nominate the city’s pre-World War II Japanese heritage sites to the State Office of Historic Preservation.
The project—spearheaded by historian Donna Graves and community organizer Jill Shiraki—is the first statewide effort to document historic resources from pre-World War II Japantown.
Graves is scheduled to give a presentation on Berkeley’s historic Japantown to the commission Thursday and discuss the possibility of the city participating in a funding request to the California historic preservation office for a more intensive survey.
Although more than a hundred Japanese enclaves existed prior to World War II, the project is committed to researching 43 communities to ensure that the many regions, distinctive economic characteristics and cultural features associated with diverse Japantowns are represented.
Urban development, closing of old businesses and the loss of the Nisei (second) generation Japanese who rebuilt their communities after World War II have sparked debate about historic preservation in California.
“During the war, many Japantowns were lost and a lot of businesses were not able to return,” said Shiraki, the organization’s project manager.
“In terms of Berkeley, we were surprised to find that nearly 60 percent of the buildings that housed Japanese businesses before the war still exist. There are some significant buildings which we are hoping to landmark.”
The organization is currently working with the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (BAHA) to nominate the Chiura Obata Studio at 2525 Telegraph Ave. as a local landmark.
Opened in 1941 by UC Berkeley professor Chiura Obata, the art studio later housed the Blue Nile Restaurant which closed down in 2005.
The property is currently being renovated by Ali Eslami who wants to develop it into the Muse Art House and Mint Cafe.
Other important structures on the list include the former University Laundry on 2530 Shattuck Ave. and the San Pablo Florist Nursery on 1806 San Pablo Ave. which is currently an abandoned auto-repair shop.
More than a hundred pre-World War II Japanese residences, laundries, florists, groceries and shoe repairing shops are scattered all over Berkeley, Shiraki said.
A pre-war community directory published by Japanese-American newspapers was pivotal to the survey’s success.
“You often think that a Japantown will be concentrated in one place but cities established before the war have clusters of the Japanese-American community spread throughout them,” she said.
“Since it’s over 60 years. the history has often disappeared but we hope our efforts to revive the lost culture will be a model for other communities. We want to inform citizens about preservation and get their support.”
Wood smoken nuisance ordinance
The commission will also discuss the city’s proposed wood smoke nuisance ordinance at the request of Berkeley’s Planning & Development’s Toxic Management Division.
The Berkeley City Council amended the Berkeley Municipal Code in January 2003 to ban construction of new open-hearth fireplaces and to require major modifications to existing fireplaces, as well as to require abatement on new commercial wood burning ovens due to a request to all local municipalities from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD).
However, according to a report submitted by the Community Environmental Advisory Commission in June, existing open-hearth fireplaces in Berkeley were left unregulated and remained a potential source of unhealthy smoke.
Additionally, the report stated that wood smoke creates an acute as well as a long-term health problem for the community, including children and people with preexisting respiratory or heart problems.
The commission’s proposal adds to the existing ordinance by outlining conditions, that, if met, would create a nuisance condition.
The determination that wood burning device operations were a nuisance would allow a neighbor to file a complaint with the local court.