For more than a century, a substantial Japanese American population has helped shape Los Angeles’s domestic, private, and public spaces as flower growers, gardeners, and proprietors of cut-flower businesses and nurseries. Yet the city’s built environment offers few visible reminders of this history. So in 2019, when the Little Tokyo Historical Society, with the support of the Los Angeles Conservancy, nominated the Sakai-Kozawa residence/Tokio Florist and its street-facing signpost at 2718 Hyperion Avenue as a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument (HCM)—the ninth to represent Japanese Angelenos and one of the few documenting entrepreneurship by women of color—it did more than commemorate the site where Yuki Sakai, her daughter, and her son-in-law had lived and operated their florist shop in the Silver Lake neighborhood from 1960 to 2006.01 In December 2018, the property was listed for sale, leaving the future of the buildings, sign, and landscaping uncertain. In June 2019, the Little Tokyo Historical Society, with support from the Los Angeles Conservancy, nominated the site for local HCM recognition, which was also met with approval by Silver Lake Heritage Trust, the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council’s Urban Design and Preservation Committee, and other community stakeholders. Documentation of this process, including the HCM nomination form, Statement of Significance, and historical source citations on which this case study is based, is available through the Department of City Planning, case number CHC-2019-3774-HCM, and is available online at https://planning.lacity.org/odocument/bcd1b881-4756-469d-be52-0a8eb68d6a7c/CHC-2019-3774-HCM_%232.pdf. The acknowledgment offered a means of reckoning with long histories of racism and restrictions on citizenship, land use, and ownership while reinscribing Japanese Americans’ contributions onto the L.A. landscape.
In 1929, the recently widowed Yuki (Kawakami) Sakai, with five young children to support, opened the Tokio Florist on Los Feliz Boulevard. (The spelling harks back to an earlier era when “Tokio” was the colloquial spelling.) It was one of many flower farms, stands, and nurseries operated by Japanese immigrants that once dominated the landscape of northeastern Los Angeles’s Los Feliz and Atwater neighborhoods. In starting her flower stand on five acres that included a small house she leased, Yuki Sakai succeeded with help from her family, who operated a flower farm nearby and another in Sun Valley, and the Kuromi family, who in 1917 had started Flower View Gardens across the street.
They all flourished against the odds. Excluded from citizenship, Japanese immigrants were also prohibited from purchasing property under California’s 1913 Alien Land Law. prohibited issei immigrants from gaining citizenship or holding property. When the law was revised in 1920 to bar leasing land as well, many Issei and Nisei instead went into gardening, while others operated small businesses precariously with month-to-month leases, often facing hostility from neighbors who wanted to keep places like Los Feliz homogeneously white, and added racially restrictive covenants to do so.02 The term Issei refers to a first-generation Japanese immigrant to America; Nisei refers to a child of Issei parents who was U.S.-born and educated. For more details about the Alien Land Laws and other discriminatory measures aimed at Japanese immigrants in California, see Brian Niiya, “The Last Alien Land Law,” Densho Blog, Feb. 7, 2018, https://densho.org/last-alien-land-law; and Cherstin M. Lyon, “Alien Land Laws,” Densho Encyclopedia, Oct. 8, 2020, https://encyclopedia.densho.org/Alien_land_laws. A Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL) blog post describes racially restrictive covenants, or contracts, that white property owners or developers placed in the deeds of homes barring purchasers from selling or renting to ethnic and religious minorities. Steven Kilgore, “Los Angeles Land Covenants, Redlining: Creation and Effects,” LAPL Blog, June 22, 2020, https://lapl.org/collections-resources/blogs/lapl/los-angeles-land-covenants-redlining-creation-and-effects. Yuki’s status as a single woman with children surely added to a layer of pressure, although all the children helped with daily operations, cultivating poinsettias, carnations, gladiolas, and ranunculus, pulling bulbs, and keeping the store open seven days a week. Forced removal and incarceration of West Coast residents of Japanese descent during World War II meant that the Sakai family, along with other Japanese Angelenos, had to quickly sort out their business and personal affairs. For many, that meant their life’s work plundered and lost. The Sakais eventually reopened Tokio Florist, and it remained open until 1960, when they received one month’s notice to leave, displaced by an apartment tower development on Los Feliz Boulevard.
Yuki Sakai, with her daughter Sumi (Sakai) Kozawa, son-in-law Frank Kozawa, and granddaughter Susie Kozawa relocated nearby, to 2718 Hyperion Boulevard, where they constructed a greenhouse, converted a garage to a potting shed, and reinstalled shop equipment under the port cochere and on the porch of their new home, a stately 1911 Tudor Craftsman. Customers could now meander up the long driveway and through the Japanese garden designed by Sumi and Frank. A flat expanse in the rear grew Iceland poppies, sweet peas, coxcombs, and seasonal flowers, and all available space was used for plantings. Despite an increasingly globalized cut-flower industry and the growing dominance of chain florists and supermarkets, the multigenerational, female-headed family business thrived for another 46 years.
Tokio Florist closed in 2006, a dozen years after Yuki died at 100 years old. In 2016, Sumi passed away, also at 100 years old. Sumi and Frank never expected their daughter Susie, a sound artist based in Seattle, to take over the family business. Susie did, however, take on legacy-building—with fervor—as a means of both mourning and creation. As people visited the estate sale in 2018, she recorded their connections to the family and the business, whether they were family friends, classmates of Sumi’s from John Marshall High School, or longtime customers. She donated key artifacts to the collections of the Japanese American National Museum and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, while photographs and papers went to the Huntington Library (where the Kuromis’ Flower View Gardens business records also reside). Susie also teamed up with filmmakers and radio producers to make art from the site, “playing” the house through musical instruments crafted from the artifacts of her family’s business, recording a historical soundscape and score.03 See, for instance, Yuka Murakami, Tokio Story, video, 8 min., 2018, https://vimeo.com/283074021; and Giovanni Jance, On a Visit to Tokio Florist, 27 min., 1999–2019, https://www.giovannijance.org/6114387-2019-i#1.
In addition to Susie’s efforts to capture the essence of her family’s longtime residence and business, neighbors and former customers shared fond memories in support of the HCM designation—and, thereafter, in opposition to the proposed demolition of vernacular structures built by the family, due in part to building and fire code restrictions. Ernest and Elaine Nagamatsu, residents of Silver Lake since 1975, described the significance of the Sakai/Kozawa property and Tokio Florist as more than a mere physical site, but rather an “emotional, historical talisman for the generations. … Tokio Florist made us all so proud as Japanese Americans. It has been a small beam of success, following the tangled, tortuous emotional challenge following World War II. From physical and monetary huge losses, Tokio Florist, the J-A Flower Market, legions of J-A Gardeners, and J-A flower growers emerged from a devastated landscape of broken dreams to make us all proud once again.”07 This letter and others were submitted to the Cultural Heritage Commission Review held on June 18, 2020. They are available online at https://tinyurl.com/CHCMeeting06-18-20. The new owner, Redcar Properties, has sought to address these community concerns and to balance a variety of competing interests in preserving remaining buildings, abiding by municipal codes, and ensuring that the site is viable for adaptive reuse.
The structural additions that the Sakai-Kozawa family made to the property at 2718 Hyperion Boulevard to support the operations of Tokio Florist, along with their preserved home and the various other forms of memorialization remain as touchstones to a time when flowers blanketed the nearby fields and Yuki and Sumi honed their floral artistry. They also signify the economic contributions of Japanese Americans over multiple generations, as well as the entrepreneurial might of women—two groups that have significantly shaped the Los Angeles landscape and inspired subsequent generations.