AISHANI BANERJEE – SEPTEMBER 28TH, 2020
EDITOR: SEAN O’CONNELL
At the turn of the 20th century, Salt Lake City, Utah was doing well. Utah had recently passed the population cap for statehood in 1896, going from a simple territory to a federally-recognized state, and it had a massive mining boom to thank for its good fortunes. People were flooding into Utah, most of whom were “New Immigrants” from Eastern and Southern Europe. There were also already settled communities of Chinese-Americans in the state’s urban areas, many of whom had either worked on the railroads that connected Utah to the rest of the US or were the children of those who did. And, while Asian immigration into Utah wouldn’t reach a peak until the 1970s, there was a sizable and growing contingent of Japanese Americans who called the state capitol of Salt Lake City home in the late 19th century. In fact, by 1910, Salt Lake City boasted one of the largest Japantowns in North America.
Salt Lake City’s Japantown was a thriving—if small—community: 2,000 residents strong, with established businesses, places of worship, and community centers taking up 16 square miles between South Temple and State Street in Salt Lake City’s downtown area. However, of the original 32 blocks of Japantown, today only two buildings remain. Salt Lake’s lost Japantown is not alone. Of the dozens of Japantowns that existed at the beginning of the 20th century across the United States, only three survived to see the 21st. Why did these Japantowns disappear, and what happened to the residents of America’s lost Japantowns?
Gold Dust on a Gilded Age
In the middle of the 19th century, gold dust from California, transported over newly constructed railroads, was processed into ore by Utah’s most famous minority group: the Mormons. However, by the 1860s, Utah began turning its attention away from middle-man production and towards investing in mining for natural resources in its own borders. This was a fortuitous decision, and the state ended up striking gold itself, along with rich veins of silver, copper, lead, and zinc. By the 1870s, the quarries and mines established in the mountains and flats of Utah had begun attracting attention from British and other foreign investors, and the individual efforts of frontiersmen miners were slowly overcome by well-dressed capitalists managing massive mining operations from the comfort of offices with newly invented air conditioning.
Of those mines, the most productive in the state was the Bingham Canyon Mine, established in the southwest corner of Salt Lake County. Over the next five decades, the mine would produce a combined 420 million USD ore, mostly mined copper. Adjusted for inflation, that was roughly 8.5 billion USD produced by the 15,000 residents of Salt Lake City over the course of just 50 years.
Mines needed people to work them, and America in the late Gilded Age had no shortage of immigrants willing to work for low wages. Between the 1890 and the 1920 censuses, the population of Salt Lake City nearly tripled to about 120,000 residents by the beginning of the Jazz Age. By 1900, nearly 20% of the population of the city was also foreign-born, with 8.3% of those foreign-born residents being Japanese-Americans. Despite our modern conception of an American “melting pot” of harmoniously multicultural society, there were significant ethnic tensions under the surface of Gilded Age America.
Anti-Asian racism would come to a head with the first ever restriction on immigration in federal history: the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. This happened after the In re Ah Yup ruling of 1878, which denied naturalization rights to all people of Chinese ethnicity—and later, all people of Asian descent—on the basis of race, laying the foundation for another event inspired by anti-Asian sentiment, a half-century later. Salt Lake City’s Chinese population, brought to the city by the aforementioned railroads and clustered around Plum Alley, slowly dwindled away in the face of legislation meant to make life difficult for Chinese immigrants like the Geary Act or Mcreary Amendment. This story that would later reprise itself again in Salt Lake City.
After the flow of Chinese laborers was stopped, Japanese immigrants came to the US and filled in many of the gaps left in railroad companies and factories on the West Coast. The same pattern of disgruntlement over perceived “stolen” wages and distrust of foreigners led to another set of ethnic tensions and, in 1916, the Anti-Japanese League was founded in Seattle. Wherever there were significant populations of Japanese-Americans, the Anti-Japanese League found a home as well, and on July 27, 1920, the Seattle Star ran an inflammatory headline that read: EXCLUSION! The Solution That Means Peace.
The Elephant in the Room: Internment
The 1940s were tumultuous years for Americans. The dominant narrative goes like this: after a decade-long economic depression, combated by FDR’s financial reforms and public works projects, the outbreak of World War II meant salvation for the American economy, which enjoyed a manufacturing boom concentrated in cities. Like many dominant narratives, however, this story isn’t necessarily universal.
Key to the story of Japantowns is how America joined the war. The surprise bombing of Pearl Harbor in December, 1941 triggered American entrance into the war and turned a public, already primed to see Asian Americans as “aliens,” staunchly against many Japanese-Americans.
President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, which deemed the entire West Coast of the US a military zone. Most famously, it ordered “all persons of Japanese descent” to be sent to “relocation centers,” which later would be known as the internment camps, in an overt attempt to counter espionage efforts that barely covered a racist expression of anti-Japanese sentiment. Over the next six months, over 100,000 Japanese-Americans would be sent to the internment camps, about two-thirds of whom were American citizens.
Throughout the three years of internment, the Topaz internment camp was the fifth-largest “city” in Utah. The widespread sentiment among Utah officials was resentment: almost all of the interned Japanese in Topaz came from the San Francisco Bay Area, and, as state officials from the Salt Lake City governor’s meeting remarked: they would not “stand for being California’s dumping ground.” Widespread sentiment in Utah regarding the Topaz camp mostly fell along the lines of wishing to keep the US a “white man’s country,” and the belief that all Japanese-Americans in the camps were “enemy aliens,” despite the fact that the majority of them were citizens. This belief may have carried over even after the dismantlement of the camps, into a widespread sentiment towards all Japanese-Americans after the war.
As for the Japanese residents, they were informed that they had a week to take care of their loose ends before they would be sent to the camps. With only a week to sell homes and businesses, many were forced to sell at below-market prices. Those who did keep their homes or businesses would return three years later to farms in disrepair and ransacked homes and businesses. Recent calculations put the economic damage to Japanese-Americans due to internment at between 1-3 billion USD during just 1942, or anywhere from 2-5 billion USD in today’s money. One post-war survey estimated that only about 20% of the property or goods that the formerly interned Japanese-Americans left behind had not been ransacked or stolen by the time they came back.
To add insult to injury, there is also evidence that interned Japanese-Americans ended up having lower income post-internment than they would have had they remained free for the interim three years. Economist Aimee Chin took advantage of the natural experiment afforded by the fact that while 97% of West Coast Japanese-Americans were interned, only one percent of Japanese-Americans outside the West Coast, almost all in Hawaii, were given the same treatment. Using those non-West Coast Japanese-Americans as a control, she estimated that, for up to 25 years after internment, the income of male interned Japanese-Americans was anywhere from 9-13% lower than their free counterparts.
If the economic effects of internment persisted well into the 1960s, that would explain why the Japantown of Salt Lake City disappeared in that decade as well. This was what happened to the vast majority of Californian Japantowns; Japanese populations returned to neighborhoods undergoing gentrification that would push out any recalcitrant Japanese residents over the latter half of the 20th century. Denver, Colorado and Portland, Oregon shared similar fates. Here, Japanese-Americans came back from internment to face increased prejudice and few job opportunities, forcing them to relocate elsewhere.
The only problem? Utah-born Japanese-Americans belonged to the control group of Japanese people in America who were not subject to Order 9066: the vast majority of them were never interned. Salt Lake’s Japantown would not be a direct victim of internment, then, but of geopolitical circumstances and urban planning choices beyond residents’ control.
The Swinging Sixties and the Salt Palace
Salt Lake City’s Japantown is unique amongst lost Japantowns for having a single year to point to as the community’s turning point. In 1966, all but two buildings in the heart of Japantown were demolished to make space for an ambitious citywide project.
The population of Salt Lake City had begun stagnating early in the 20th century, as more and more residents settled in the suburbs and nearby towns at the outskirts of the city. By 1960, as suburbanization reached an all time high in the United States, Salt Lake City was actively losing its population across all demographic groups but with a majority focus on white flight. Like the Gilded Age, the 1960s were also a period of mixed economic outcomes, but, unlike the 1890s, this economic variability did not favor Salt Lake City. As its inner city downtown experienced commercial decline, the city began looking for a quick fix for their fiscal woes. The solution they hit upon? Hosting the Winter Olympics.
There are already several articles addressing the costs and benefits of hosting an Olympics (many of which popped up during Rio de Janeiro’s turn to host in 2016), though in the 1960s, the debate was less about damaging underprivileged communities and more about the creation of several thousand jobs to add to a flagging economy. As a result, in 1964, Salt Lake City added their name to the bid for the 1972 Winter Olympics and began working on a suitable opening arena.
The first problem with hosting the Olympics in a city with no Olympic stadium was finding a suitable place to build one, and Rio de Janeiro hardly started the tradition of displacing minority communities in favor of construction for a one-time event. After a bond was approved to finance the building of the so-called “Salt Palace,” city developers set their sights on redeveloping one downtown corridor—conveniently located in the city center and surrounded by cafes, restaurants, commerce. It also happened to be in the heart of the Salt Lake City Japantown. The city used eminent domain laws to acquire the land, displacing businesses, homes, and the people who owned and operated them. It then destroyed the majority of Japantown and constructed the Salt Palace in its place.
Despite preservation committees being formed in defense of the corridor of Japantown, the committees couldn’t muster the support necessary to get the developers of the Salt Palace to pick another neighborhood. Because the Salt Palace was constructed as a public works project, and because of previously established antipathy towards Japanese-Americans, combined with a history of Asian-American’s rights to owning property being invalidated, the people were kicked out of their businesses and off their land without too much fuss on the city’s part. As for Japantown, it did what all living things do when their heart is pierced: it died.
Salt Lake City failed to win the bid for the 1972 Olympics, and ironically, the 1972 Winter Olympics ended up being hosted in Sapporo, Japan. Furthermore, in the summer of 1972, Denver, Colorado became the first city in history to refuse a winning bid to host the Olympics, citing the exorbitant costs of the games compared with their low economic benefits.
Salt Lake’s fortunes would decline through the 60s and 70s until a reverse at the end of the 80s, when companies like WordPerfect, Novell, and Unisys made the state capital their headquarters. They successfully diversified the Salt Lake economy and turned the Salt Lake Valley into a center for medical services, but only after the city had weathered two decades of recession.
As for the Japanese-Americans who called the blocks between South Temple and State Street home, many of them started over in other parts of Salt Lake City, though others closed their businesses permanently and left for other parts of the country. When they did settle elsewhere, most Japanese-Americans followed the patterns of 50s and 60s suburbanization rather than settling in primarily Japanese neighborhoods in downtown areas. As for Salt Lake City’s Japantown, two buildings remain today as a testament to what once was a living, breathing, community: The Japanese Church of Christ and the Salt Lake Buddhist Temple.
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