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Finding a place in history


SENTO AT SIXTH AND MAIN: Preserving Landmarks of Japanese American Heritage, by Gail Dubrow with Donna Graves. Seattle: Seattle Arts Commission, 2002, 220 pp., $19.95 (paper)

A lumber camp in Selleck, Washington; a sento at 302 Sixth Avenue in downtown Seattle; a bowling alley in Los Angeles’s Crenshaw district: each are “tangible remains of Japanese American heritage” and as such, argue Gail Dubrow and Donna Graves, are worthy of attention and preservation. Thus, “in the hope of stimulating public support to protect the remaining landmarks,” they have given us “Sento at Sixth and Main,” a book about these sites and seven others that they consider significant.

Whether they will succeed in stimulating public support for preserving these sites remains to be seen. Where they have been successful, however, is in giving us a document of these places that will survive even if the landmarks themselves are destroyed. Further, they have raised questions about history and preservation that will be engaging even for those with no particular interest in Japanese-American culture.

The malleability of history, for example, is highlighted in Dubrow’s account of the Neely Mansion in Auburn, Washington. Given that the historical importance of the building has been recognized and that it has already been preserved, one might wonder why it is included in this book. It’s here because in the long history of a place — the Neely Mansion was completed in 1894 — there is more than a single point that one might designate as historically significant, more than one aspect one might wish to preserve.

In the case of the Neely Mansion the historical moment that, until recently, was chosen as the important one was the earliest: the house as it was when David and Aaron Neely first constructed it. While this choice is certainly defensible, the danger in focusing on the earliest period of the house’s existence is that one can lose sight of those who came after the Neelys: the Swiss, the Japanese and finally the Filipino immigrants who also lived in the house and modified it to suit their needs and cultural styles. How does one justify preserving one version of the house rather than another?

The Horis, for example, a Japanese family who moved into the Neely Mansion in 1930 and lived there for a decade, added a Japanese style furo in a shed they built adjacent to the house. Pete Acosta, a Filipino who moved in in 1943, saw no need for it — Filipino bathing practices are different from those of the Japanese — and so “hitched the shed to his tractor and dragged it some 75 feet west of the mansion.” In 1979 the house was sold to the Auburn Arts Council and repairs begun, but as this shed was not a part of the house as the Neelys had built it in 1894, it was not restored to its original location.

It remained where it was until, in 1996, it was designated a King County Landmark. That it was finally restored to its original position after this designation suggests that the preservationist paradigm may indeed be shifting away from approaches that focus on a single instant in a site’s history and toward the one that Dubrow favors: “an approach that emphasizes changing social relations over longer periods of time.” This more inclusive approach, however, is still a choice, one path among the many open to preservationists and historians; it may be as arbitrary as other options.

Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo, for instance, another place Dubrow discusses, was a Japanese neighborhood that thrived from the late 19th century until the internment of most of its residents following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. After these residents were forced to evacuate their homes and businesses, their place was taken by African-Americans who created a community of their own: Little Tokyo became “Bronzeville.” This bit of the neighborhood’s history, however, is not the one upon which preservationists have chosen to focus; indeed, it is largely excluded. There are, for example, in Little Tokyo today, “timelines and images etched in the concrete [which] tell of confectioners, florists, priests, tea merchants and other elements of Nihonmachi’s heyday.” There are none that commemorate Bronzeville’s.

That “Sento at Sixth and Main” encourages readers to think about the choices made by preservationists is, of course, one of the book’s strengths. Another attraction is the array of facts the authors have unearthed about Japanese-American life from its inception until today. Who knew, for example, that in 1907 one in five Japanese immigrants worked in the lumber industry; that in spite of the very real discrimination — including discriminatory laws — practiced against them, the Japanese community was affluent enough to make it worthwhile for a Japanese grocer in Auburn to import from Japan only “the highest quality tea”; or that there were once hundreds of Japanese-style sento doing business in the United States (the last ceased operation in the mid 1960s)?

It is not, however, only the words of Dubrow and Graves that make “Sento at Sixth and Main” the valuable book that it is. One cherishes as well the hundreds of images that they have included — photographs, pages from old books, maps and drawings — and one is thankful that a designer as skillful as Karen Cheng was able to arrange them around Dubrow and Graves’s essays in a manner that makes this book not only an important record of Japanese-American life, but also a beautiful object.