CROSSROADS TO SOMEWHERE: Revisiting the Past Can Play Havoc with Present

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WIMPY1By W.T. WIMPY HIROTO

[JAHSSC is a six-letter, unpronounceable acronym. Spell it out and it’s Japanese American Historical Society of Southern California, a fifty-one letter mouthful. Now watch as it turns into an 850-word column.]

Crossroads to Somewhere Sunday attended JAHSSC’s luncheon finale at Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute (thirty-eight letters, also sans pronounceable spoonerism), better known as GVJCI, JCI for short]. Which is neither here nor there. The minute I entered the hall, purpose and reason took leave.

“You Can’t Go Home Again” is the title of an iconic Thomas Wolfe novel written many years ago. Crooner Mel Torme, the Velvet Fog, recorded a melancholy ballad, “Stranger in Town,” about the time I read Wolfe’s tome. A double dose of youthful angst, not knowing what to do or where to go. Growing up in wartime confusion, thanks to Camp Poston, the painful, challenging question of where you belonged always loomed large.

This uncertainty became a discouraging trifecta when renowned poet/journalist Carl Sandburg reminded me that “the past is but a bucket of ashes.” [Whenever using that phrase, I always make the point to add a personal aside, “and don’t stir the embers.” Piggy-back plagiarism?]

Well, it’s been proven over and again that you can (and do) go home again. And being a stranger in town is merely a reflection of absence. As far as the admonition regarding ashes is concerned, well, maybe that’s why we cremate, yes?

All of which is a convoluted (admittedly weird) way to tell you that GVJCI was my home base for twenty-seven years, five months. A very long time. And Sunday was the first time I’d been back since leaving, fourteen years and one month ago! Can’t be blamed for a bit of nostalgia. Oyez. I don’t know about goose bumps or a roiling stomach, but there certainly was plenty of activity in the mind.

An arsonist in 1972 had torched the old wood clap building at 1964 W. 162nd St., the original (circa 1920) home of Gardena Valley Japanese Language School. Efforts to revive the school melded into a drive to rebuild as a larger community center that would be better equipped to house new postwar JA South Bay organizations. Competing interests clashed and the cooperative effort stalled, to put it nicely.

Unable to agree on a local leader to head the joint campaign, thirty-three influential community representatives met in September of 1974 to iron out their differences. A compromise was reached with the naming of a temporary coordinator, someone from the “outside world” without local ties. An ELA carpetbagger was chosen. Me.

By hook and crook, luck, karma and a revived spirit of cooperation, the joint efforts of Japanese school, martial arts, veterans, youth groups, senior citizens, bankers, nursery moguls, Issei/Nisei/Okinawa interests, et alia joined hands to conduct and complete a highly successful fund drive that transformed a hole in the ground into what it is today the JCI. A search committee was formed to find a charter executive director. It found wa-ta-shi.

Institute holdings consisted of the two-story edifice, next-door VFW building, two income properties, a parking structure and money in the bank when I retired in 2001. But the crown jewel of the realm is the 100-room senior housing corporation, JCI Gardens, constructed under auspices of U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in 1980.

Constant crises were the order of the day when the ambitious project was first proposed. Heading the naysayers was a recalcitrant board of directors that preferred a gymnasium. As soon as that major dissent was overcome, a strong and vocal neighborhood protest committee popped up in loud opposition. It successfully swayed a biased Torrance Planning Commission to vote a resounding 9-zip against the proposal. [This vote, mind you, came while a JCI board member was its chairman!] With a mere sixty days to overcome the death-knell verdict, against all odds Mayor Katy Geissert and a City Council majority was swayed to overrule its own commission. This was just the beginning.

Some were disgruntled because money ($10,000) had already been expended on initial plans for a combination gymnasium/auditorium (dubbed “gymtorium”). The FOR Club was at the height of its local power and popularity; Gardena politicians, while not enthusiastic supporters, at least remained neutral. As did the all-powerful poker club interests. All of which was of no consequence since the proposed site was in Torrance.

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While all this historical reflection is going on, it dawned on me that GVJCI is in a unique position. While JA non-profits face financial challenges, the JCI will soon be the envy of all and worthy of another column.

So yeah, CR2S was mentally AWOL throughout the proceedings. With other Rafu people in attendance, someone will write about the JAHSSC program. They deserve applause for being one of the few orgs that accomplish their mission and know when it’s time to turn out the lights.

W.T. Wimpy Hiroto can be reached at [email protected] Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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