Shades of L.A.: Strong roots – the photos and story of Alice Ito

Aiko Alice with her cousin Niki and brothers Hitoshi and Ise (Isamu) playing at the family’s flower farm in the Los Feliz neighborhood, about 1930. Image #00004245.

 

Thirty years ago the Los Angeles Public Library embarked on a ground-breaking, collection-building project – reaching out to the diverse communities of the region for family photographs that would provide depth and nuance to an understanding of this region’s multi-cultural history. The project and its results are called Shades of L.A. The support group Photo Friends of the L.A. Public Library was formed to assist in that effort. The group endures.

Los Angeles is a place literally built on the intersection of cultures: from the Tongva and other Native tribes that lived here for centuries to the Spanish, Mexican, and Black pobladores who established the pueblo in 1781, to the Hispanic and White cultures that duked it out for dominance in the early 19th century. As so often happens, the dominant culture, in this case the White American settlers, was quickly able to put their stamp on the historical narrative.

In the 20th century, Los Angeles has seen further waves of immigration, from Eastern Europe, the Middle East, East Africa, and Latin America. Asian immigration has come in distinctive waves, beginning with Chinese in the late 19th century, to Japanese and Filipinos in the first part of the 20th, and, finally, Southeast Asians, the refugees of the wars that decimated that region.

With major funding from Security Pacific National Bank and California Humanities, LAPL staff and volunteers were able to reach out to many ethnic communities and collect/copy over 7,000 images documenting family businesses, celebrations, religious and cultural traditions, and ordinary life. In addition, volunteers collected a dozen oral histories from donors. These photos and stories go far to balance the collection of the library. For a more detailed overview of the project, see https://www.lapl.org/collections-resources/photo-collection/shades-la.

A Tradition of Flowers

This essay looks at the life of Aiko Alice Ito, a Japanese American woman whose family established an enduring flower growing business in the Loz Feliz area south of Griffith Park. Ito’s story parallels that of many Nisei – the first generation of Japanese Americans born in this country. After establishing their business, the family lost it precipitously when they were “evacuated” to a concentration camp during World War II. Unlike many, the family was able to return and reestablish the business which lasted until 1961. Alice and her husband continued in the floral profession by building and running a successful retail shop on Western Avenue. They were active in both flower industry associations and Japanese American organizations.

In addition to donating use of many family photos, Alice Ito sat for an oral history interview with project director Amy Kitchener in 1993. All the quotations below are her own words. All images are from the Shades of L.A.: Japanese American Community, unless otherwise indicated.

Kiyo Kuromi, Alice’s mother, circa 1915. Shades of L.A. image #00004921.

Between two homes

Alice’s mother, Kiyo Kuromi, arrived from Japan in 1906 as a child – “in the year of the San Francisco earthquake.”

“My grandfather used to come and go [from and to Japan]. An when he found that there were much better chances for his children, he brought all three of them and then mother stayed here and the others he took back again…She remained with her uncle and he grew flowers for quite some time and then he retired and went back [to Japan] and then she was on her own here.”

Alice’s mother married a man named Harue, but it appears that the couple chose to keep Kiyo’s maiden name, Kuromi, as their surname, a relatively common practice among Japanese when a family name was at risk of dying out. Together they opened a floral nursery in the Los Feliz area of the city, in the shadow of the Griffith Observatory. Here they grew sweet peas, chrysanthemums, ranunculus, and other popular varieties, taking the cut flowers to sell at the flower market on Wall Street in downtown L.A. Alice and her two younger brothers grew up roaming and playing on the flower farm.

Sailing day  in 1931. A crowd gathers to bid farewell to relatives returning to Japan. The Nippon Yusen Kaisha line also carried tourists to exotic locations before hostilities put an end to the trade. Image #00004246.

Alice’s grandfather continued to keep a foot in both countries. He embarked upon business ventures in Los Angeles, but returned to Japan every year or so. She recalled day-long excursions to see him off at San Pedro.

“If grandpa was going to Japan, it was by boat. We would see him off. We would take a picnic lunch. It was an all-day affair.”

Advertisement for N.Y.K. Japanese liners. Image # Travel_Poster-00118, Travel Poster Collection.

In 1939, when Alice was about 20, the entire family traveled to Japan to visit the ailing grandfather. Alice elected to remain in that country and attend college. In addition to beefing up her scanty Japanese language skills, she had the opportunity to study traditional arts which stood her in good stead later as a florist:

“It was a wonderful challenge. In addition to books, over the weekends I decided to fill in with flower arranging classes, the Japanese tea ceremony, silk painting, and calligraphy. There was lot there to learn! Silk painting was wonderfully relaxing. Flower arranging has been a wonderful influence because, as we went into business, I found that the basic lines were important to follow, even with the [fuller] arrangements that we have here. They do like the vines, but homes in America need a little more than the few flowers we use over there.”

Late in 1941, Alice’s sojourn in Japan was cut short when all American citizens were urged to return home. With war clouds looming, she had to scramble to find transportation back to Los Angeles.

“In my second year they asked that we return. When I was finally able to get a boat to give me passage, that ship was one of the last to unload its passengers here in San Pedro. The one right after that ship had to turn around and go back. So I was just lucky. Those friends of mine that were on that ship had to spend their lives in Japan during the war.”

Happier Times

Although the family worked long and hard at the flower farm, there were occasional outings. In addition to seeing her grandfather off at San Pedro, Alice recalls picnics small and large.

“Every so often we’d pack a picnic lunch and go either to the beach or to the park. What’s now Marina Del Rey used to be Del Rey Beach and many of the Japanese families would go down there and have their little picnics. They had a little canal* there and that’s where we used to find other Japanese American families. Another place was San Pedro — they called it White Point. We’d walk down the rocky craggy cliffs and find a spot, do a little fishing and abalone hunting. They used to have many of the prefecture [families with roots in a specific Japanese region] picnics there.”

*See our blogpost Grand Design: The Canals of Venice for a description of the canal.

Ready. Set. Go! Children line up for a foot race at a picnic sponsored by their after-school Japanese language program. Image #00004248.

“Evacuation”

The terms “evacuation” and “relocation” are euphemisms still often used to describe the forced upheaval of Japanese and Japanese Americans from the West Coast states during World War II. We described the process in our 2017 blogpost There and Back: Los Angeles Japanese and Executive Order 9066. In the spring of 1942, Alice and her family were sent first to the Santa Anita Assembly Center, a horse race track, and then to Gila River Internment Camp in Arizona.

“Well, as you know everyone had to be evacuated. And here we had this acreage and all our equipment. And so we put it into a barn, locked it up. But of course during the course of the war there wasn’t a thing left. Not one item was in there when we came back after the war. And so we started from scratch and were able to take over little bits of land which grew into forty-four acres again. And we were able to grow flowers until 1961 when the property was finally sold.”

Alice with her family at Gila River War Relocation Center, about 1942: Mother Kyo and Alice standing; father Harue kneeling center; Isamu at left; Hitoshi at right. Image #00004265.

Life in the camps was a series of indignities, including the requirement to bring one’s own eating utensils.

“They had a list of items [you could take with you]. For instance, for the mess hall they asked that we buy a tin plate and a cup so that we could get our food and line up and then — just the bare essentials. We just tried to take whatever we felt was necessary, mostly in clothing. And of course any items like knives or scissors or things of that nature were confiscated.”

In 1943 Alice was given permission to leave the camp to marry her fiancé, Arthur Ito, who was in the service. She was allowed to remain with him in Minnesota (far from the “exclusion zone”) and while he served overseas, while she taught Japanese to GIs.

Alice and Arthur Ito married on Valentine’s Day, 1943, in the base chapel, Camp Grant, Illinois. Image #00004253.

At war’s end, Alice’s family was allowed to return to Los Angeles where they managed to reclaim a portion of their land. Sadly, the family patriarch, Harue, took ill and passed away shortly after the return. Alice and Arthur took on the running of the business. When they sold the nursery in 1961, they opened a full-service floral shop, Flower View Gardens, on Western Avenue in Hollywood which was still open at the time of Alice’s 1993 interview.

The Itos became prominent in the flower industry and in the Japanese American community. Arthur rose to become vice president of FTD (Florist Transworld Delivery, as well as president of the Hollywood chapter of the JACL (Japanese American Citizens League). Alice became active in the Executive Women’s International, a women’s professional organization. Family papers make up 52 boxes in the Huntington Library archives.

Culture Clash

Toward the end of the interview, Alice is asked what she thinks of the many changes in Los Angeles. She describes the many waves of new immigrants and, while acknowledging the challenges population diversity brings, she sees hope for growing understanding and tolerance.

“I think we, too, as citizens have to learn [about] the cultures of all these other people that are here. However, it’s very hard to do that because it’s so completely different. For instance, the Asian community: we have the Thailand group, the Cambodians, the Vietnamese, of course mainland China; there’s a few in our area Taiwanese. And then, on the other hand, we have the Latino group and then from the Middle East we have many Armenians and I can’t even begin to tell you what nationalities are all in there. But I’m sure as citizens, it’s up to us to learn. As as business people we have to do that. We’re confronted with many of these problems because we don’t know, but I think in time, I hope, we’ll be able to understand each other a little better.”

The featured image at top shows an unidentified family in Japan, c. 1900, probably Alice’s mother’s family. Image #00004293.

There and back: Los Angeles Japanese and Executive Order 9066

Seventy-five years ago, in the spring of 1942, the City of Los Angeles experienced a population exodus triggered by a presidential executive order. Images in the Los Angeles Public Library’s Herald Examiner Collection and Shades of L.A. Collection tell the story of Executive Order 9066 and its impact on Japanese residents and on the city itself.

From the day of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, December 7, 1941, many Americans lived in fear of a further assault or even an invasion. President Roosevelt’s Executive Order, while not naming the Japanese or any other group by name, gave broad powers to the Secretary of War to guard against the threat of sabotage and espionage. Within days of the February 19 order, a series of “Public Proclamations” and “Civilian Exclusion Orders” directed that Japanese and Japanese-Americans be removed from all West Coast states in order to prevent collusion with the enemy. Virtually all Japanese, by birth or ancestry, were rounded up with scant warning and sent to  ten internment camps far from the coast. Age, sex, or condition offered no exception to the rule. Having as little as 1/16th Japanese blood marked one for removal. Orphans of Japanese blood were gathered up and transported, even if they were in the care of Caucasian families.

Big Sale in Little Tokyo

In the spring of 1942 many Japanese lived and worked in a section of downtown Los Angeles dubbed Little Tokyo. When the order came down, families were given six days to dispose of their property and belongings; each person was allowed to bring only what they could carry with them. Japanese businesses held fire sales; families sought desperately for places to store their belongings and friends to care for their property and their pets. Cars were sold for pennies on the dollar.  Herald Examiner Collection, Image #00068543, March 21, 1942.

Many Japanese were anxious to show their loyalty to the United States and its institutions. The photo editor of the image above made sure to draw attention to the sign posted above the cash register in this Japanese-run drugstore: “Please no talk war!” Herald Examiner Collection, Image #00068538, March 1942.

Although internment was carried out in waves, by early summer the streets of Little Tokyo were empty. The newspaper photo above was captioned “Shops for rent on a deserted 1st Street in Little Tokyo.” Herald Examiner Collection, Image #00022054, June 18, 1942.

Exodus

Japanese families gather with their belongings at a departure point where they will be taken to an assembly center and, eventually, to an internment camp. All persons, including children, had to wear identification tags. The intention of the tags was to prevent families from being separated. Tags also identify bales of bedding which might or might not be reunited with their owners. Herald Examiner Collection, Image #00044031, April 2, 1942.

The caption for this photo from the Herald-Examiner reads “Young Japanese girls brave the early morning rain to bid farewell to friends leaving for Manzanar relocation camp.”  Herald-Examiner Collection, Image #00034809, 1942.

Evacuees had to endure several weeks or months at assembly centers while basic camp structures were prepared for them in the hinterland. Assembly centers were located throughout the West at fairgrounds and racetracks where families often were crowded into horse or livestock stalls. As with all aspects of the relocation, government publicity outlets bent over backwards to give a favorable impression of their actions. The photograph above, from the Herald Examiner, is accompanied by a highly colored optimism: “A little Japanese girl meekly submits to a hair wash while a woman nearby also washes her hair on June 25, 1942. A far cry from the Axis concentration camps ravaged with torture, starvation and death, is the Santa Anita Assembly Center, where 18,500 Japanese are quartered on the grounds of the luxurious Santa Anita Race Track.” Herald-Examiner Collection, Image # 00043915, June 25, 1942.

This image (with crop marks) shows rows of temporary housing erected in the parking lot of the Santa Anita Park racetrack. The track’s parade ring is at right. Herald-Examiner Collection, Image #00044039, 1942.

 

Home Away from Home

Aware of the mixed feelings on internment, government and media tried hard to style detention as something in the best interests of the internees, as well as the local populace. The term “internment camp” was often replaced with “relocation center” or “evacuation center.” (The preferred term among some historians today is “concentration camp.”) Some news accounts went farther to spin the reality of the forced move, referring to “new homes” awaiting the “evacuees.” The article accompanying the photo above calls Manzanar, the destination of the motor caravan, “the new boom town, Little Tokio of the Mountains.” Herald Examiner Collection, Image #00044026, 1942.

Of course stark reality was much different. The sites chosen were in remote, harsh environments. Accommodations were hastily erected with much work needing to be completed by the inmates themselves. Residents of Los Angeles might find themselves at Gila River on an Arizona Indian Reservation, at Heart Mountain in the sagebrush desert of Wyoming, at treeless Tule Lake in Northern California, or at Manzanar — a once fertile valley drained of its water by the Los Angeles Aqueduct.

It is not surprising that there are few, if any, images of the exodus in the Shades of L.A. Collection — photos shared with Los Angeles Public Library by minority families. Those caught up in the confusion would have other things to worry about than documenting their departure and a camera would have been a heavy luxury to carry along. However, once settled in the camps, Japanese families for the most part adopted a stoic resignation and worked to recreate some sense of familiarity and normality in bleak surroundings. In the photo above, James Otake celebrates his first birthday at the Gila River camp sitting on the lap of his mother, Mariko (Mary). A cake sits next to them. Since the photo is dated 1945, James must have been born in the camp. Shades of L.A. Collection, Image #00000735.

A panoramic view of Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming. The mountain itself dominates the landscape. Army style barracks serve as housing for the internees. Shades of L.A. Collection, Image #00003694.

 

Residents of the Gila River internment camp in Arizona were able to find sardonic humor in setting up a “country club.” The writing on the photo reads “Tournament! March 5, 1944.” Shades of L.A. Collection, Image #00004306, 1944.

Touches of home are visible in the photo of this tar paper hut at the Tule Lake internment camp, including flowers in coffee-can pot and a two-wheeler for Grace Toya. Shades of L.A. Collection, Image #00004455, 1945.

Schooling continued in the camps. Here second graders at Manzanar pose with their teacher, 1945. Shades of L.A. Collection, Image #00004179.

This image is labeled “Yuki and James Toya at Tule lake internment camp during winter snow, 1945.” Perhaps they are the parents of Grace Toya pictured above. Shades of L.A. Collection, Image #00004453.

Changes at home

The wholesale removal of Japanese and Japanese-Americans meant the streets of Little Tokyo were deserted — but not for long. Real estate abhors a vacuum as much as nature does. Without paying tenants, the landlords of these buildings were able to re-lease the storefronts and apartments, in many cases to other ethnic minority groups. African-American families arrived in West Coast cities to work in the war effort. With racial covenants in place in many communities, and widespread discrimination in housing generally, the newly vacated Little Tokyo presented one of the few options available to them.

For approximately three years Little Tokyo took on the moniker “Bronzetown,” in recognition of the many African-American run businesses that sprang up there, including Schepp’s Playhouse, a nightclub. In this photo  Ruth David, William Love, and Bernice Patton (R.N., 2nd Lt., Army) relax at Schepp’s. Shades of L.A. Collection, Image # 00001830, c. 1944.

A man, identified as Alberto Munoz, prepares to re-open a cleaners established by a Japanese family. The movie poster at right advertises the Japanese film Joi Kinuyo Sensei (Doctor Kinuyo) from 1937. The star of the movie, Kinuyo Tanaka, was a popular actress in both pre- and post-war films and, later, one of Japan’s first female film directors. Herald-Examiner Collection, Image #00068523, June 17, 1942.

The Return

This photo accompanied an article titled “Japs leave to settle in freedom throughout the U.S.” The freedom referred to meant moving across state lines from California to Nevada. Toward the end of 1943 overcrowding at the camps forced authorities to relax some restrictions. However, this hardly meant full freedom. Those allowed to leave Manzanar had to swear they would not return to their homes on the coast. Herald-Examiner Collection, Image #00043908, November 17, 1943.

Tara Kawa was able to reclaim his fish market after returning from the Gila River internment camp. Herald-Examiner Collection, Image # 00043954, September 7, 1945.

In December 1944, with the war in the Pacific turning in favor of the Allies, President Roosevelt lifted Executive Order 9066. The process of re-integrating the Japanese back into the lives they’d left behind was complex; it would be another year before all the camps were completely closed. Many internees had lost everything, including friends, and did not return to California. Others were able to piece their lives back together with some help from public authorities and faith groups. The lucky ones, such as the man above, were able to re-establish their businesses.

Justice for all?

In 1943, Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of the man who issued Executive Order 9066, visited internees at Gila River and then wrote a lengthy piece for Colliers Magazine about internment. While acknowledging the exigencies of war, the First Lady made clear her own feelings in the matter:

“We have no common race in this country, but we have an ideal to which all of us are loyal. It is our ideal which we want to have live. It is an ideal which can grow with our people, but we cannot progress if we look down upon any group of people amongst us because of race or religion. Every citizen in this country has a right to our basic freedoms, to justice and to equality of opportunity, and we retain the right to lead our individual lives as we please, but we can only do so if we grant to others the freedoms that we wish for ourselves.” (Eleanor Roosevelt, “A Challenge to American Sportsmanship,” Collier’s Magazine, October 10, 1943)

In 1989 the U.S. Government issued a formal apology to those interned during World War II and provided “redress” payments of $20,000 to each surviving internee.

Sources for this essay include the website Densho.org and Confinement and Ethnicity: An Overview of World War II Japanese American Relocation Sites, University of Washington Press, 2002.