Before 2008, M. Rosalind Sagara didn't know many details about the history of the Chinese community in Riverside, Calif. Now, you could say she is one of the most engaged experts on the story of the area’s early immigrants, as she leads her community’s efforts to preserve the very beginnings of their Chinese American history.
Sagara (center) on the George Wong History Walk in Riverside, Calif. George Wong was the last resident of Riverside’s Chinatown, and the walk takes guests on a tour of his life.
The first Chinese pioneers arrived in Riverside around 1870. By 1885, the Chinatown area was flourishing with 450 permanent residents and as many as 2,500 migrant workers, who were providing skilled labor to a growing citrus industry.
But over the years, the town’s population fell dramatically, and by 1943 only one resident remained. Then, in the mid-1970s, fire destroyed several buildings and the rest were demolished to make way for commercial development. Today, all that remains of this once-vibrant culture are remnants of buried buildings and other artifacts that lie underground.
With the help of Sagara’s passionate work, people everywhere are coming together to protect this important part of the community’s heritage, working towards a goal of establishing Chinatown Memorial Park. She co-founded and currently serves as chair of the Save Our Chinatown Committee. She has also created a strong network of local advocates and organizations, students, and a whole new generation of preservationists.
Their efforts are paying off: In the spring of 2012, a California court invalidated the City of Riverside’s approval of a development that would have destroyed Chinatown’s archaeology.
I had the chance to ask Sagara a few questions about how she first got involved preserving Riverside’s history and what this means for the community.
When did you start working to save Riverside? What first inspired you to get involved?
I've been involved in preserving Riverside’s Chinatown since 2008. Curiosity got me to my first meeting. I wanted to learn more about the early Chinese community in Riverside. It was also a chance to connect with a part of my cultural heritage and the local community.
I soon learned the site was threatened by commercial development and if the community didn't mobilize to protect the site, we'd lose it. In those early weeks, I think the threat of losing something I had yet to fully discover really inspired me to get involved.
What has been your most rewarding accomplishment while working to preserve Riverside’s Chinatown?
Growing and sustaining our preservation network has been the most rewarding accomplishment in my view. It’s not easy to keep interest alive for long periods, but we've been successful in maintaining a solid base of support throughout the years.
What do you think is the most important way to connect with the local community and a younger generation of preservationists, and get them passionate about saving history?
Learn what they think is interesting about a place and tell them why you care. Ask them to help you connect their interests, knowledge, or resources with your work.
Local community members stand in front of the original Chinatown site.
How do you think your work and the work of the Save Our Chinatown Committee will influence future generations of Riverside residents?
I hope our preservation work will inspire future generations to be curious about Riverside’s diverse heritage and to become active caretakers of where they live.
What advice would you give to younger preservation advocates looking to save a place or community meaningful to them?
Lead. Don’t wait for someone to ask you to take leadership and don’t assume others will take the lead. Bring your unique strengths and knowledge to your cause. Ask for help. You can do it!
The National Trust for Historic Preservation presented Sagara with the American Express Aspire Award Recognizing Emerging Leaders in Historic Preservation at our National Preservation Conference in Spokane, Washington, in November 2012.
“The passion, dedication, and creative leadership that M. Rosalind Sagara brings to the preservation of Riverside’s Chinatown is truly an inspiration,” said Stephanie Meeks, president of the National Trust. “We are fortunate to have this dynamic young advocate in the field of preservation.”
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