Berkeley city officials, the Bagai family and others unveiled the renamed Kala Bagai Way on Thursday, the first street in Berkeley to be named after an Asian immigrant.
Previously a fork in Shattuck Avenue located between University Avenue and Center Street, Kala Bagai Way was renamed after one of Berkeley’s first South Asian residents, according to her granddaughter Rani Bagai. Upon emigrating from modern-day Pakistan with her husband and three sons in 1915, Bagai faced racism and discrimination through which she persevered. Rani Bagai added that her grandmother went on to become an immigrant activist and community builder.
“This is the first street in Berkeley to be named for an Asian individual, here in a city that is one-fifth Asian American,” said District 7 City Councilmember Rigel Robinson in an email. “There’s power in names, there’s power in whose histories we choose to memorialize. Today is about creating a sense of belonging for all who call Berkeley home.”
According to Rani Bagai, her grandmother’s family encountered resistance and ignorance from community members when they first moved to Berkeley. Not only were they locked out of a home they had purchased, but they also left their neighborhood as a result of racism.
Kala Bagai’s husband was stripped of his citizenship and eventually took his life, Rani Bagai added. Kala Bagai relocated soon thereafter to Los Angeles, remarried and formed an Indian-American community hub that hosted cultural events with a focus on inclusivity, according to Rani Bagai.
“She wanted to build bridges between American community and the Indian community to educate people about this other culture and be welcoming to other newcomers so that they could have the kind of welcome that she had been denied,” Rani Bagai said.
The city welcomed the renaming of the street by putting up banners in celebration of Bagai’s legacy, according to the event’s livestream.
This unveiling of the street name also served as a ribbon cutting for the Shattuck reconfiguration project, a project intended to improve the traffic flow, pedestrian safety, landscaping and sidewalk amenities of the Downtown Berkeley area, according to the livestream.
“Most importantly, the renaming of these two blocks is a celebration of the diversity of our great town and in particular, the work of this amazing woman and also the South Asian community, which often has not gotten the same recognition of other communities in Berkeley,” said CEO of the Downtown Berkeley Association John Caner during the event.
Rani Bagai hopes people will remember her grandmother for the inclusive community she built and that they will feel more welcomed and less alienated when they see her name on the street sign.
She added that the street name will hopefully serve as a reminder of the importance of learning about other cultures and not taking freedoms and rights for granted.
“As we experience a surge in anti-Asian hate crimes nationwide, we must remember that discrimination against Asian Americans and immigrants is nothing new,” Robinson said in the email. “Kala Bagai was driven out of Berkeley for her race, but today, we are welcoming her back home.”