After yesterday’s walking tour of Tacoma’s Nihonmachi with the writer Tamiko Nimura and a few friends I was reminded how
little remains of the once vibrant downtown neighborhood. While a few key buildings still stand within the district that once covered almost 20 city blocks, most of the granular physical detail and unfolding social narrative seems phantom like. So I wandered back to my ongoing mystery hidden in a collection of glass plate photographs made during and just after World War One. I still haven’t solved the puzzle of who the photographer was– the young man captured in window glass reflections and shadows in his own pictures. But I have found the locations of many of his storefront images and shopkeeper portraits. Many of them were made in Tacoma’s Japantown during its busiest days just before and after 1920. What follows is a small selection of photographs from that time and place with the water damage to some the glass negatives very much evident.:
As if we just walked in, here is a prosperous, spotless meat and poultry shop with crisp white tile floors and marble counters, five meat cutters in fresh unbloodied work coats and several expensive porcelain butcher scales. The stiff collars and ties suggest two of the men serve the customers, handle the cash register and are perhaps the owners while the others make the cuts and prepared the orders. The crafted zinc railings and hanging rails are just the kind of details that modern delis copy to look authentic and without much imagination you can almost hear the compressor that keeps the walk-in cooler going in the back.
While much of the produce grown by Japanese and Italian farmers in the Fife valley was sold from the high stalls at Tacoma’s public markets, there were a number of fruit and vegetable sellers operating from stores in the nihonmachi. Here is one of them photographed during harvest season 1918. The U.S. Marines enlistment poster and patriotic American Flag with the message Welcome Back 81st(sic) are just the kind of signals many ethnic businesses wanted to send to the public as post war rhetoric began to turn anti-immigrant. The freshly delivered feel of the produce, overflowing and still unstacked on the floor suggest the business day is just starting and the morning light flooding in means the shop was probably on the west side of the street, perhaps on busy Broadway in the heart of Japantown.
Here’s another fruit seller tucking into a basement level under steam pipes probably on Commerce Street which ran through Japantown and edged the blocks known as Little Italy. By the calendar we know its September 1919 and the selection of fruit is mostly from California- melons, lemons, stone fruit and mediterranean style ingredients. Tomatoes were 25 cents a pound, a dozen tissue wrapped lemons were 33 cents and if you filled a big bag the merchant would probably throw in a head of garlic for free. Much of the dense population in the nihonmachi lived in hotel rooms without kitchens or refrigerators. Neighbors shopped daily for fresh food or ate their meals at familiar small restaurants and cafes where they knew the proprietors and probably most of the people at the tables around them.
There were several laundries and later dry cleaners in Tacoma’s Japantown, some doing washing, pressing and tailoring for locals and hotel travelers and others operating on a commercial scale cleaning and flatworking linens, sheets and towels for the many hotels. The clothing businesses used steam for the presses, mangles and silk finishing equipment creating a boiling hot workplace for the men and women doing the work by hand. The kids in this photo were probably the pride and joys of the proprietors in their tidy wool suits, clean stockings and elegant baby carriage. The family planned this portrait carefully.
This fishmonger was all about fresh as he slices halibut steaks on his single cutting block. No fancy cash register or uniformed employees. Looks like he put the days catch out whole, carved the fish ot order and weighted out the sale all by himself. Note the thick layer of sawdust on the floor and the absence of refrigerations or even ice. At then end of the day he swept up the fishy soaked sawdust and every morning he laid down a new coating of by product from Tacoma’s big waterfront sawmills. The four masted sailing ship framed above the canned sardines and kippers is a perfect touch.
This young couple ran their coffee shop on the southeast corner of 15th and Commerce and reflected in the window is the Hiroshima Hotel, a prestigious landmark in the heart of Japantown. Tacoma Buddhist Temple had its start in the important hotel which was for a time the largest Japanese operated hotel in the city. In 1920, 50 of Tacoma’s 120 hotels were operated by Japanese Americans with most of them in the nihonmachi.
All of shops and merchants in these wonderful images are gone today, almost forgotten against a cityscape that has been stripped and hardened by urban renewal schemes, redevelopment ambitions and unrealized masterplans. But the story is still there and the pieces of the downtown that we seem to be building upon these days seem tied to the days of Tacoma’s nihonmachi, like the slightly discernable smell of fishy sawdust or the fragrance of freshly pressed linen.
Clear As Glass Series…..
Thanks to Tamiko Nimura and the folks at Downtown on the Go for help with this piece.
The glass plate negative images in this post along with the rest of 120+ photograph collection are at the Washington State Historical Society.