Japanese Americans in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood have a long history. A new exhibition pays tribute to them

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Denver’s Five Points and Curtis Park historic neighborhoods have a rich history of hosting many types of people. Today, a new interactive mapping project and a new exhibit tell the story of a group of these Americans.

Denver experienced a boom in Japanese culture and businesses after World War II and the closing of Colorado’s internment camps, which imprisoned more than 10,000 people of Japanese descent. Today in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood, an interactive story-sharing web application takes visitors back in time for a unique tour of the neighborhood of what those times were like.

The project – titled Stories of Solidarity: Japanese Americans in Five Points – is a collaboration between the Japanese Arts Network, Mile High Japanese American Citizens League, and is supported by Arts in Society, but for designer Courtney Ozaki, it’s personal.

“This project was born out of an interest in my personal family history. My parents grew up in the Five Points neighborhood,” Ozaki said. “Both sides of my family found themselves in the five points after World War II and the closure of the Japanese incarceration camps they had been living in for several years.”

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Courtney Ozaki’s grandparents and father (bottom right) in a historic image displayed in the Stories of Solidarity exhibit at the historic Savoy at Five Points. July 9, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Courtney Ozaki shows a map of the walking tour for Stories of Solidarity. July 9, 2022.

Many Japanese Americans resettled in the Five Points neighborhood, both during and after World War II, as Colorado Governor Ralph Carr took the unusual position that the incarceration of Native Americans Japanese was unconstitutional.

Ozaki says the project explores the convergence of African American, Latina and Japanese American communities.

“Through that, we were able to identify some really inspiring stories of beautiful moments of community gathering and the specific locations where those stories happened ended up being landmarks on the tour,” Ozaki said.

The project includes oral histories from community elders who still live in the area.

Richard Yoshida grew up in the neighborhood and attended Manual High School. He remembers how the neighbors found a way to be… neighbors.

“My grandmother would go back to the garden and then there was a neighbor, on the other side of the fence, all she knew was to speak Spanish. And all my grandmother knew was was speaking Japanese,” Yoshida said. “But they yak, yak, yak and were chatting for, I don’t know how long, you know, using their own language and they understood each other. So there’s kind of a special feeling in there that comes out to be able to understand other.”

Marge Taniwaki, who also attended Manual High School, remembers the diversity of the neighborhood.

“We used to call ourselves the little United Nations because there were so many of us from diverse backgrounds. The white children were from Elyria-Swansea of ​​course, we had Latinos, African Americans and Asians, and we all got along,” Taniwaki said. “And I know I still have a lot of lifelong friends from that time.”

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Images of Five Points merchants displayed in the Stories of Solidarity exhibition at the historic Five Points Savoy. July 9, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
An act of the Rocky Mountain Jiho on display in the Stories of Solidarity exhibit at the historic Savoy at Five Points. July 9, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
The Stories of Solidarity exhibition at the historic Savoy in Five Points. July 9, 2022.

Charles Ozaki, Courtney Ozaki’s father, says the experience shared by all residents of Five Points reflects the societal values ​​of the time that united the residents.

“It had the effect of bringing people together, but it also had the effect of pulling people apart,” Charles Ozaki said. “Many people who have been separated have been affected by being continually disadvantaged in our society.”

These elders, however, have more to share than charming memories; they want to identify the lessons for today.

“There were so many different ethnic backgrounds, people of different colors, including white, black, brown, whatever, but we were all able to get along,” Yoshida said. “And, I think that’s a very important lesson in light of the things that are happening in the world today.”

Taniwaki hopes that sharing this part of Denver’s history will have political and economic impact, namely that it will help slow gentrification.

“And so if they find out what the area was like when we were growing up, hopefully that will inspire some people to stop building the kind of apartment buildings that are only affordable for the wealthy and push residents away. long-timers who deserve to be there, to keep the history of their long-standing family associations with this region, as it has been for us,” Taniwaki said.

For Courtney Ozaki, the history of the people in the area is one that may not be obvious to many people walking around. She says she hopes it forces people to consider their relationships with others.

“You know, there aren’t really any landmarks that tell anyone that there was a Japanese presence in the Five Points area,” Courtney Ozaki said. “And I think both the economic contributions and the relationships built were very important for future generations.”

The Mapping Project’s free tour is available online at the Japanese Arts Network website. A limited-edition in-person exhibit will be on view at the Savoy Denver at Curtis Park during select times on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays July 9-23.

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