The Berkeley City Council voted on Tuesday night to name a downtown stretch Kala Bagai Way.

The two-block stretch of Shattuck Avenue gets its new name from Kala Bagai, a South Asian woman who came to Berkeley with her family but was driven away from her newly purchased home by racist neighbours.

A subcommittee of the City Council had voted unanimously on July 15 to rename the eastern stretch of Shattuck Avenue, between Center Street and University Avenue. On Tuesday, the City Council adopted the recommendation, making it the first street named after a South Asian, and a South Asian woman, in Berkeley – a city where 20% of the population is Asian.

“My family and I have been touched to see the Kala Bagai street name get so much support from community residents and unanimous endorsements throughout the process,” Rani Bagai, Kala Bagai’s granddaughter told the Facilities, Infrastructure, Transportation, Environment and Sustainability Policy Committee during a virtual meeting.

“Berkeley residents may have pushed Kala Bagai out of her own home, but naming a street after her will feel like a homecoming, not only for Kala, but for us, her family and descendants,” she said.

The street renaming is part of the city’s $10.3 million Shattuck Avenue reconfiguration project, which is nearly finished. The portion of Shattuck Avenue downtown that was split into two one-way streets, between University Avenue and Allston Way, has been divided into a westside two-way thoroughfare that will keep its original name. The two-block, northbound street was narrowed to make way for wider sidewalks. It will get the new name. The buildings on Berkeley Square and Shattuck Square will take one or the other street address.

For decades, drivers and shoppers could get easily confused by the two parallel branches of Shattuck Avenue.

Community helped find name

Berkeley entered into an extensive community engagement process to find a new name, one that fits with the city’s 2012 renaming policy. That policy calls for monikers that “will enhance the values and heritage of the city of Berkeley and will be compatible with community interests.”

To gather ideas, the city set up a chalkboard at 2025 Shattuck Avenue – the old Mandarin Garden site – and asked residents for street name suggestions. Kieron Slaughter, the community development project coordinator in the office of economic development, also asked fourth graders at Berkeley Arts Magnet, where his kids go, to come up with some names. The Berkeley Cub Scout Troop 30 also suggested some ideas. Others emailed their ideas. The city collected nearly 1,000 names ranging from the hardly serious (Avocado Toast Way) to the Cal-friendly (Bears Boulevard) to those reflecting Berkeley history (Avenue of Free Speech). The city then appointed a Naming Advisory Committee made up of downtown business owners, historians, downtown residents, students and representatives of the Downtown Berkeley Association and Visit Berkeley to go through the names. They whittled the list to 10 finalists and presented it to the Public Works Commission.

At its February 6 meeting, the Public Works Commission further narrowed the list down to six names. They included Anna Saylor, Julia Morgan, Kala Bagai, Maggie Gee, William Byron Rumford and Ohlone. Berkeley then used Berkeley Considers, its online engagement tool, to ask residents which name they wanted. There were 1,259 respondents and they preferred “Ohlone or another indigenous name identified after consultation with the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe of the San Francisco Bay Area and other indigenous native peoples,” according to a staff report.

Before the issue came before the City Council subcommittee for a vote, Corrina Gould of the Confederated Villages of Lisjan/Ohlone threw her support behind naming the street after Kala Bagai, said Barnali Ghosh, who, along with her husband, Anirvan Chatterjee, set up the Berkeley South Asian Radical History Walking Tour. They have been part of a group spearheading the campaign to name the street after a South Asian.

“When the opportunity to participate in the Shattuck Avenue name change came up, the Tribe wholeheartedly supported the name change to Kala Bagai Way, because we want to acknowledge that there have been, and continue to be, people who come to our territory, who have faced and resisted oppression, and whose stories should be lifted up and remembered,” wrote Gould, according to the walking tour’s website.

Long South Asian history

Ghosh and others have been pushing for Bagai not for the usual reasons – because of what she accomplished in Berkeley, or because she live here a long time. She wasn’t wealthy or well-known. She didn’t win awards or hold political office – the reasons why most people get streets named after them.

Rather, Bagai was an early immigrant from what is now Pakistan and the racism she experienced at the hands of Berkeley homeowners is a history all residents should know, said Ghosh. Part of the objective of getting the street named after Bagai is to educate Berkeleyans about this ugly aspect of the city’s past.

“She is a symbol of the people who didn’t get to live in Berkeley because of local racism and national racist immigration policy,” said Ghosh.

Brij, Kala, Ram, Vaishno, and Madan Bagai, c. 1920-1921. Photo courtesy: Rani Bagai. Photo credit: Berkeleyside.

It is also important to acknowledge and honour the history of Asians in Berkeley, said Ghosh. They have lived in the city for more than 100 years and yet there are few, if any, monuments or acknowledgments of their contributions, Ghosh said. No street carries the name of a South Asian. Yet they have contributed greatly to the city.

“Asian Americans in Berkeley history have included the first Asian American in Congress, Dalip Singh Saund, aviator and scientist Maggie Gee, anti-imperial freedom fighters like Kartar Singh Sarabha, Japanese communities who survived internment, TWLF movement elders, scientists, anarchists, Newbery Award winner Dhan Gopal Mukerji, and so many others,” a group that included Ghosh and Chatterjee wrote in a November op-ed for Berkeleyside.

Who is Kala Bagai?

Bagai came to the US from what was then India in 1915 with her husband and three children. Her husband, who had inherited money from his parents and walked into the US with $25,000, was a member of the Gadar Movement, which wanted to liberate India from British colonialism, according to a family history written by the couple’s granddaughter. Its leadership was in San Francisco.

At some point, probably a few years after 1915, the family bought a house in Berkeley. It had previously belonged to an English couple, Bagai recounted in a 1982 taped interview with her son. When they tried to move in, they found their way barred.

“When they pulled up to their new neighborhood with all their belongings, they found that the neighbors had locked the house so that the family could not move in,” wrote Rani Bagai on the website Immigrant Voices. “I told Mr. Bagai I don’t want to live in this neighborhood because they might hurt my children.” He agreed. “We paid for the house and they locked the doors? No!”

In 1921, Bagai’s husband, Vaishno Das Bagai, opened a store, Bagai’s Bazaar, on Fillmore Street in San Francisco. The family moved into an apartment upstairs. Bagai told her son they later did spend some time in Berkeley, although she did not specify any dates. The family “went back and forth” between the cities, she said.

The racist incident with the neighbours was just only one of a long string of anti-Asian racist incidents in Berkeley, said Chatterjee, who has been combing through old City Council minutes and newspapers to map of those incidents.

In 1921, Vaishno Das Bagai applied to be naturalized and became an American citizen. But, in 1923, the US Supreme Court ruled that no Indian could become an American because they were not “white.” As a consequence, Vaishno and 64 other Indians were stripped of their US citizenship, wrote Rani Bagai. Since he was no longer a citizen, he was no longer allowed to own property.

“He was forced to liquidate his property, including his general store,” she wrote.

Vaishno Das Bagai was devastated.

“Feeling trapped and betrayed, Vaishno went to San Jose alone on a business pretext, rented a room there, and took his own life by gas poisoning,” Rani Bagai wrote. “He left behind farewell letters to his wife and three sons, urging them to go on without him and to lead a good life. He also left a letter addressed to the San Francisco Examiner, explaining that he had no alternative left but to take his own life in protest.”

His widow refused to be destroyed by her husband’s suicide. “I was really lonesome. I was really lost,” she told her son.

Kala Bagai family. Photo courtesy: Rani Bagai. Photo credit: Berkeleyside.

Bagai eventually remarried, moved to southern California, put her three sons through college, and, after laws changed, became an American citizen in 1950. Her home became a center of South Asian life, earning her the nickname “Mother India,” according to a city description. She died in 1983.

“Kala Bagai is exactly the right person for us to honor at this moment,” wrote the contributors to the op-ed.

  • As an Asian American, an immigrant, a woman of colour, and a member of a minority faith, Bagai represents critical segments of our community who have been deeply unrepresented in civic naming.
  • As a survivor of local racism and federal anti-immigrant policies, honouring Bagai is a tribute to her resistance in the face of adversity, and part of our reckoning with a difficult past.
  • And honouring Bagai can help inform our choices today, underscoring the importance of preventing displacement, housing newcomers, and welcoming immigrants.

City Council member Rigel Robinson, who sits on the subcommittee, said that he, as an Asian-American, was moved by the idea of honouring Bagai. It would counteract “the profound whiteness of our streets,” he said, before voting in favour of renaming the street after Bagai. He also proposed an amendment, which City Council member Cheryl Davila seconded, calling on the city to put up a plaque or descriptive element that describes Bagai’s history and her contributions.

Even though only one name was selected for the eastern part of Shattuck Avenue, all that community engagement work won’t be wasted, said Slaughter, who led the process for Berkeley. Now the city has a list of other potential, vetted names that can be used for other projects.

Robinson suggested that Francis K. Shattuck might be getting too much love in Berkeley. After all, he has two streets carrying his name: Shattuck and Kittredge. Maybe it’s time for a change, he hinted.

And the Berkeley Unified School District School Board recently voted to rename Jefferson and Washington elementary schools since those two presidents enslaved people.

William Byron Rumford Elementary perhaps? Or Maggie Gee Elementary?

Frances Dinkelspiel is co-founder and executive editor of Berkeleyside.

This article first appeared on Berkeleyside.