The name on the wall near city hall makes Steve Nagano’s blood boil.
Fletcher Bowron Square offers a small respite from Downtown’s urban structures with open space and public art. But for Nagano, the square’s namesake evokes painful memories.
Nagano lives in Little Tokyo, within walking distance of the square, but his family roots stretch from Los Angeles to Arizona because in 1942 his father Paul M. Nagano was one of the many Japanese Americans who during World War II were forced to leave their homes for desolate government “camps” surrounded by barbed wire.
Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor plunged the United States into war and stoked fear that Japanese American friends and neighbors could be spies. In Los Angeles, the forced removal and incarceration of Japanese Angelenos received the full-throated support of the city’s mayor — Fletcher Bowron.
Bowron fanned the flames of hysteria that directly led to the unjust incarceration of many families like his, said Nagano, so he is leading an effort to rename the square.
“The pain, the suffering, the loss, the PTSD,” said Nagano, 71. “It can be traced back to people like Bowron.”
Nagano’s new short documentary, “Putting Them Where They Could Do No Harm,” is a bold call to action for the city and its residents to rethink a place named after a former city leader who is credited with modernizing Los Angeles but also criticized for his handling of race relations.
“There’s a lot of argument that his record on race relations, especially during the war for all the minority groups, was abysmal,” said Michael Holland, archivist at the Los Angeles City Archives.
Bowron was Los Angeles’ 35th mayor from 1938 to 1953. During his tenure, he had a weekly radio broadcast used to rally support, lambast political opponents, and give wartime justifications for the forced removal and incarceration of thousands of Japanese Angelenos. Transcripts of Bowron’s Thursday night radio speeches are preserved in the city archives.
Nagano’s documentary gives voice to Bowron’s fiery words and highlights the mayor’s wartime discriminatory acts, including putting 39 Japanese American city employees on an indefinite leave of absence and advocating to strip citizenship rights from Japanese Americans.
At wartime, Los Angeles was home to a large population of Japanese Angelenos, who the mayor said posed a security threat because their loyalty to the United States could never be determined.
In a Feb. 5, 1942, radio address, Bowron advocated for the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans in federal prison camps away from West Coast where they could aid war efforts by growing food and manufacturing rubber substitute.
“Certainly, some way should be devised for keeping the native-born Japanese out of mischief,” Bowron said.
Days later, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, ordering the mass removal of 110,000 Japanese Americans living on the West Coast.
Paul M. Nagano was an aspiring minister living in Boyle Heights when he left everything behind at 21 and was incarcerated at the Poston War Relocation Center in southwestern Arizona. He was born in Little Tokyo and never convicted of any mischief.
The internment is considered a stain in American history. In 1988, the U.S. government issued a formal apology and monetary compensation to the victims of the mass incarceration.
Steve Nagano made the film to raise awareness about how a city leader like Bowron played a role in creating racial trauma but continues to be celebrated. Angelenos drive by the square and take in the sights of the Triforium art sculpture without knowing the full history of the square’s namesake. He wants to change that.
“People watch the film and say, ‘I never knew,’” Nagano said.
A new report from the mayor’s office on how to celebrate Los Angeles history addresses this type of cultural amnesia. The “Past Due” report was written by the Civic Memory Working Group, which included of 40 historians, scholars and Indigenous leaders.
“We have for too long in Los Angeles accepted a comfortable amnesia when it comes to reckoning with some of the most fraught aspects of our history,” Mayor Eric Garcetti said in the report.
Last summer, the murder of George Floyd ignited protests and a national reckoning with the country’s racially fraught past. Monuments to Confederate leaders toppled, a National Football League team changed its long-criticized name, and buildings dropped the names of historical figures with checkered pasts.
Nagano kept thinking about Fletcher Bowron Square.
He started an online petition calling for the square’s renaming. The petition has 1,394 signatures.
Fletcher Bowron Square was dedicated in a 1975 ceremony seven years after Bowron’s death. The square sits on top of the site that used to house the Bella Union Hotel. A plaque at the site also commemorates the hotel’s history.
Bowron was a lawyer and Superior Court judge whose reputation for fairness and honesty earned him the mayorship in 1938 as a Republican progressive to foil the corrupt reputation of his predecessor, Frank Shaw.
“Fletcher Bowron is really known, if for nothing else, for his honesty,” said Tom Sitton, curator emeritus of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and author of “Los Angeles Transformed: Fletcher Bowron’s Urban Reform Revival.”
Bowron was well liked among city employees and modernized Los Angeles as a proponent for expanding public housing, said Sitton, 72. But his failure to address racial discrimination also brought severe criticism.
Bowron later apologized for his wartime treatment of Japanese Americans, most notably when he was out of office and did not have any political gain from it, said Holland, 60.
But for Nagano, contrition rings hollow.
“After the fact, you know, when somebody apologizes, does it make it go away?” Nagano said.
Fletcher Bowron Square used to be a part of Little Tokyo, said Nagano, with flourishing family businesses until the city took over the area for development. Inspiration for a new name could draw from many cultural sources, he said.
“I think any renaming should reflect a rededication to a principle that brings people together,” said Warren Furutani, a former California State Assembly member and senior adviser of Councilmember Kevin de León’s office.
Nagano wants to rename the square a Tongva name to celebrate the area’s Indigenous history. City leaders say they want to talk about how to better commemorate Los Angeles history.
“The actions and comments of then-Mayor Fletcher Bowron fueled the unconstitutional displacement of Japanese Americans and has been an episode in our history from which we’re still trying to heal,” de León said.
“I welcome any conversation that aims to help us confront our painful past and restore justice for those who were victims of prejudice and racism.”
It is a name of a small square in Downtown, but as the “Past Due” report cites, making memorials and tearing them down is a political act. The report also asks: How do we retire memorials that have stood beyond their meaning or appropriateness?
In “Putting Them Where They Could Do No Harm,” the filmmaker answers the question by digitally erasing Bowron’s name.
“I just think it’s a slam dunk,” Nagano said.