“This one is called Laser,” said Flora Ninomiya, stroking the smooth petals of a small yellow rose she cultivates in a greenhouse along Brookside Avenue.
The 77 year old Ninomiya likes to call this greenhouse, where roses tremble on the breeze and birds flit though openings in the roof, her “ playhouse.”
The space is definitely small compared to the commercial greenhouses that her family of Japanese rose growers once managed on this land.
Each greenhouse measured 10,000 square feet, and contained 5,000 plants that had to be fed, watered and cut on a regular basis.
“On an average day we processed 1,000 bunches of roses with 25 stems in a bunch,” Ninomiya said.
But today the greenhouses are all demolished and all that is left of the family business is gathered into this one small greenhouse in North Richmond, where Ninomiya grows Peruvian lilies, asparagus ferns and orchids, as well as some of the roses that her family’s nursery once grew.
“That one is called Eloquence,” she said, as I sample the intricate perfume of a freshly opened rose.
So, back in the days when there were roses everywhere, did it smell good inside those greenhouses?
“The rose packing house smelled better,” Ninomiya said with a smile.
Next year marks the hundredth anniversary of the day Ninomiya’s grandfather started a nursery here.
“The oldest nurseries are in El Cerrito,” Ninomiya said. “They were started in 1906, the year of the San Francisco earthquake. Half of them grew roses, the other half carnations.”
Ninomiya’s family grew roses, which she says are more disease-prone than carnations. But despite horticultural trials and tribulations–and anti-Asian sentiments in San Francisco and other major cities—Japanese nurseries flourished in Richmond.
“Our family’s survival depended on us all working. Unfortunately, our family only had one boy, so if our father decided to build another greenhouse, we all had to get out there and paint it.”
Ninomiya recalled that when she was young, her parents packed roses at night, and then her father left for San Francisco’s flower market at dawn.
“Our mother was the grower,” she said. “As in most Japanese nursery families, it was the women who got up and made sure people were watering, spraying and cutting the flowers.”
It was during the Depression and homeless men would come along the railroad tracks begging for food. In those pre-war days, Richmond had a population of 23,000, and immigrants farmed the land.
“We were surrounded by mostly Italian and Portuguese families, and all went to school on the same bus,” Ninomiya said.
Ninomaya was six when her family was sent to an internment camp following the Dec. 7 ,1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor. By the end of the war, 120,000 people of Japanese descent had been interned.
Ninomiya was too young to understand the hysteria and racism that her parents, who had lived in Richmond for 30 years but were only given 30 days to leave their home, suddenly faced.
“But it was a terrible time for all of us,” she said, explaining that Richmond’s Japanese community had to evacuate early because the town was designated a “defense area” because of the Kaiser shipyards.
“My mother was an American citizen, but my father was not, and the day we were leaving, my father was picked up by the F.B.I. and sent to a camp in North Dakota,” Ninomiya said.
The family did not see their father for the next two and a half years, and during that time chaos developed in the camp because of conflicts over internment.
First generation Japanese immigrants, or Issei, like Ninomiya’s father, still had ties to Japan. But second generation, or Nisei, like Ninomiya, were American citizens, raised in the United States, and some of them realized that being put in the camp was unfair.
“But their average age was 18 or 19, so they were too young to speak up,” Ninomiya said. “And there weren’t enough of the second generation who were older to speak up, so a decision was made to go along with the incarceration because they knew they couldn’t fight back.”
“Our family was fortunate to have good neighbors, “ Ninomiya said, explaining that their neighbor Francis Aebi Sr. took care of the Ninomiya’s rose business, while they were in the camps, so when they returned their nursery was still operating and they had money in the bank.
“But many people, including farmers throughout California, lost their property because they couldn’t pay their property taxes or run their farms,” Ninomiya said.“And our neighbors, the Adachis, had to use chopsticks to avoid cutting their hands when they removed all the broken glass from their greenhouses, ” she continued, explaining that some of Richmond’s Japanese rose growers came home to find their greenhouses had been neglected and vandalized.
When the family returned, they found Richmond’s population had exploded—and within a few decades their own business experienced a major boom.
“Once airplane jets started using freight to get to East Coast, we were able to expand and send cut flowers to Chicago and New York,” Ninomiya said.
“That’s when we went down to Salinas, where the land was cheaper, the climate was similar and it was easy to get workers,” Ninomiya said, recalling how her family’s nursery expanded in the 1960s and 1970s to 40 greenhouses in Salinas, and 50 in Richmond.
But then something happened that ended what the war and internment couldn’t. It had nothing to do with roses, really. It was more a fluke of the market. Not the flower market, but the global market for cocaine.
As the war on drugs went global, the United States decided to try and stem the flow of drugs from South America by teaching people to grow roses in Columbia and Ecuador, where there were no heating costs, minimum labor costs, few limits on pesticides, insecticides and other chemical use, and little tax.
“It became impossible for us to compete,” said Ninomiya, who visited Ecuador and Colombia three times over the next decade and found large government-subsidized businesses, not family farms.
“And it was impossible for us to go into the bedding plant business, because we had so many square feet under glass, so there was no way the market could absorb it. Our only alternative became to take down the greenhouses.”
In 1988, Congress passed legislation apologizing for the internment, an action deemed to be based on “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” And the U.S. government eventually disbursed more than $1.6 billion in reparations.
Back in her last remaining greenhouse, which sits beside the house where she grew up, Ninomiya recalls why she wasn’t able to attend those hearings. “I was working like a devil, trying to keep the business going, and I thought it would never happen,” she said.
Today, some of the Japanese greenhouses on Brookside are rented to orchid and organic seedling enterprises. But while Ninomiya says she’d like to rent to an organic farmer, she hasn’t found a match.
“Most people have no experience, equipment or capital,” she said.
With a lack of historical Japanese structures statewide, the city of Richmond has been trying to build affordable housing, while conserving historical structures.
One such example was the MiraFlores project, which aimed to preserve and educate people about structures where the Oishi and Sakei families once lived on land now abutted by Target, BART and Cutting Avenue.
Richmond City Councilmember Tom Butt says the MiraFlores project stalled, because of a “lack of interested developers and market conditions.”
Meanwhile, Ninomiya, who is a member of the Contra Costa County Ward of the Japanese American Citizens League, continues to speak out about the importance of civil liberties.
She appears in Ken Kokka’s documentary film “Blossoms and Thorns”, about Richmond’s Japanese-American flower growers in World War II.
“I didn’t always think it was important to speak out,” she told the audience after a recent screening of the film at the Rosie the Riveter Visitor Education Center. “It was the third generation, the Sansei, that started questioning us.”
And when she’s not taking a stand, she takes solace in her plants. “I have the best time in the greenhouse,” Ninomiya said, as she wandered among the rose bushes, some of which are as tall as she is, selecting eight perfect rose buds for a bouquet that she pressed into my hands when it was time to go.
“I’m really glad I have a place to come to. When I‘m putting water on the plants, or cutting a rose, it’s like saying a prayer.”