By MARY UYEMATSU KAO

Whenever historic movements take to the streets, we can find changes that have been waiting to be made finally get some attention. Unfortunately, the changes that result are usually superficial and only appear to remedy past wrongs, ensuring that the status quo remains in place.  A step in the right direction, recognizing historical injustices can educate new generations to understand that our present-day racial fractures have been built up over centuries.  

The Black Lives Matter movement took on historic proportions to protest the unspoken policy of police murders of African Americans and the brutal killing of George Floyd. As mass movements do, they are the vehicle for change. While some wish to portray these movements as lacking “civility,” we have to ask ourselves if civility is the use of eminent domain to prettify (or “civilize”) the forced dispersal of communities of color for urban renewal or gentrification. What is the civility of gentrification when it creates hoards of homeless people who will never be able to afford the new high-rise buildings that have displaced them?

This photo mural shows the churches and businesses of African Americans, Japanese Americans, and Mexican Americans in “The Heart of Pasadena’s Communities of Color” before they were displaced by the freeway and Parsons Corporation. In the lower center is the J. Morita Market.

One of the ripple effects of the Black Lives Matter movement following George Floyd’s murder was the “return” of Bruce’s Beach to the descendants of the Bruce family. Another ripple was on June 2, 2022 with the unveiling of an art/mural exhibit bearing witness to the communities of color of Pasadena that were razed for urban renewal and the building of the freeway. 

This photo mural shows the churches and businesses of African Americans, Japanese Americans, and Mexican Americans in “The Heart of Pasadena’s Communities of Color” before they were displaced by the freeway and Parsons Corporation. In the lower center is the J. Morita Market. 

From the signage titled “Exploring Pasadena’s Past”: The Morita family in front of the J. Morita Market at 70 Pasadena Ave., 1942. From left: Reiko, Helen (Matsunaga), Richard, Elsie (Uyematsu, Osajima), William, and Jiro. The photo was taken the day before the Moritas left for camp.

My maternal grandparents, Jiro and Reiko Morita, were forced to sell their home (and their pre-World War II grocery store) by force of eminent domain in the 1960s. Their property at 70 Pasadena Ave. is now part of Pasadena’s upscale Old Town. At the behest of John J. Kennedy, Pasadena District 3 city councilmember, this art/mural project was part of an agreement between the City of Pasadena and Lincoln Property Company to install historical signage to honor the families and businesses who were displaced in the 1960s and ’70s for Parsons Corporation and the Foothill Freeway. 

Hunt Design was brought on by Lincoln Property to design permanent historical signage: two upright bronze line-art maps and four upright porcelain enamel panels spread throughout the 10 W. Walnut campus of five mixed-use residential buildings in Pasadena’s Old Town.

John J. Kennedy, Pasadena District 3 councilmember; Alma Stokes, educator.

The unveiling program was eloquently opened by Councilmember Kennedy, followed by a prayer and remarks from Pastor Lucious W. Smith of the Friendship Pasadena Church. They both emphasized the importance of movements that are the engines of change. This was followed by the “Presentation of Colors” by the Blair High School JROTC Color Guard. Brief remarks from Rob Kane, executive vice president of Lincoln Property; Heather Lindquist, exhibit writer/developer; and Jennifer Bressler, principal from Hunt Design explained the purpose of the exhibits — to “honor the memories of everyone who lived and worked in this area before ‘urban renewal’ forced them from their homes. They are dedicated to envisioning a more just future for all Pasadenans.”  (from the program brochure)

Community speakers brought to life the history of racial discrimination for people of color living in Pasadena. Alma Stokes, a 91-year-old educator, had vivid memories of what it was like in old Pasadena, like the one day a week that people of color were allowed to swim in the Brookside Plunge public pool — the day before it was going to be emptied for cleaning. 

Bryan Takeda, vice chair of Pasadena Sister City Mishima, Japan, told stories of African Americans who helped store belongings of their Japanese American neighbors while they were incarcerated in concentration camps; and a Nisei man who partnered with an African American man to open a pharmacy after the war. 

Bryan Takeda, vice chairperson, Pasadena Sister Cities Mishima, Japan; Roberta H. Martinez, author of “Latinos in Pasadena.”

Roberta H. Martinez, author of “Latinos in Pasadena,” acknowledged the land originally belonged to the Tongva people. She recalled how the ethnic communities got cut up and displaced by the freeway. Martinez stressed the strength and power of the intersections of our ethnic and racial communities.

There were over 100 people in attendance, standing room only. The community speakers with their live memories of the past uplifted the event by connecting us with the lives of people from the past. Going forward, it will take the community to learn from these exhibits, so it can learn some more, and educate ourselves on how to move into the future. And it will take newer generations to make sure that these exhibits remain permanent fixtures to ensure the truth be told.

The next time you are in Pasadena, be on the lookout for this historical signage at 10 West Walnut, bounded by N. Pasadena Avenue, W. Union Street, Fair Oaks Avenue, and W. Walnut Street. Be ready for a walk as the signage is spread throughout this campus of five mixed-use buildings.

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Mary Uyematsu Kao is a retired photojournalist. She published her photography book “Rockin’ the Boat: Flashbacks of the 1970s Asian Movement” in June 2020. Comments and feedback are welcome at: uyematsu72@gmail.com.

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