Berkeley City Council to vote on renaming street after early South Asian immigrant

The 'Re-Name Shattuck' banner that hangs on a fence near East Shattuck Avenue
Nirvana Ellaboudy/File
Berkeley City Council will soon vote to rename the part of Shattuck Avenue between University Avenue and Center Street after Kala Bagai, a South Asian woman who lived in Berkeley before moving to and becoming a community leader in Southern California.

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Content warning: suicide

Kala Bagai was one of the first South Asian women on the West Coast, moving to the Bay Area with her family in 1915 from present-day Pakistan, and now, a street in the heart of Berkeley will likely be named after her.

The City Council will vote on renaming the two-block stretch of Shattuck Avenue between University Avenue and Center Street after Bagai, mostly to combat the confusion of having two streets named Shattuck Avenue in Downtown Berkeley.

When Bagai and her family first arrived at their house in Berkeley, they were barred from entering and ultimately driven out of the city on account of their race.

Bagai and her family later obtained U.S. citizenship, but a 1923 Supreme Court decision led to many South Asian immigrants being stripped of citizenship, including Bagai and her family. As a result, Bagai’s husband became a stateless person and eventually took his own life.

Bagai went on to teach herself English, put her three children through college and remarry. She later moved to Southern California and became a leader in her South Asian community.

It may seem counterintuitive to name a Berkeley street after someone who made her name mostly in Southern California, but according to Barnali Ghosh, a creator of the Berkeley South Asian Radical History Walking Tour and a leader in the effort to get Bagai’s name chosen, it makes perfect sense.

Ghosh suggested that naming the street after Bagai honors the contributions she made to the South Asian community in Southern California and also acknowledges the fact that she was driven out of Berkeley before she could have an impact here.

According to Ghosh, it is important to name streets not only after heroes, but also after those who “make us look hard at our communities, which have a progressive reputation but haven’t always been progressive” and those who may not be traditional activists.

“This renaming is not about who won an award or who won this office, but it’s really about celebrating the wider forms of organizing and support that our mothers and grandmothers often do,” Ghosh said.

Ghosh is excited for the street to be named after an Asian American, specifically an Asian American woman.

She said she suspects that there are more streets in Berkeley named after horses than there are named after women.

“Renaming the street after Kala Bagai … would tell the Berkeley South Asian student community that their desire to be politically involved and their desire to be activists isn’t something new, but is a part of who they are and is a part of the history of the city of Berkeley,” said Ruhee Wadhwania, a UC Berkeley alumna who was involved in the campaign for Bagai to be considered.

A City Council subcommittee made a positive recommendation Wednesday for renaming the street after Bagai, which will next be voted on by City Council, according to Ghosh.

Contact Clara Brownstein at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @clarabrownstein.