Japantown Asks “Y”

The YWCA's financial straits reveal layers of a neighborhood's history

Short on cash and long on debt, the San Francisco YWCA thought it had found a simple solution to its problems: sell some of its buildings, raise some money, and pay its bills.

But not so fast.
Plans to sell two buildings — one in Chinatown, the other in Japantown — hit a wall of opposition this summer when the Y announced its intentions. Community groups said the centers, designed by architect Julia Morgan and built in the 1920s, are historically significant and should remain in the hands of the Chinese-, Japanese-, and African-American communities they serve.

To pacify the communities, the Y agreed to let community nonprofits bid on the buildings before placing them on the open market. The Chinese-American Historical Society, with the city's help, is buying the Clay Street Y for $760,000 — slightly less than the asking price. But the fate of the Japantown YWCA is still uncertain.

Add to the Japantown building's $1.6 million price tag a hornet's nest of history. The center's cultural legacy encompasses everything from the Japanese-American internment during World War II to the state of racial coexistence in the Western Addition — not to mention the YWCA's viability in the fast-changing social landscape of urban America.

Oh, and then there's a nagging little question about just who owns the Japantown building.

Deadline after deadline to find a suitable buyer has passed. And now, with various complications forcing the Y to seek legal advice and pull the property off the market indefinitely, the building is scheduled to close Nov. 1.

The tortuous history began before WWII, when the Sutter Street YWCA was known as the “Japanese YWCA.” Organized by the national YWCA in 1912, the Japanese Y was independently run and was merely affiliated with the San Francisco YWCA. It had a Japanese-American board of directors, its own programs, and its own budget.

Minutes from San Francisco YWCA meetings in the early 1920s show that churchgoers and other members of the Japanese community raised most of the $26,000 needed to purchase the current property and construct the building at 1830 Sutter. Under the California Alien Land Act, however, noncitizens could not own land at the time. Other legislation barred Japanese and Chinese people from becoming citizens, classifying them as “unassimilable aliens.” So in 1921, the San Francisco YWCA purchased the property on behalf of the Japanese YWCA: “this property to be bought by the local association and held in trust for the Japanese YWCA,” according to minutes from May 1920. No decision regarding the use of the property — including its sale — was to be made without consulting the Japanese YWCA board.

Internment in 1942 effectively put an end to the Japanese YWCA, by removing all its members and directors. But the Japanese board was never formally dissolved. Japanese community and church leaders now say the Y should consult with the present-day churches and community groups that are the unofficial successors to the original Japanese YWCA.

The San Francisco YWCA board, however, last month rejected a bid by the Japanese Cultural and Community Center (JCCC) to buy the building for $1.2 million — $400,000 less than the Y's asking price. Board Treasurer Cheryl Lane says the Y decided not to sell the building for any price “until we evaluate all our alternatives for the use and disposal of this building.”

“When we first put the building on the market, we weren't aware of all these issues with the Japanese-American community,” Lane says. “We really need to resolve all these questions of ownership.”

Allen Okamoto, president of the Japanese Cultural and Community Center, says the building occupies a “key lot” in the area. It is the only remaining building in Japantown that was built before WWII, and one of a handful of structures that survived the redevelopment of the Western Addition during the 1950s and 1960s.

“The building is very significant because of the fact that the Japanese-American community raised the money to build it,” says Okamoto. “It holds a lot of history.”

Spearheading the charge against the YWCA, the JCCC's executive director, Paul Osaki, has enlisted the political might of Supervisor Mabel Teng, and thrust the issue before the city's Human Rights Commission. Osaki has accused the Y of excluding the Japanese-American community from its decision to sell the building — a charge Y administrators say is simply untrue.

Three S.F. churches, called the Soko Bukai or the Northern California Japanese Christian Churches Federation, claim to be the successors to the prewar Japanese YWCA board because their congregations raised the money to build the Japanese YWCA and buy the property it occupies. The churches fear that the YWCA would sell the building for its own profit, ignoring the provisions in the Y's minutes requiring any such proceeds be applied to programs (“Christian work”) for Japanese women and girls in San Francisco.

The Rev. Gary Barbaree, of the Soko Bukai, insists the churches want nothing more than to preserve the YWCA for all Western Addition residents, including Japanese- and African-Americans. “Any changes in the use of the YWCA should be consistent with the terms and purpose of the original trust,” says Barbaree, who is senior pastor at the Pine United Methodist Church. “The churches are really interested in any legacy of programs in that building.”

The legacy of the Sutter Street YWCA spans both Japanese- and African-American communities. From the center's opening in 1912 to the Japanese-American evacuation 30 years later, most Japanese girls and women in the community had some involvement with the Japantown YWCA. The center ran programs in Japanese and in English — from basketball to Japanese tea ceremony classes — and kept rooms where young women could stay.

Michi Onuma joined the YWCA in the 1920s. “You'd go in there, and somehow you'd feel right at home,” says Onuma, 88, who later was on the Japantown YWCA board of directors. “There was something about the atmosphere there.”

Then came WWII and the evacuation of more than 5,000 Japanese-Americans from S.F. in the spring of 1942. The “Japanese” YWCA was no more. During the war and into the 1950s, the American Friends Service Committee leased the building. Then the YWCA restarted its programs, first at the Buchanan Street YMCA and later at the Sutter Street center.

Membership changed with the surrounding community. The population had shifted from mostly Japanese- to mostly African-American. Many Japanese-Americans who had been interned did not return to the Western Addition after the war. African-Americans, however, who had moved into the area to take wartime jobs, had made this neighborhood their home.

Like YWCAs across the country, S.F.'s organization has become less member-driven and more community-oriented, tailoring its programs to serve the specific needs of its surrounding residents. Programs at the Japantown Y since the 1950s have focused on “at-risk” African-American girls.

African-American community leaders were part of early meetings with the YWCA to discuss the Sutter Street building's fate, but they soon dropped out of the talks. YWCA Treasurer Lane says Beverly Rashid, executive director of the Booker T. Washington Community Service Center, told Y President Lois Markovich that the African- and Japanese-American communities had different agendas. African-Americans simply wanted the Y's programs to continue, regardless of the building's ownership: Japanese-Americans wanted the building. (Rashid did not return phone calls seeking comment.)

Today, the faded pink building on Sutter Street is a shadow of its past. The two-story center houses the YWCA's “Sistahs” after-school program for 9- to 14-year-old girls and a mentorship program. Two non-YWCA programs — a Polynesian dance group and the Nihonmachi Little Friends, a bilingual Japanese-English day care — use the building also.

The Y has closed the building several times in the past because of low attendance at its programs; in 1972 the building was put up for sale for similar reasons. “We're paying $40,000 a year to serve 30 girls,” Lane says, referring to the building's operating costs. “These programs could very easily be run elsewhere and at much less cost. We've been subsidizing these buildings that weren't really providing income.”

The San Francisco YWCA's problems are not unique. Dozens of YWCAs across the country are facing closure because of similar problems. Nearly two-thirds of all Y's can't pay their dues to the national organization because they are barely clearing their operating costs.

Hard times have forced hard decisions for the San Francisco YWCA, which has had to cut programs, fire its administrative staff, and borrow $450,000. Membership has steadily declined in recent years, and money from once reliable sources like the United Way has eroded.

In S.F., the Y's Cheryl Lane says, the YWCA must simply make its money work better. That means selling valuable assets such as the Japantown Y to pay for programs. Once the Chinatown sale is completed, Lane says the YWCA will have the money to hire staff to chart the Y's future — and the future of the Japantown building.

“At this point, all we want to do is take a deep breath and figure out where to go from here,” Lane says with a sigh. “We just want to do the right thing.”

To the relief of African-American community groups, the girls' programs currently housed at the Y have found new homes for after the building's Nov. 1 closure. The Japanese-American community, however, is less than satisfied.

The Y has temporarily ceased all negotiations with Japanese-American groups, and won't allow the Japanese Cultural and Community Center to pursue its proposal to buy the building. The center's Allen Okamoto says he is puzzled by the Y's actions.

“If they do decide to put it on the market, right now they're wasting time,” says Okamoto. “The community is not out to 'get' the Y — this could be a win-win situation for everyone.

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