Branches and Blooms: Japanese-style Gardens as an Acceptable Expression of Identity in the American West

Authors: Anna Bierbrauer*, University of Colorado - Denver
Topics: Cultural and Political Ecology, Cultural Geography, Historical Geography
Keywords: Japanese Americans, Urban Renewal, Japanese-style Gardens, Colorado
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/4/2019
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:40 AM
Room: 8217, Park Tower Suites, Marriott, Lobby Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


In response to the Denver Urban Renewal Agency’s plan to demolish much of the ‘blighted’ slums of Downtown Denver in the 1960s, the thriving Japanese American community in the renewal zone came together to protect their Nihonmachi, or Japantown. The Japanese American community proceeded to form a non-profit, raise funds, and purchase one singular city block of the area in order to preserve the community’s presence in the neighborhood and protect the existing Buddhist Temple. The resulting development completed in 1974 - Sakura Square - included an apartment tower for the elderly Japanese American community, commercial spaces for Japanese American-owned businesses, a renovated Buddhist Temple, and a prominently placed Japanese-style Garden courtyard. During the design of the development, contentions arose about the appropriate use of Japanese iconography within the space: overtly imperial Japanese icons were rebuffed by the community in preference for landscape-oriented expressions of culture including cherry blossoms, gardens, and pagoda-style architecture. This paper will explore how the American acceptance of Japanese landscapes developed during the 20th C despite particularly turbulent times between the United States and Japan, and why this abstracted form of Japanese culture was publicly embraced while Japanese Americans were rejected within the social, political, and economic fabric of the US. It will then investigate how, given the distinct socio-political history of the Japanese American community in Colorado, the malleability and modification of landscape became an effective means of navigating Urban Renewal design codes and establishing a publicly acceptable, modernized version of a historic cultural district.

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