Cottage Row Zen garden sparks a fight



In celebration of its 110th anniversary this year, Japantown leaders proposed a gift to the neighborhood: a simple Zen rock garden at the foot of Cottage Row to honor the first generation of Japanese-Americans, the Issei, who established the community here after the 1906 earthquake and fire.

To create the garden, they enlisted the renowned landscape designers Shigeru Namba, who oversees Oracle boss Larry Ellison’s extensive Japanese garden, and Isao Ogura. Together the two have already created memorial gardens at San Francisco State and at Tanforan mall, the first stop for residents of Japantown evacuated and interned during World War II.

The gardeners would donate their services and all costs would be paid by private donations. Organizers hoped to complete the garden before the end of the anniversary year.

Then they ran into Bush Street resident Marvin Lambert.

At a public meeting to unveil the project on July 7, Lambert expressed reservations about the garden and complained that he and his neighbors who lived on and near Cottage Row had not been adequately consulted or notified about the meeting.

By a second hearing on August 11, Lambert arrived with a group of neighbors ready to declare his opposition to a Japanese garden on the Sutter Street side of the Cottage Row Mini Park, which he has denounced as “an out-and-out cultural land grab.” In turn, Paul Osaki — who is spearheading the garden project from his post as executive director of the Japanese Cultural and Community Center in Japantown — rallied a full house in favor of the memorial.

The atmosphere was tense.

“Cottage Row is the only place in Japantown they would recognize,” Osaki said of the first-generation founders. He introduced the project by recounting the history of the neighborhood, disrupted first when Japanese-Americans were locked up in internment camps during World War II, then again after they returned and the Redevelopment Agency leveled almost all of Japantown.

“It wasn’t always a cheerful, happy place,” Osaki said. “One of the only things that was spared was the Cottage Row Historic District.”

When the first Japanese-American in the audience spoke in favor of the project, Lambert demanded that all speakers state whether they lived in the neighborhood. A rumble ensued.

“Knock it off,” one elderly Japanese-American lady finally instructed.

It soon became clear that old wounds were being ripped open again. A number of Japanese-American speakers noted the exile and displacement their families had experienced and embraced the garden project as a way to honor their ancestors.

“But why this spot?” Lambert asked. “Cottage Row was never exclusively Japanese. It has nothing to do with Japantown.”

The garden would occupy 25 feet at the Sutter Street side of Cottage Row.

The garden would occupy 25 feet on the Sutter Street side of Cottage Row.

Cottage Row, the brick lane that runs mid-block between Fillmore and Webster from Bush to Sutter, opening onto a mini park, was created in 1882 by Col. Charles L. Taylor. As rental property, Taylor built several houses on Bush Street and six row houses behind them in the middle of the block. All are part of the Bush Street-Cottage Row Historic District, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982, nominated by noted neighborhood architectural historian Anne Bloomfield.

“In the 1930s the walkway was popularly called Japan Street,” Bloomfield reported, “because the entire district was inhabited by Japanese-Americans until their internment during World War II. In the tiny rear yards of Cottage Row they grew vegetables, which they offered for public sale at an informal weekly open market held every Saturday along the Row.”

But at the meeting and in a flurry of email circulated afterward, Lambert said Bloomfield and the National Register got the facts wrong in what he called “some flowery but erroneous language” that “is either implausible or demonstrably false.” He called the Japanese-American presence on Cottage Row “folklore” and set up a website with links to a variety of source material and his own report of  “corrections to errors in the nomination form.”

He wrote: “This document among other things corrects the notion that the Historic District was exclusively occupied with people of Japanese heritage at the time of internment, when the truth is that less than one-third of the residences were so occupied.”

Lambert’s report concedes that four of the six homes on Cottage Row were occupied by Japanese-Americans at the time of internment, plus two units at the top of the row on Bush Street.

It seemed that almost everyone left the August 11 meeting with bruised feelings. Several supporters of the garden said Lambert had been “disrespectful” to Japantown. Lambert claimed he had been subjected to “bullying and other harassment” at the meeting and decried “very uncivil behavior at a meeting that was intentionally packed with people following a scripted agenda.”

Lambert said it was important that any memorial honor not only Japanese-Americans, but also “the rich and diverse history of its surrounding neighborhood,” including Euro- and African-Americans and the gay community, all of whom helped nurture Cottage Row through the years.

Osaki wrote to a supporter: “They want us to put the garden on our side of the block.” He added: “I would have never believed that so much racism and bigotry would exist in our neighborhood today.”

A drawing of the proposed Issei Memorial Garden on Cottage Row.

A drawing of the proposed Issei memorial rock garden on Cottage Row.

A third community meeting was held on August 17 when the Japantown Task Force considered the Issei garden project.

Paul Osaki again presented the project. Marvin Lambert again opposed it.

“It’s not possible this project can happen this year,” Lambert said. “Let’s just find another location in Japantown.”

But two of his neighbors disagreed, and spoke in favor of the project.

“It’s ideal for this garden,” said Jeff Staben, who owns 1 Cottage Row.

“The park is a perfect location for such a memorial,” said Jan Bolaffi, the former longtime president of the Western Addition Neighborhood Association. “It may not be possible to get it done this year, but it can surely be completed next year.”

Osaki said he would take up the project with the staff of the Department of Recreation and Parks, which has jurisdiction over the Cottage Row Mini Park, before deciding how to proceed. Additional neighborhood meetings will be held this month by committees of the Japantown Task Force.

MORE: “How Japanese Was Cottage Row?

  • norah

    This Marvin Lambert sounds like a real piece of shit. Does HE own any of the cottages?

  • Audrey Sherlock

    Paul Osaki is the one reopening old wounds. He is also fostering divisiveness in a neighborhood where none existed, and for this he should be ashamed of himself, as well as for referring to anyone that opposes his plan as racists and bigots. The only racism exhibited in this dispute is towards the neighborhood residents Osaki excluded from the initial planning of this project as he tried to secretly move it forward.

    I have lived on Cottage Row for more than 30 years and have been intimately involved in the mini-park. It has finally evolved into a pleasant place and has always been a welcoming location for people of all races and ethnicity to come and sit, have lunch, play with children and pets, or now, just admire how it has been transformed. A special interest now wants to undermine this tranquility and transform the park into a daily reminder of a long past war from the perspective of just one narrow point of view. This is insulting to the Recreation & Parks Dept. staff and all of us who have worked to transform the park into what it is today, and particularly to those of us who have quite different and equally horrendous family memories of World War II. Enough with the tears!

    It is well known that the economic viability of Japantown is uncertain. Establishing this beachhead in a block that was never part of Japantown would just add confirmation for their overreaching strategy, which is to have tax and regulatory influence over as large an area as possible. Their Special Use District already covers part of Fillmore Street and nearby residential areas where people of Japanese heritage have never lived or conducted business to any significant degree.

    I invite anyone interested to visit the Peace Plaza in Japantown. Just west of the pagoda is a planted space that could readily be converted and this year into the proposed Zen garden with no opposition from anyone. And a far greater number of people would see it there than at Cottage Row. It also needs to be mentioned that Osaki currently lives in his family apartment next door to the Row. This suggests that the current proposal may be primarily a memorial to himself and his parents.

    Audrey Sherlock
    No. 6 Cottage Row

  • Linda Harris

    The irony of no Zen in the Zen Garden is indeed regrettable…is there a possibility for peace to prevail?

  • Barbara Jarr

    This story says so much that is just plain sad. I’m going to have to do something particularly nice tomorrow in protest.

  • Andre Bolaffi

    First, compliments on your excellent article.

    I don’t understand what Marvin Lambert’s objection is all about other than it simply is the classic NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) syndrome.

    It’s ironic that for 34 years, since Anne Bloomfield nominated (in 1982) the area for the National Register of Historic Places, Lambert did not once raise the issue that “Bloomfield and the National Register got the facts wrong in what he called ‘some flowery but erroneous language.’ ” He apparently enjoyed the benefits of that classification for all those years without objection!

    It took the United States of America 74 years, under President Ronald Reagan, to officially apologize to Americans of Japanese ancestry for Executive Order 9066, issued on February 19, 1942. It’s time for us as a community to now do our small part…support a simple and tasteful Zen Rock garden in that perfect spot to honor the 110th anniversary of the Issei.

  • Matthew Gilreath

    Shocking that someone would object to this project. Is this 2016 or 1956?

  • Mary King

    When we moved to the neighborhood in 1986 the park was of very little benefit to anyone as we were regularly serenaded by drunks and druggies who were occupying the space. It was a sorry place surrounded by chain link fencing. For much of the last 30 years, we neighbors attempted to maintain the park on our own while pleading with, begging and cajoling the park administration to try to upgrade the property. Finally, we had our hard work rewarded with a beautifully renovated park that aesthetically fits with its surroundings.

    Perhaps this will help to explain our chagrin over a small group of people trying to “cash in” on our efforts now that the park if so desirable. The park is lovely, with blooming flowers, trees and leafy shrubs. It is almost as if, after 30 years, someone turned the lights on and made it a warm and inviting place.

    Mr. Bolaffi accuses us of NIMBYism. In fact, it is just the opposite. What I hear from my bedroom window now is the joyous sound of preschoolers playing on the lawn and neighbors chatting as they walk their dogs. I would call it WIMBYism. Wonderful In My Back Yard. The Urban Dictionary defines Zen as a state of mind — that Zen involves dropping illusion and seeing things without distortion created by your own thoughts. Perhaps this is the new Zen, but I really hope that the Issei and Nisei would approve of watching children, some of whom could possibly be their great-grandchildren, many of whom are of a mixed racial and ethnic background, playing together peacefully on the lawn. It is, after all, the reason they came to America — to find a better place. I think they would approve of letting go of the horrors of past wars and conflicts and the stigma of prejudice in order to concentrate on what is now.