Tom Butt for Richmond City Council The Tom Butt E-Forum About Tom Butt Platform Endorsements of Richmond Councilmember Tom Butt Accomplishments Contribute to Tom Butt for Richmond City Council Contact Tom Butt Tom Butt Archives
E-Mail Forum
SF Chronicle Profiles Miraflores Site

The fascinating history of Japanese American early 20th Century pioneers in the flower growing business in West Contra Costa County continues to attract attention. See the story in yesterday’s SF Chronicle below. For additional background, see Richmond Seeks Developer for Miraflores, November 8, 2007.

Much credit for unearthing this history and making it public goes to Donna Graves, an arts and cultural planning consultant who has been involved in preserving Richmond history since she first assisted Donna Powers with the Rosie the Riveter Memorial project.

Believing that a national park about the home front in a community that saw its residents interned must include that story, Donna Graves secured funding with a grant from the CA State Library's California Civil Liberties Public Education Program to document the wartime experiences of Richmond's Japanese- and Italian American residents. That work provided the foundation for her ongoing research and for including the nurseries and sites reflecting Italian American history in the Mapping Richmond' WWII Home Front report, which served as a guiding framework for the highly successful bus tours hosted by Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park the last two years. Donna also worked on the project, Preserving California's Japantowns -  www.californiajapantowns.org.


Other projects in Richmond by Donna Graves include:


  • Envisioning and then guiding the Rosie the Riveter Memorial effort as not simply a commemoration for local women, but the first national monument to women's home front labor.  With training in American social history, and professional connections in the national fields of public art and memorials, she was able to research and confirm that there was no acknowledgment of women's contributions to the home front anywhere in the U.S. and to steer the project toward a larger vision. 


  • Creating the idea for a Home Front Visitor's Center in the Ford Assembly Building.  After Donna Powers asked Congressman Miller's staff for help getting freeway signs for the Memorial, they asked Donna Graves "what else would you like -- maybe a visitor's center?"  She knew that there was an even broader story to tell in Richmond, beyond the women's history that shaped the Memorial project, and also that the Redevelopment Agency was working to find a developer to breath new life into the FAB, which she had discovered had an important WWII linkage.  She wrote a 2-page proposal for Congressman Miller's staff in 1998, describing a "Home Front Visitor's Center" that would engage people in the broader stories of the American home front in Richmond.  This template provided the initial idea and was a fundamental influence on planning for RORI once the NPS came on the scene. 


  • Introducing the National Park Service to Richmond's amazing collection of WWII-era resources. She was executive director of the nationally-recognized preservation and cultural heritage organization, The Power of Place in Los Angeles, and received MAs in urban planning from UCLA and American Civilization from Brown University before coming to Richmond.  When Ray Murray called in the Fall of 1998 asking to meet about the Memorial, Donna knew we did not have anything yet to show him other than drawings, but that Richmond had a rich collection of historic structures associated with the WWII home front that I had begun inventorying.  She was sure that these would interest the Park Service, so she initiated and organized the tour along with the Richmond Redevelopment Agency given to Park planners and cultural resource specialists, which was instrumental to sparking NPS's realization that there were the makings for a national park in Richmond. It was her academic background and professional expertise as an architectural/urban social historian and urban planner that enabled her to recognize the national potential of Richmond's Rosie the Riveter Memorial project and to connect the memorial to Richmond's overlooked historic resources, which laid the groundwork for the national park.


  • She was a key point person working with Ray Murray to develop the RORI feasibility study and was deeply involved with identifying and documenting the sites included in the original park outline, as well as developing the overarching themes for the park. 


  • She made the initial contact with the California Costal Conservancy (at a party on hermaternity leave in Spring 2000) and developed the approach and application that secured the Park's first major donation of $500,000, which supported the oral history collaboration with UC Berkeley, planning for the RORI Visitor's Center, and  the Bay Trail markers. 


  • She conceived and developed the Bay Trail markers project, which along with the Memorial, are the main interpretive components for the Park, apart from the Red Oak Victory and the interim visitors center. 


  • She has conducted original research that has expanded the Park's ability to tell a broader story in Richmond, from securing funding from the California State Library for Not at Home on the Home Front, a study of the experience of Richmond's Japanese- and Italian-American communities during the war, to the report Mapping Richmond's World War II Home Front, commissioned by NPS, which identified and documented many of the sites and themes that have undergirded later planning and interpretive efforts, such as the General Management Plan and recent bus tours. 


  • Most recently, Donna conceived and is now guiding the Macdonald Landmarks project and Memories of Macdonald, the first interpretive element for the Park that reaches beyond the waterfront and into the heart of Richmond, and which includes an extensive program of partnership and community dialogue. It has really sparked an interest form the media, and its results will provide an identity for Macdonald Avenue rooted in an exciting history that will contribute greatly to its eventual rebirth." 


For more information:

DONNA GRAVES, Art and Cultural Planning      

1204 Carleton Street

Berkeley, CA  94702

Phone 510.540-6809  Fax 510.848-8086

e-mail dgraves3@mindspring.com


Developers, preservationists work together on prewar Richmond site

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Richmond greenhouses built by Japanese immigrants aro...Natalia Lawrence, project manager with the Richmond Redev...A tenacious rose climbs toward the sunshine in one of the...

The white frames and glass panels of the tumbledown greenhouses can just be glimpsed by drivers whizzing south through Richmond on Interstate 80. At street level, wedged between the freeway and the BART tracks, more than three dozen old greenhouses, the former Sakai, Oishi and Endo family nurseries, occupy 14 acres in a corner of a down-at-the-heels residential neighborhood.

Now derelict, with windows shattered and paint peeling, the nurseries are a last fragment of a centurylong chapter of Japanese American history in the East Bay, in which dozens of immigrant families built flower-growing businesses in the early 20th century. But the greenhouses, along with several houses, numerous packing sheds and outbuildings, are about to be torn down to make way for new homes.

Historic preservationists and housing officials are hashing out a plan to repair and maintain a few of the original structures. As they debate, the tough, persistent rosebushes, gone wild over a decade of neglect, climb toward the glass ceilings, putting out fragrant blossoms. Sparrows and juncos twitter in and out of the broken panes, pecking seeds from the profusion of weeds.

The city of Richmond and two nonprofit housing developers, Eden Housing Inc. and Community Housing Development Corp. of North Richmond, have been looking at the property for the past few years. The city purchased it in 2006 with plans to build close to 200 units of market-rate and affordable housing on the site, including single-family homes, townhouses and apartments, both for sale and for rent.

"The governor's office is very clear - we need to build more affordable housing in California," said Patrick Lynch, housing director for the Richmond Redevelopment Agency. "Typically you don't have the opportunity because there are not large parcels left. So when we saw the opportunity to acquire 14 acres of prime land, we went for it."

The development is to include a community center, a children's tot lot, the restoration of a stretch of Baxter Creek, and a footpath connecting the neighborhood to a new greenway that will link to the El Cerrito del Norte BART Station and shopping districts on San Pablo and Macdonald avenues. The property is considered a brownfield because the soil is contaminated with lead, petroleum and pesticides, including DDT, but Lynch, accustomed to coping with the pollution left behind by heavy industry, said the cleanup will be straightforward.

The greenhouses are rooted in a century-old wave of immigration from recession-plagued Japan to the West Coast. In the 1890s, brothers Kotoro Sakai and Seizo Oishi arrived in the Bay Area. They bought land in Richmond in 1906, before there was a freeway or BART or much besides farms. On it they built their first greenhouses and began growing roses, carnations and snapdragons for the emerging cut-flower market in San Francisco.

"Japanese immigrants came from agrarian stock, so they brought in their agricultural techniques and some relatively new techniques for horticulture," said Rosalyn Tonai, director of the National Japanese American Historical Society in San Francisco. "There was a lot of backbreaking work, but they had a love of the soil and cultivating plants."

The brothers sent for their wives and raised their children on their land, putting them to work early in the greenhouses. Along with the Sakais and the Oishis, Japanese immigrant families who started nurseries in the area included the Adachis, Sugiharas, Mayedas and Hondas.

Other families started flower businesses in Alameda and San Mateo counties. A few of those families, including the Shibatas and Okus, are still in business, though not on their pre-WWII properties.

Overwhelmingly, though, cut flower cultivation has declined in the face of overseas competition. The Shibata family's Mt. Eden Floral Co. still grows some roses in California, but mostly imports flowers from Ecuador, Colombia, Mexico and Thailand.

In the early part of the century, Japanese immigrants to the Bay Area faced virulent anti-Asian bigotry from groups like the Asian Exclusion League, formed in 1905, and expressed in stories in The Chronicle and other newspapers with headlines like "The Yellow Peril - How Japanese Crowd out the White Race."

Then came the internment of Japanese Americans in militarized camps during World War II. The Sakais were forced to leave California during the war and the Oishis were incarcerated for several years, first at the Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno, then at the Topaz Relocation Center in Utah. They left the nurseries in the care of a local florist, who raised flowers for a bit but then found it easier to rent lodgings on the property to the many African American families who migrated from the South to work in Richmond's shipyards.

"He was getting rent to make payment on the taxes so we didn't have back taxes when we came home," said Tom Oishi, 85, the youngest of the seven Oishi children, who, with his brothers, took over the business after the war.

The Japanese workers the families hired to help them in the nurseries gave way over time to new immigrants from Mexico and Laos, many of whom also came from agrarian backgrounds and who also struggled to establish themselves in a new land.

Historians who assessed the significance of the property for the nonprofit housing developers found that several structures appear to be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. The Craftsman-era bungalows, refrigerated packing sheds, and rows of greenhouses with louvered windows operated by elaborate pulleys and gears are not grand architecture, but they reflect the history of hardworking immigrant families building lives under difficult circumstances, said one of the report's authors, Donna Graves, who also directs a project documenting the history of California's Japantowns.

"If you wipe away all traces of the past, you lose a way of connecting to all the steps that have brought us here, and also the connections we can make to each other," said Graves. "To be able to touch the place, move through the place, is very powerful. It's hard to get the same emotional resonance from a book or a plaque."

The city and the housing developers have agreed to some form of historic preservation. They have arranged for archival-quality photographs of the nurseries, and they plan to create an interpretive exhibit about the site's history, either within the development or in a more public location, such as along the greenway or as part of the National Park Service museum about Richmond's history on the home front in World War II.

Although most of the buildings will be demolished to make room for the housing development, Lynch and others say they will try to preserve three structures - the 1921 Sakai residence, a water tower, and the first and smallest of the greenhouses - if feasible, though they may want to move them out of the way of the new homes.

"The site does have an interesting history; what we're struggling with now is, what's the best way to honor that? ... It has been somewhat contentious," said Katie Lamont, a senior project developer with Eden Housing. "With the greenhouse, we're having a hard time committing. ... We want to be sure that someone is the steward of it. I'd be most comfortable if some community garden group would come forward and say, 'This is how you can do it and we can help.' "

Redevelopment staffer Natalia Lawrence was visibly excited by the project as she walked through the site one recent day, talking about revitalizing the neighborhood with high-quality homes built with environmentally sustainable methods and plenty of trees and landscaping. She has asked developers to submit proposals to build the single-family homes and hopes for a good response by the Dec. 19 deadline.

As Lawrence conjured a vision of the future, the echoes of the past were everywhere: in the cylindrical wooden water tanks, the litter of old rubber boots, and, in one shed, a small collection of mildewed school books, one inscribed in 1918 by Susie Sakai, another in 1929 by her little sister, Ruby Sakai.

"The history is important," said Tonai, of the Japanese American Historical Society. "I sit on a nonprofit affordable housing board, so I know the need for family housing, but I think there's an opportunity there. ... It doesn't need to be an either/or issue."

E-mail Tyche Hendricks at thendricks@sfchronicle.com.