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Salt Lake street may honor Japantown

In much the same way that a meadow might be filled up with condominiums that are then named The Meadows, a small stretch of 100 South is poised to be renamed Japantown Street.

Japantown Street will hark back to the first half of the 20th century, when a few blocks of 100 South west of Main Street were the geographic and cultural center of Salt Lake City's Japanese community. At one end of the street was the Japanese Church of Christ. Near the other end was the Mikado. In between there was the Eagle Laundry, a fish market, a tofu store, pool halls and several restaurants, including one owned by Etsuko Ogura's grandmother.

Like other ethnic enclaves, Japantown was both a refuge reminiscent of the old country and a place to launch new, American lives. Ogura and her sisters used to roller skate down J-town's sidewalks as they headed out to explore J.C. Penney and Woolworths farther downtown.

In the mid-1960s, though, wrecking balls knocked down most of Japantown to make way for the original incarnation of the Salt Palace. Down went the Dawn Noodle House, Hama-san's Colonial Tailors and the Aloha Cafe. Suddenly there was nowhere to even buy a bag of short-grain rice.

"Beneath the present-day structure of the Salt Palace," says Ogura, "lies the soul and memory of the Japanese people."

Within the next few weeks, the Salt Lake City Council is expected to approve the Japantown Street name change for the block of 100 South between 200 and 300 West — an honorary designation that the area's Japanese community hopes is just the first step in some sort of revitalization of the old J-town. In the meantime, Ogura's exhibit, called "Japan Town: Circa 1960-1962" opened this weekend at Art Access Gallery, 230 S. 500 West.

Grandmother Ogura is a central figure in these sculptures. In one, titled "Picture Bride," a porcelain version of her cloth satchel is full of letters from the family she left behind in Japan. On one side of the suitcase are a pair of Japanese 3-inch platform sandals, on the other side a pair of American shoes. Grandmother adapted to her new life, "but the soul is still Japanese," says her granddaughter.

The soul of 100 South, even when the block is renamed Japantown, is no longer very Japanese, even though the latest Salt Palace Convention Center expansion (encroaching even farther into the old neighborhood) has incorporated a traditional Japanese garden. West of the Salt Palace, the only remnants of the former J-town are the Christian Church and the Buddhist Temple.

There is still hope that someone will come along and finance a new, revitalized Japantown, says former Judge Raymond Uno, head of the Japanese Community Restoration Committee. "We're fishing around to see who would be willing to spend tons of money on that." He envisions "a small version of Gateway," with stores, housing and pedestrian traffic.

The idea, which has been kicking around for a while, will get a nod in the final version of "Downtown Rising," the Salt Lake Area Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Alliance's vision for the future, to be presented in March. The project will call for "character districts," and the Japantown proposal is "perfectly consistent" with those districts, says chamber spokeswoman Natalie Gochnour. That doesn't mean there's any funding for the idea, though.

Before the original Japantown came tumbling down, there was talk of creating a "Little Tokyo" for displaced businesses. Newspaper articles from 1964 report that Mayor J. Bracken Lee "promised the help of every agency in the city." In the end, though, there was no Little Tokyo. Apparently the city eventually lost interest, and it wasn't the Japanese way to come in with protest signs. Uno worries that, 40 years later, the idea to revitalize Japantown may get lost in the shuffle again.

Nancy Saxton, who represents the area on the Salt Lake City Council, is more optimistic. "I think there's getting to be some new energy around this," says Saxton, who acknowledges that the Japanese might have more luck getting public funding if they team up with Greek, Italian and other ethnic communities that also historically have had a presence west of the Salt Palace.

By 1967, with most of the Japanese businesses closed for good, slowly Salt Lake City's Japanese community began to scatter all over the valley. They integrated well, probably intermarrying more than any other ethnic group, Uno says. "Within two generations we have blond, blue-eyed Japanese now."

Ogura married Greg Freeman, a classmate at West High. Grandmother Ogura threatened to send her back to Japan, but Greg's family intervened.

As for Grandmother Ogura, she was one of the "picture brides" who came to the United States to marry men they had never met. In one of Etsuko Ogura's sculptures, Grandmother is walking behind Grandfather Ogura — he in his Western suit, head held high, she in her kimono, carrying the photograph she used to identify him when she stepped off the boat from Japan.