By Susie Ling
93-year old Yosh Kuromiya returned to Monrovia for a visit on one of those recent beautiful winter days. Yosh lived in Monrovia before World War II and felt “that he never belonged.” “Orange Street – now Colorado Boulevard – used to be so wide but now with cars parked on both sides, it appears much narrower. And gone are the open lots with rocks and sagebrush of my youth.” Yosh was born in Sierra Madre in 1923, and moved to Monrovia with his family, where he started in the first grade. He graduated from Monrovia-Arcadia-Duarte or MAD High School in 1941. He was forcefully evacuated in 1942 – with other Japanese Americans of Monrovia.
“During the Depression, my father thought being a gardener was economically risky and that the food industry would be more reliable. He bought a vegetable vending route in Monrovia and Arcadia.” With four small children, the Kuromiya’s first lived on California Avenue, just south of Colorado Boulevard. That house is still there and Yosh said, “Someone fixed it up nice. The eucalyptus tree is still there as is the alley just south of the house. I used to go in the alley and steal figs from next door.” Yosh also remembered the large pepper trees in the vacant lot just north of the house, “We would poke in the thick mulch for button mushrooms to eat for dinner.”
“It came to be that our elderly neighbors were trying to sell their home but prospective buyers complained about the ‘Japs’ living north of Walnut. The complaint went to City Hall and we were evicted.” After the 1920s, Monrovia had a racial segregation rule and most African Americans, Latinos, and the few Japanese Americans lived south of Walnut Avenue.
The Kuromiyas moved to Huntington Drive near Primrose. That house has long been torn down to build a Chevrolet dealership and is now the location of Pep Boys. “The Huntington address worked well for us as my father built a strawberry stand off Route 66. Our stand was right next to Mr. Uyeda’s strawberry farm. Uyeda claimed he was the Strawberry King of Monrovia. We actually bought our strawberries from other farms at the north end of Double Drive – now Santa Anita Avenue. We never actually said to our customers that our strawberries came from the field adjacent to our store.”
Yosh recognized the little church on the corner of California Avenue and Walnut that he attended a few times. He also remembered going under the bleachers in Recreation Park to look for coins that spectators may have dropped at baseball games. Lyric Theater on Foothill is no longer there and the Library has been remodeled. Yosh remembers there was a bank where Monrovia Restaurant now stands. He said, “East of Mountain Avenue were vacant fields with hobo camps in the 1930s. I would ride my bike to visit them and listen to their fascinating stories… For a while there, my ambition was to become a hobo.”
“I remember the Monrovia Airport. One time, a friend and I got a ride on one of those two-seat propeller planes. We were supposed to hoe their weeds in exchange for the ride. The pilot strapped the both of us in the second bucket seat. We wore goggles and leather helmets. We could barely see above the seat but we flew over my house and I saw my mother watering her gladioli. I asked the pilot to do some loops for my mother and he did do some zigzag moves.” At dinner that night, Yosh’s mother remarked on a “bakatare (moron) on a crazy plane” that almost crashed while she was watering. Yosh decided not to share that it was him in that crazy plane. Yosh said he is sorry that they never went back to finish the weeds at the airport.
Yosh said that he is also sorry for other prankster deeds of his youth. The boys would roll metal trash cans from the hills of Scenic Drive. They once let the air out of a car parked on the street. When the police rolled by, three of them hid behind a low wall near the orange groves but the fourth boy – unaware of the cops – was nabbed, but “he never ratted on us.”
Yosh didn’t feel much racial discrimination in those days except for a few occasions. “Once we were shooting pepper seeds at each other through hollow plant stems. When one of our friends’ mother called us in to have some refreshments, I was last and when I got to the back door, it was locked. I knocked and waited a long time. I came to realize no one was going to let me in.”
Another time, he went swimming with Tosh Asano to the Monrovia pool. People of color were restricted to only swim on Mondays before the pool was cleaned, but this was not a Monday. “I didn’t know Japanese could swim on other days but Tosh’s father had a store on Myrtle and Tosh said it was no problem. I was nervous.” Yosh had been in the same class at Santa Fe Elementary with long time Monrovian resident, Tosh Asano. They were “Tosh and Yosh.”
On Dec. 7 – Pearl Harbor day, the Kuromiyas had a pre-planned engagement party for their elder son. The new bride stayed with the family when they were evacuated to Pomona Fairgrounds and then to Heart Mountain concentration camp in Wyoming. Yosh was a member of the Fair Play Committee of Wyoming, a group of Japanese American draft resistors. Yosh said, “It was a very personal decision for me as it was my name was on that draft notice. As an American citizen, I was insulted by what my government did to us.” Yosh spent his 21st birthday in the Cheyenne County Jail where conditions were substandard as it was not set up for so many detainees.
After two years at McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary, Yosh returned to the Pasadena area and started as a gardener before becoming a landscape architect. Yosh said, “It is my parents’ generation of Japanese Issei pioneers that should get more attention. They are the ones who worked so hard to build the life for my generation and subsequent generations” – and for communities like Monrovia.