- Kala Bagai Way is the first street in Berkeley to be named after an Asian immigrant who faced discrimination and racism in Berkeley.
As the nation witnesses an increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans, Berkeley city officials have taken a step in a new direction. On Thursday, Feb. 1, city officials unveiled the new, renamed Kala Bagai Way, the first street in Berkeley to be named after an Asian immigrant, who faced discrimination and racism in Berkeley and one of the first to be named after a woman of color.
Kala Bagai Way is located on the two-block eastern area of Shattuck Avenue between Center Street and University Avenue — a block from the Downtown Berkeley BART station and a block from UC Berkeley.
Kala Bagai Way was renamed in the pouring rain by Mayor Jesse Arreguín after a year-long public campaign, that ended in the Berkeley City Council voting unanimously to approve renaming a street “Kala Bagai Way.”
At the event, Arreguin stressed the importance of renaming and the importance of Berkeley being a more welcoming place, a sanctuary.
Barnali Ghosh, a community historian and key organizer of the Kala Bagai Way campaign, who was present at the event told American Kahani, “It was important to hear the mayor express the importance of this renaming not only to Asian Americans, but to Berkeley.”
“The ceremony was attended by community leaders and members of the Kala Bagai Way campaign who represented the Bagai family, and their children, the next generation of Asian Americans in Berkeley, despite the dismal weather,” said Ghosh adding, “although it was pouring, it was very joyful.”
Seattle resident Rani Bagai, granddaughter of Kala Bagai was unable to fly down for the historic dedication, due to Covid precautions.
But speaking to American Kahani via email, Rani Bagai says, “My family and I feel great pride and love that Berkeley has honored my grandmother, a South Asian woman, by naming a part of Shattuck Avenue for her.”
“This is the first street in Berkeley to be named for an Asian individual, here in a city that is one-fifth Asian American,” said District 7 City Councilmember Rigel Robinson in an email to the Daily Californian. “There’s power in names, there’s power in whose histories we choose to memorialize. Today is about creating a sense of belonging for all who call Berkeley home.”
A visibly pleased Barnali Ghosh, a community historian and creator of the Kala Bagai Way campaign, speaking to American Kahani said, “What is significant about this moment is that it is an everyday infrastructure that we walk by, and now that includes the name of a South Asian woman.”
Kala Bagai was born in 1892 in Amritsar and moved to the Bay Area in 1915 with her husband, Vaishno Das Bagai and their three children. When they tried to move into a Berkeley home they purchased, racist neighbors blocked them from entering. Bagai, one of the first South Asian women on the West Coast after facing racism and discrimination, persevered, going on to becoming an immigrant activist and community builder.
According to Rani Bagai, her grandmother’s family encountered resistance and ignorance from community members when they first moved to Berkeley. Not only were they locked out of a home they had purchased, but they also had to leave their neighborhood as a result of racism.
Kala Bagai’s husband was stripped of his citizenship and unfortunately, eventually took his own life, Rani Bagai added.
Not one to give up, Kala Bagai relocated soon thereafter to Los Angeles, remarried and formed an Indian American community hub that hosted cultural events with a focus on inclusivity, according to Rani Bagai.
“She wanted to build bridges between American community and the Indian community to educate people about this other culture and be welcoming to other newcomers so that they could have the kind of welcome that she had been denied,” Rani Bagai told the Daily Californian.
The city welcomed the renaming of the street by putting up banners in celebration of Bagai’s legacy, according to the event’s livestream.
This unveiling of the street name also served as a ribbon cutting for the $10.3 million Shattuck reconfiguration project, a project intended to improve the traffic flow, pedestrian safety, landscaping and sidewalk amenities of the Downtown Berkeley area, according to the livestream.
“Most importantly, the renaming of these two blocks is a celebration of the diversity of our great town and in particular, the work of this amazing woman and also the South Asian community, which often has not gotten the same recognition of other communities in Berkeley,” said CEO of the Downtown Berkeley Association John Caner during the event.
The ribbon cutting was followed by a virtual Zoom watch party held jointly by SAADA (South Asian American Digital Archive) and the Berkeley South Asian Radical History Walking Tour. Family members, archivists, designers, parents and elected officials from all over the country, laughed, shared stories and savored this historic moment together. The campaigners remembered Kala Bagai, nicknamed ‘Mother India’, for her “resilience, leadership, and community activism”.
According to activists like Ghosh, Kala Bagai Way brings to light a larger story of South Asians in Berkeley, going back more than 100 years.
Rani Bagai hopes people will remember her grandmother for the inclusive community she built and that they will feel more welcomed and less alienated when they see her name on the street sign.
She added that the street name will hopefully serve as a reminder of the importance of learning about other cultures and not taking freedoms and rights for granted.
“Kala Bagai understood not only the importance of a welcoming community, but the importance of welcoming strangers in a strange land,” Rani Bagai told American Kahani, adding, “She understood that being a stranger herself in 1915 when she entered San Francisco, wearing a sari and nose ring, when no one there had seen such things before. She made her way, in spite of discrimination and personal hardship, and made America her home. And then went on to help build the Indian American community and make it a home for other newcomers as well.”
“As we experience a surge in anti-Asian hate crimes nationwide, we must remember that discrimination against Asian Americans and immigrants is nothing new,” Robinson said in the email. “Kala Bagai was driven out of Berkeley for her race, but today, we are welcoming her back home.”
Asian American Bar Association of New York recently released its report ‘A Rising Tide of Hate and Violence against Asian Americans in New York, During Covid-19: Impact, Cases, Solutions’ that tracks the rising cases of discrimination and violence against Asian Americans as a fall-out of the pandemic.
As Berkeley historian and curator of the award-winning Berkeley South Asian Radical History Walking Tour, Anirvan Chatterjee so aptly tweeted, “Berkeley is 20% Asian American, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at street names The city’s trying to find a name for a new street. This is our chance to honor a woman who survived local racism to become an immigrant leader”
Chatterjee added, “The ‘Kala Bagai Way’ isn’t just a road, but also a way of being in the world!”
“I can think of no better person to name a street for, to symbolize a welcoming community and city…no one who better exemplifies generosity of spirit, than Kala Bagai,” concludes the proud granddaughter.
Anu Ghosh immigrated to the U.S. from India in 1999. Back in India she was a journalist for the Times of India in Pune for 8 years and a graduate from the Symbiosis Institute of Journalism and Communication. In the U.S., she obtained her Masters and PhD. in Communications from The Ohio State University. Go Buckeyes! She has been involved in education for the last 15 years, as a professor at Oglethorpe University and then Georgia State University. She currently teaches Special Education at Oak Grove Elementary. She is also a mom to two precocious girls ages 11 and 6.