The lost history of Japanese Americans in Denver’s Five Points is the subject of a new map and tour

Courtney Ozaki loves Mexican food, especially tortillas. Growing up, her dad would give them to her as a snack, warmed and with a bit of butter.

She never really gave much thought to the origins of her favorite childhood treat, at least until last year, when she interviewed her father for her new collaborative interactive art and mapping project called “Stories of Solidarity: Japanese Americans in Five Points.”

In their conversation, her father revealed that he, too, had savored freshly made tortillas when he was young. A kind neighbor near their home would offer them to him and his friends while they were playing in the alley.

For many decades, Five Points was the center of Denver’s black arts, culture and music scene as well as its community, but it was also home to a cross-section of other marginalized groups, including Japanese Americans and Latinos, due to mandated segregation rules and “redlining,” a discriminatory practice in which banks, insurers and other industries and agencies without their services from neighborhoods with people of color of lower incomes. Ozaki’s family once owned a grocery store in Five Points. A Mexican restaurant sat down the block.

Ozaki’s father’s family had relocated to Denver in 1945 after being freed from the Crystal City Family Internment Camp in Texas near the conclusion of World War II.

During the war, they had been forcibly removed from their home in Peru at the request of the U.S. government and transferred to the camp — one family out of the 120,000 people of Japanese descent who were held in such camps in the United States (including one in Colorado) — where they faced harsh treatment and isolation. Over 2,000 Latin Americans of Japanese descent from 13 countries are estimated to have been interned in the U.S. and used to bargain for the return of U.S. troops captured by Japanese forces — a little known chapter of U.S. history.

After they were released, Ozaki’s family was unwelcome and unable to return to Peru. So they moved to Colorado, where a cousin living in Denver was able to sponsor them.

That meant Five Points — but it was there that they found belonging, not just with these other communities, but with a surge of displaced people of Japanese descent who moved to the “Larimer corridor,” between 17th and 29th streets to rebuild their lives after WWII. Together, the communities formed baseball teams, played neighborhood games, and celebrated their culture.

Much of that history has now faded or been erased as many of the businesses and homes once occupied by Japanese residents have been updated or razed. Landmarks have disappeared, aside from Sakura Square downtown, and most of the original settlers have become elderly.

But Ozaki is determined to reconstruct that history and tell their stories again.

“I was very interested in understanding that there was a thriving Japanese community of businesses and families and community spaces, grocery stores, restaurants, hotels, etc., all along the Larimer corridor and in the Five Points and Curtis Park neighborhoods for several decades,” Ozaki said. “Yet, there’s really no landmarks that indicate that they were ever there.”

The project began with Ozaki and a small group of friends began collecting oral histories from family members, friends and other people they knew or knew of who had lived in the part of Denver.

Now fully developed, the project (launched by the Japanese Arts Network, which Ozaki founded, and the Mile High Japanese American Citizens League) includes many of the stories they have collected so far, along with a map featuring nearly 30 landmarks and points of interest having to do with Japanese history or culture in the area. Visitors can take the tour in person or virtually online. The full 2.6-mile self-guided tour takes around two hours to complete.

Each of the 28 stops, which are also available in an app, feature articles, interview clips, public art, and/or videos to help re-uncover the history that has been otherwise lost in time. Each shows how vastly different communities concentrated in the area created a thriving place of belonging and acceptance during a tumultuous time.

An accompanying exhibit is on display at the Savoy Flex Space, 2700 Arapahoe, #103, that includes “a dedicated section to Manual High School where many of our interviewees attended” and other attractions. It has hours July 15-17 and July 22-23.

With proper funding, Ozaki hopes to keep the app and site running after the exhibit is taken down. She and her team are continuing to collect oral histories for the digital archive to continue building upon the stories of people in Five Points.

“There was a lot of focus on how they felt [Five Points] was a safe place to be,” Ozaki said of the interviews they’ve collected so far. “How people helped one another out, how it wasn’t without challenges like violence or some of these other things that you experience when you’re living in the city,… but overall, there was just a general sense of taking care of one another.”

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