How 'Little Tokyo' Of Los Angeles Changed Into 'Bronzeville' And Back Again

Feb 19, 2017
Originally published on February 20, 2017 5:30 am
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LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Seventy-five years ago today, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order that forced 120,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans into World War II internment camps. Adrian Florido of NPR's Code Switch team has the story of a woman, Sande Hashimoto, who recalls what happened to her and what happened to her neighborhood.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Hashimoto and her family lived in LA's Little Tokyo. She remembers her parents and neighbors rushing to sell off their belongings, and she remembers the day they packed their bags.

SANDE HASHIMOTO: And there were soldiers with rifles. And they told us all to, you know, get on the train, so we did.

FLORIDO: The train took them 200 miles away to the Manzanar internment camp. They lived there for more than three years. When they were released, the family moved back home, reopened their dry cleaning business. But Little Tokyo had changed.

HASHIMOTO: It was all black. You know, all our customers was black.

FLORIDO: Where there used to be Japanese restaurants and shops, the businesses were now African-American. The apartments the Japanese families left behind now housed black workers. Little Tokyo even had a new name, Bronzeville. Hashimoto made her first black friend, a little girl who lived nearby.

HASHIMOTO: And sometimes I would go over to her place, her mother would be braiding her hair. And then as soon as she finished braiding her hair, then she says, I'll braid yours, too. So I said, OK.

FLORIDO: One day, her friend moved away. And gradually, the other black residents in the neighborhood did too.

HASHIMOTO: The black people were there. And then all of a sudden, the Japanese-American - they were all coming out of camp - and one by one, it was Little Tokyo again. I thought maybe I was dreaming these stories where they were there and they were gone.

FLORIDO: But it wasn't a dream. It is a little-known bit of LA history. Historian Christopher Jimenez y West met me in Little Tokyo. He says after the Japanese were interned, building owners had a lot of vacant property to fill. And this coincided with the arrival of many Southern blacks who came to LA for wartime jobs.

CHRISTOPHER JIMENEZ Y WEST: You're coming with very little resources, and so you're looking for the least expensive place to stay.

FLORIDO: But in segregated LA, only about 5 percent of residential areas were open to blacks, including Little Tokyo. So black workers crowded in.

JIMENEZ Y WEST: They just got stuffed in like sardines into the community.

FLORIDO: The neighborhood's population nearly quadrupled. This brought problems like overcrowding and communicable disease. Still, the community was vibrant - bars, barbecue joints, jazz clubs opened where you could see Charlie Parker perform.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLORIDO: But just as quickly as it sprang up, after the war, Bronzeville disappeared. Martha Nakagawa is a local historian.

MARTHA NAKAGAWA: Japanese-Americans slowly came back, and the white building-owners preferred to have them come back, so sometimes they would not renew the leases of the African-American businesses. Or the Japanese-Americans would come back and buy the leases out. And so that's how, slowly, the transition happened.

FLORIDO: She says this transition created both tension and efforts at solidarity. In a couple of cases, Japanese organizations sued black business owners to get property back. Other Japanese folks worked to help displaced black residents find new places to live. Today, few physical reminders of the Bronzeville era remain. There used to be a mural with Charlie Parker, but it's been painted over. But if you're walking in Little Tokyo and you look down, you'll see a timeline etched into the sidewalk. The words, 1942 - Little Tokyo becomes Bronzeville, are inscribed in gold.

Adrian Florido, NPR News, Los Angeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF GLEN PORTER'S "TRANSIENT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.