By Jon Osaki
In 2015, Japantown Foundation board member Bob Hamaguchi and Jon Osaki brought forward a neglected, pipe dream of a project which had only the slimmest chances of success.As the Executive Director of the Japantown Task Force, Bob was intimately aware of the long, flawed history of the Japantown Peace Plaza and how it was tragically symbolic of the struggles and plight of the neighborhood.
After the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, the community in San Francisco slowly, but surely began to re-establish Japantown as a sustainable neighborhood. However, efforts to re- acquire homes and re-establish businesses was met with another catastrophic blow when San Francisco’s Redevelopment Agency began to invoke eminent domain to forcibly evict thousands of Japantown residents from the mid-1960’s through the mid-1970’s.The Peace Plaza was built during the Area-1 (or A-1) phase of the Western Addition’s redevelopment on the very location where many Japanese Americans were evicted from their homes and businesses.
After decades of wear and persistent leaks into the garage below, an attempt was made by the City to repair and renovate the plaza in 2001. What began as a genuine community effort to improve the plaza, which included major contributions from Japantown groups, businesses, and the Japan Center Garage Corporation, eventually fell apart. In the City’s haste to complete the project, the voices of the community were ulti- mately dismissed, and the plaza was redesigned based upon the preferences of City officials.
To add insult to injury, when it was soon discovered that the construction of the redesigned plaza was flawed, the City proceeded to file a legal suit against the contractor.A settlement was reached, but the dollars re- covered by the City quietly disappeared into San Francisco’s coffers. For decades, the Peace Plaza remained neglected and was allowed to deteriorate into a soulless, concrete symbol of Japantown’s dark and often forgotten history.
When Bob announced his intention to reinvigorate an effort to address the many problems with the plaza, the project faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles.While the plaza was under the jurisdiction of the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department, it was maintained by the Department and Public Works and the garage below was the property of the Municipal Transit Authority.
Convincing multiple public agencies to work together and secure the massive resources necessary for a project of this magnitude were tremendously daunting tasks, but Bob approached the Japantown Foundation with a funding proposal to see if it was possible to initiate a movement to repair and renovate the community’s only open space. Without any assurances of success, the Japantown Foundation granted seed funds to provide Bob and JTF with an opportunity to dedicate time and effort towards exploring what was possible.
For the next two years, the Japantown Foundation continued to award grant funds to support Bob’s effort to move this mountain of a project. After countless meetings, hearings, and letter writing, local officials finally began to understand the City’s long overdue obligation to remedy the tragic mistakes of redevelopment. The result of Bob’s efforts was to build a movement which would eventually lead the Recreation and Parks, Public Works and Municipal Transit Authority to collectively commit to finally creating an open space that represents the needs and character of Japantown.
Unfortunately, Bob Hamaguchi passed away in 2017, but the leadership of JTF including successor Executive Director Steve Nakajo, JTF Board Chair Sandy Mori and Peace Plaza Co-Chair Richard Hashimoto, would continue his work with annual grants awarded by the Japantown Foundation.After a multi-year, persistent community campaign, the Peace Plaza was selected as a priority project for San Francisco’s 2020 Health of Recovery Bond ballot measure.The bond measure passed overwhelmingly and secured $25 million for Japantown’s Peace Plaza. Though Bob never got to see this impossible dream of a project realized, the
Japantown Foundation is immensely grateful for his vision and relentless efforts. The Japantown Foundation board has no doubt that he will be there with us when construction of the redesigned Peace Plaza is finally completed.