Brooklyn Hostel


Hostel established for Japanese American resettlers in Brooklyn, New York, in 1944 by the Church of the Brethren. One of many hostels operated mostly by religious organizations to help ease the transition for Japanese Americans exiting the concentration camps, the Brooklyn Hostel was notable for being one of the few that aroused substantial opposition from local residents and politicians. Despite the opposition, the hostel opened as scheduled in May 1944 and remained open for two years, housing some 1,600 Japanese Americans.

As part of its mission the Church of the Brethren opened one of the first hostels for Japanese Americans in Chicago in February of 1943, Chicago being the most popular destination for Japanese Americans leaving the concentration camps at that time. A little over a year later, the church decided to close the Chicago hostel and to open one in New York City, where it perceived a greater need for such short-term housing. Ralph and Mary Smeltzer, the young couple who managed the Chicago facility were soon dispatched to New York to establish the new hostel there.

The church ended up renting a three-story, fourteen room house at 168 Clinton Street owned by the Alpha Chi Rho fraternity that had been used by students of the Polytechnic Institute (now part of New York University). But when word of the proposed hostel got out in mid-April 1944, residents of the neighborhood—colloquially referred to as "Doctors' Row" because of the many physicians who lived there—organized in opposition, enlisting the aid of their Congressman, Rep. John J. Delaney, who also lived in the area. Local newspapers also reported that New York City Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia, who had previously expressed anti-Japanese American sentiments, had registered behind the scenes protests with federal and military officials in Washington, D.C. Opponents cited concerns over security, property values, and potential conflict between the resettlers and military personnel or other ethnic groups, though racism clearly drove much of the opposition. Said one neighboring doctor upon the opening of the hostel, "We don't like it. I have two boys in the service and I don't think there's any such thing as an American Jap. Why—it's in their blood. I'm not mad at the Germans, see. I just don't like the Japs." He went on to add, "And why couldn't they put them in a less-crowded place? It doesn't do the neighborhood any good. Property values will certainly deteriorate."[1]

The vocal opposition to the proposed hostel also led supporters to mobilize; for the next few weeks, New York papers ran numerous stories of various groups stating their support or opposition to the project. At the end of April, the Brooklyn Council for Social Planning formed a committee to work with the hostel, elected a local judge to chair it. Many individual and organizations—including the NAACP and the ACLU—sent messages to LaGuardia protesting his stance on the hostel. Later, on May 17, the NAACP was among the organizations that organized a public rally in support of Japanese American resettlers. The Brooklyn Heights Association passed a contested resolution to support the hostel. But opponents remained resolute, as support came even from the West Coast, where California Congressman John M. Costello complained that the hostel in Brooklyn would house 800 Japanese "within the shadow of the Brooklyn Navy Yard," a number some twenty times higher than the actual capacity of the facility. Despite a visit from Nisei leaders Eddie Shimano and Minoru Yamasaki, Delaney remained steadfast in his opposition, making the inflammatory statement, "This thing has got to be stopped, or there will be rioting in Brooklyn. I have heard from my people there, and I know."[2]

Against the backdrop, the Smeltzers arrived to prepare the hostel, planning for a late May opening. At a May 9 press conference, they introduced themselves and the facility. The former fraternity house would have a capacity of twenty to twenty-five. As was the case with other hostels, meals would be served family style, and resettlers would pay $1 a day for room and board, while contributing housekeeping tasks. The first group was set to arrive in two weeks.[3]

To their surprise, the Satomi family appeared the next day. Originally from Pasadena, California, Matsunosuke and Yae Satomi and their two adult Nisei children, Midori and Motoi, had been forcibly sent to the Tulare Assembly Center, then to the Gila River, Arizona, concentration camp, where Yae subsequently passed away. The three remaining family members walked past policemen assigned to guard the hostel entrance, while the staff scrambled to set up their rooms. A reporter for the New York Sun wrote that, "While there was no outward demonstration of hostility, feeling in the neighborhood of the hotel, as expressed to reporters and photographers, was unfriendly."[4]

As more resettlers arrived and as days and weeks passed without incident, the controversy slowly dissipated, even if police still monitored the block. In a report issued three months in, Ralph Smeltzer reported that the "hostel has received no protests, and no unfriendly acts have come to our attention. To all appearances the hostel has been completely accepted." The Smeltzers left the hostel soon after, in August 1944, replaced by Eldon and Cecile Burke, who had managed the Philadelphia hostel previously. Midori Satomi ended up joining the hostel staff as secretary/receptionist.[5]

The hostel remained open for about two years, closing its doors in May 1946. The Brooklyn Eagle, which had closely covered the controversy over the hostels opening, wrote in an April 7, 1946 editorial, "It is a pleasure to note today that the challenge was met and the obligations of plain humanity met in full measure," adding that "Brooklynites made only one distinction, not of race or color, but between those who were on our side and those who were not." The hostel housed approximately 1,600 Japanese Americans.[6]

The Brooklyn hostel was one of two in New York City, the other in Manhattan opening in October 1945. The only other hostel outside the restricted area to face significant opposition from the local community was the Pittsburgh hostel.

Authored by Brian Niiya, Densho

Related Articles

For More Information

Copeland, Jeffrey C. "Stay for a Dollar a Day: California's Church Hostels and Support during the Japanese American Eviction and Resettlement, 1942–1947." M.A. thesis, University of Nevada, Reno, 2014.

Hayashi, Amy N. "Japanese American Resettlement: The Midwest and the Middle Atlantic States, 1942–1949." Ph.D. dissertation, Temple University, 2004.

"New York Hotel Protest, 1944." The Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement: A Digital Archive, The Bancroft Library, University of California Berkeley. http://digitalassets.lib.berkeley.edu/jarda/ucb/text/cubanc6714_b326w02_0065.pdf.

Siegel, Shizue. In Good Conscience: Supporting Japanese Americans During the Internment. San Mateo, CA: AACP, Inc., 2006.

Footnotes

  1. PM, Apr. 25, 1944; Paul Crowell, "Mayor Protests Japanese in East," New York Times, Apr. 27, 1944; quote from Natalie Davis, "Clinton St. Grumbles as Japanese-Americans Move In," PM, May 11, 1944, 11. These and all subsequent newspaper citations (with the exception of Japanese American newspapers) are from a newspaper clippings file titled "New York Hotel Protest, 1944" found in The Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement: A Digital Archive, The Bancroft Library, University of California Berkeley, call number BANC MSS 67/14 c, folder W 2.65, accessed on Dec. 15, 2014 at http://digitalassets.lib.berkeley.edu/jarda/ucb/text/cubanc6714_b326w02_0065.pdf.
  2. Brooklyn Eagle, Apr. 25, 1944, Apr. 27, 1944, Apr. 30, 1944, May 3, 1944; Greg Robinson, After Camp: Portraits in Midcentury Japanese American Life and Politics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 166–67; New York Sun, Apr. 28, 1944; Delaney quote from Ray Richards, "Riots Against Japs Feared in Brooklyn," San Francisco Examiner, Apr. 29, 1944; Costello quote from Washington Star, May 6, 1944.
  3. New York Herald Tribune, May 10, 1944.
  4. Quote from New York Sun, May 10, 1944; Pacific Citizen, May 20, 1944, 3.
  5. Pacific Citizen, July 8, 1944, Sept. 30, 1944, 8, with quote from the latter; Densho interview, Mary Blocher Smeltzer by Richard Potashin, July 17, 2008, segment 11; Heart Mountain Sentinel, Oct. 7, 1944, 5.
  6. Pacific Citizen, Apr. 20, 1946, 6; Brooklyn Eagle, Apr. 7, 1946, reprinted in Pacific Citizen, May 11, 1946, 5.