Highlighting San Diego's Asian and Pacific Islander community, part one

For nearly 20 years, the month of May has been a special time to honor the rich culture and historical contributions of Asian-Americans, but too often the challenges of this large, vibrant community are overlooked by San Diego's elected officials. To expand public awareness, this author hereby introduces the first in a monthlong series on how local government can build better bridges with the more than 337,300 Asians and Pacific Islanders that call San Diego County home.

In focus is Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month, a national commemoration first established by Congress in 1991 to provide "an opportunity for the people of the United States to recognize the history, concerns, contributions and achievements of Asian and Pacific Americans." In classrooms across the country, students are learning how for centuries Asian-Americans have shared in the weaving of our national tapestry. With every hardship and sacrifice, victory and defeat, their legacy is intertwined with the general public's, and can be found in the timeworn stores, homes and sidewalks that construct America's cities, including San Diego.

At the southern tip of the Gaslamp District, the Asian/Pacific Thematic Historic District (APTHD) is an eight block area featuring 22 historic buildings that previously housed waves of Chinese, Japanese and Filipino immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Arriving first as farmhands, laborers and fisherman, these newcomers later came to own and operate restaurants, pool halls and barber shops clustered near the downtown vice district known as Stingaree. Regrettably, economic segregation (both formal and informal) kept San Diego's Asians and Pacific Islanders living and working in blighted conditions, made even less hospitable by the xenophobic fervor and unemployment political pressures raging in the corridors of local, state and federal government.

San Diego's Asian community has been historically uprooted by coercive and discriminatory government actions. Consider the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and subsequent anti-immigrant laws passed by the California state legislature; the military draft of World War II; and the forced internment of Japanese-Americans in the 1940s. The city of San Diego's own "clean up" effort that preceded the hosting of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition in Balboa Park targeted undesirable downtown buildings and businesses for removal, virtually eliminating Chinatown in the process. In the words of the City Health Inspector, "the waterfront had been cleaned up, the Stingaree had been wiped out, (and) Chinatown had almost disappeared." It is surprising then that the APTHD exists at all today, especially considering the modern-day neglect and indifference from local public officials charged with the development of "cultural and educational projects" in the downtown area.

Since its inception in the 1970s, the Centre City Development Corporation (CCDC) has not made the APTHD or cultural preservation a priority in downtown planning; as a result, San Diego is shamefully the last metropolitan area on the West Coast without a thriving historic Asian district. A hastily-written 1986 report commissioned by the redevelopment agency identified few historic buildings in the former Chinatown area as worth saving from demolition, and gave tepid support for the creation of a historic district. Incredibly, CCDC's own special council on historic preservation agreed with the report's findings, and advised against establishing the APTHD. Only through grassroots political action and educational efforts by historical preservationists and leaders in the Asian American community were valuable structures like the Chinese Mission kept from destruction, and the APTHD was formally approved by the San Diego City Council in 1987. Since that time, APTHD has been largely invisible to the public eye, lacking the distinctive look and feel of other storied cultural neighborhoods that dot our national landscape, though a new local effort promises to break away from San Diego's deplorable track record in cultural preservation.

According to CCDC documents, a $2.5 million public improvement initiative is planned for the APTHD beginning this fall, including a signature "Asian gateway," themed flora and hardscape enhancements, and guarding lion statues at the intersection of Third Avenue and J Street. Though this comes as a welcome change, it is a critical community investment that is now four decades overdue. Moreover, until it actually occurs, it is merely a promise, one that competes with other CCDC budgetary priorities that have received more public fanfare and attention from the local media (New Central Library, Civic Center, and Chargers football stadium). Just as activists and community leaders rallied in the 1980's to create the APTHD, so to must they rejoin and work together today to finish the job and keep CCDC on track with public enhancements in 2010.

Though San Diegan families come from different walks of life, we all deserve an opportunity to share our story, and those of our ancestors. Turning our back now on cultural respect and historical preservation would be ruinous to everything we have gained as a society in the post-civil rights era, and would forfeit the fragile peace between our disgraceful past and our promising future. This Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month, San Diegans of all ethnic backgrounds should consider the importance of protecting our collective cultural history for future generations.

Vasquez is the senior policy analyst at the National University System Institute for Policy Research.

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