‘Tangible and physical reminder’ of Berkeley’s pre-World War II Japanese American community gets landmark status

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On Tuesday, Berkeley City Council unanimously voted to confirm the landmark status of the “University Laundry” building, citing its historical and cultural value to the Japanese American community, according to Councilmember Kate Harrison.

The building, located at 2526-2530 Shattuck Ave., housed a commercial laundry for nearly three decades. It was operated by Japanese American families until 1942, when the families were sent to internment camps, forcing Berkeley’s Japanese Americans to “settle their affairs, dispose of their belongings, pack, and register for removal,” according to Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association President Steven Finacom in an email.

According to Finacom, landmarking means that external modifications of the building and proposals for demolition or addition must be reviewed by the Landmarks Preservation Commission before implementation.

Finacom wrote the landmark application in 2016.

At the meeting, Mayor Jesse Arreguín, council members and Berkeley residents discussed the merits of designating landmark status to the University Laundry building. Specifically, members of the Japanese American community showed up to argue in favor of the proposal.

“(University Laundry) is a tangible and physical reminder of Berkeley’s pre-World War II Japanese American community. … It is one of the few physical survivors of that history,” a meeting attendee said. “(It is) a reminder of the discrimination and also the successes of the Japanese American community.”

Other individuals in favor of landmarking the building echoed this desire to preserve a legacy of Japanese Americans who lived there. One attendee said, “to deny … what my parents had to go through is really dishonorable to them.”

The University Laundry building is one of the few “tangible” associations with the prewar Japanese American community in Berkeley, according to Finacom. He said in an email that in California, the Japanese American community was uniquely affected by World War II, and although “history and hindsight have widely condemned the Japanese American imprisonment,” that doesn’t negate their experiences.

A few individuals present at the meeting, however, were not in favor of landmarking the building, including campus graduate student Jonathan Morris. Morris said the features of the building presented at the meeting are not evidence of its cultural and historical value. He added that landmark status is sometimes used to prevent the construction of affordable housing.

Finacom called such opposition “over-zealous, ignorant and misguided” in an email, and added that he doesn’t think every single building needs to be a development site for housing or businesses.

“Berkeley is not a Monopoly board or Sim City where everything existing can or should be simply taken away,” Finacom said in the email. “It’s a real place with a fine-grained urban landscape and deep and complex history.”

Councilmember Sophie Hahn said at the meeting that if Berkeley only memorializes the “most beautiful and grand buildings,” then “by definition,” they are failing to commemorate the history of the average folk.

Though Finacom acknowledged that University Laundry is not an “architectural masterpiece,” he believes it still qualifies as a landmark.

“Berkeley’s Landmarks Preservation Ordinance is not just about architectural distinction,” Finacom said in the email. “It allows landmark designation when a property is of cultural significance as well. This building eminently qualifies.”

Contact Sri Medicherla at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @sri_medicherla.