If you pay a visit to Park Road NE in Ravenna the weekend before it becomes Candy Cane Lane (typically, two weeks prior to Christmas), you can see almost the entire population of the neighborhood turned out, working together, wiring plastic Santas, arranging herds of reindeer, planting six-foot candy canes on front lawns. It's almost an image of Arcadia. Indeed, as it enjoys its fifth decade, Candy Cane Lane seems the ideal community confection: a working model of humanistic urbanism and a demonstration of how things should be; a visible reminder of the profoundly American virtues of neighborliness and community. Of course, from the analysis of de Tocqueville to the descriptions in Lolita to the films of Paul Verhoeven, history has shown that America often reaches its most impassioned expression in the hands of foreigners. Candy Cane Lane is no exception.
THE MAN BEHIND THE LANE
When first-generation Japanese immigrant Tatsuya "Lawrence" Kawabata arrived in Seattle in early 1945, it was with little more than a government-issued $25 and the address of some family friends in Ravenna. He and his cousin--who'd established a successful oyster farm at Willapa Bay in the early 1930s--had spent the previous 23 months in Minidoka internment camp in Idaho at the behest of President Roosevelt's poorly conceived Executive Order No. 9066 (EO9066), which facilitated evacuation of Japanese nationals from coastal areas, ostensibly "for their own protection." Kawabata was 26 years old.
By most accounts, Kawabata possessed both a strong sense of civic duty and a powerful, almost pathological patriotism for his adoptive home. A graduate of the University of Washington, where he had been the managing editor of The Daily, Kawabata was active in both the Japanese Methodist Church (now Blaine Methodist Church) and the Japanese-American Citizens League (JACL), where he volunteered as an interpreter. He was also a sometimes contributor to James Y. Sakamoto's boosterish, all-English Japanese-American Courier. Indeed, even the racist overtones of EO9066 could not cloud Kawabata's good citizenship: He was one of the dozen or so members of the JACL who helped to draw up a resolution formally commending the government's "extraordinary measures, under the circumstances, to safeguard the comfort, safety, and economic welfare of the persons due to be evacuated," and advocating "cheerful and willing cooperation by the community" in the evacuation proceedings.
The postwar economy of Seattle was a booming one; it did not take long for Kawabata to re-establish himself upon his return to Seattle. He reconnected with the Japanese Methodist Church (helping them move from their original Washington Street home to their present location on 24th Avenue South in 1962) and, by 1947, had founded a successful grocery business on Lake City Way Northeast. More importantly, he had purchased a house at 3206 Park Road Northeast. He was the only ethnic minority on the block.
A DECORATION CONTEST
Early in 1949, the state government finally relaxed restrictions on energy consumption that had been in place since the attack on Pearl Harbor. In December of that year, The Seattle Times somewhat belatedly responded by sponsoring a citywide contest to see who could "best capture the spirit of Christmas through the decoration of their house." Evidently, Kawabata threw himself into the contest with no small zeal, going so far as to decorate the circle in the cul-de-sac facing his house with a homemade Passion scene, lovingly constructed of wood.
While the prize eluded him (the winner of the Times' contest was, in fact, an elderly Norwegian, Oddvar Nordall, whose house "captured the power of the holy season through a team of handsome, hand-carved fir Reindeer festooned with lights"), the contest evidently sparked something in Kawabata, and the following year, he repeated his decorative feat. This was the first year Elaine Preston, 76, lived on Park Road, and she recalls, "He was extremely energetic about it. He would begin almost at the beginning of the month, setting up on weekends and such." She recalls that Kawabata constructed his own decorations from papier-mâché: Santas, reindeer, and, of course, the newest mass-produced novelty to hit the Christmas circuit--the candy cane.
Invented by devout Ohio candymaker August Imgard in early 1847, the candy cane is an extremely pious confection. The simple treat we take for granted is laden with symbolism: The white represents the purity of Christ, streaked with a thick red line representing his blood on the cross, and two thin red lines representing the 39 lashes. The "cane" shape refers to the shepherd when tipped up; to the first letter of the Holy name of Jesus when tipped down. The peppermint flavor is meant to evoke hyssop, an Old Testament herb used for purification. Finally, the candy is by design "hard, as the rock of ages."
While candy canes had been around in local candy stores since the turn of the century, it was only in 1950, with the rise of automation (largely through Bob's Candies, Inc. in Georgia) that mass-produced, inexpensive candy canes became a Christmas staple. Kawabata was certainly one of the first people locally to use them, enlarged, as a decorative element. "He would make them taller than he was," recalls Preston. "It was a real sight, this little man planting these tremendous candy canes on his lawn. But we loved it." Kawabata also began leaving baskets of real candy canes out for the occasional gawkers. "There were lots of kids in the neighborhood, they adored it," Preston recalls. "It got so kids would come from up the hill over by Laurelhurst for those candy canes."
According to Preston, Kawabata's diorama began to outgrow him. "He started to get the neighbors to help him," she recalls. "He was still the main decorator--he still made all the figurines and all, and designed the scenes--but he started to use other people's lawns, and he got them to decorate their houses too." By 1955, the tableau was vibrant enough to warrant a mention in the Times, and the neighborhood saw an increase in the number of cars making the trip to the newly named "Candy Cane Lane." "The name was Larry's idea," recalls Preston. "He made a little sign and everything; he put it up at the top of the street, so cars would drive down."
A SOLO SHOW
But, for all its growing civic pride, the prized lane remained Kawabata's stage. A bachelor at 37, somewhat antisocial, and, as of 1955, still the only minority on Park Road, Kawabata seemed to find a great sense of belonging in engineering the annual whimsy. "It was the only time he really interacted with the neighborhood," Preston recalls. "He was a good gardener. We would see him outside when he gardened, but he wasn't terribly social. He really had the decorating, and that was it."
For Kawabata, the decorating was no small affair. Preston recalls him handing out complicated lighting plots drawn on paper, and going so far as to create renderings of how setups should look. "He was so driven," she maintains, "that I think at first he even paid for it all out of his own pocket."
Another longtime resident paints a less sanguine image of Kawabata. Former UW sociology professor Victor Oliver, 70, moved from West 96th Street in New York to Park Road in 1955, and recalls Kawabata as "a pushy son of a bitch." According to Oliver, Kawabata not only demanded that Oliver decorate his lawn with specific fixtures, but expected him to use his own lights as well. "He was a nut!" Oliver recalls. "I mean, here's this normally quiet little guy, demanding that I use my lights--my electricity bill!--to help him set up his silly Christmas display." Oliver recalls that Kawabata was "not classically aggressive, but just persistent as hell. I mean, he would knock on my door at 11 a.m. on a Sunday with a string of lights in his hands, wanting me to string them up. I'd shut the door, and he'd be back the next weekend." Eventually, Oliver gave in. "I think I put up one of his canes, just to get him off my back," he laughs. "I mean, it's not like he was a nasty guy. I just found him annoying."
At first, other neighbors were less irked by Kawabata's determination, but as his displays grew more elaborate and his demands greater, many in the neighborhood began to feel a growing sense of disparity in his methods. Elaine Preston recalls, "I think people just began to feel as if they weren't being heard. There's no doubt that he put on a great show. But people began to feel like they were just helping him put on his show--it didn't feel like a community event, the way it does now."
Moreover, at some point Kawabata had begun the practice of passing the hat, evidently to supplement his expenses. Oliver recalls, "He expected us to pony up 20 bucks or so--which is fine, I certainly have no problem with that--but he expected us to just give him the cash, and let him handle it. No books, no accounts, nothing." Presumably, he received scant response. Preston recalls, "I remember people complaining about the money a bit. I think they just felt like they were giving it to a person, instead of to the neighborhood." She, herself, did not make a donation.
THE FOUNDER FLEES
Joan Lewis moved with her husband and two children to Park Road in the fall of 1964, several months before Kawabata moved out. "I remember, we moved in in October, just before Halloween," she says. "It was a very close neighborhood, people definitely made the rounds. It was a great place for kids."
And yet, by 1964, Kawabata had managed to alienate that close neighborhood. Lewis describes the cold silence that, at the time, surrounded the subject of Kawabata and Candy Cane Lane, saying, "People just sort of talked around it. I didn't get to know Mr. Kawabata very well before he left, and no one really mentioned him." That year, she participated with the rest of the neighborhood in decorating their houses, helping to set up an elaborate merry-go-round in the center of the cul-de-sac. She does not recall Kawabata joining in. At the end of February, 1965, Kawabata moved out.
Lewis (a "pathological liar," according to Oliver) later discovered that the neighborhood had wrested control of Candy Cane Lane from Kawabata. In fact, in 1962, residents inaugurated the still-going practice of a communal yard sale in August, with all proceeds going toward Candy Cane Lane expenses. A separate bank account was set up (it still exists today, and is currently managed by Elaine Preston's daughter-in-law) and, at informal meetings, neighbors discussed their plans for the year's decorations. Kawabata, it seems, was conspicuously not invited to these proceedings.
"I don't remember Larry being that upset," recalls Preston. She claims he simply lost interest, even as the rest of the neighborhood became more involved in the tradition. "Anyway, he couldn't have done it forever. It was too much for just one person," she says. Pressed for details, however, Preston does reveal, "We were a bit tired of his designs, and his decorations." She doesn't recall ever inviting him to the yard sales or meetings.
Oliver is more skeptical. "Absolutely, the neighborhood took control of it. Why shouldn't they?" he says. "Lawrence wanted a community event, but he wanted it his way. That's not how it works." Oliver says Kawabata simply withdrew as the neighborhood took over, becoming a non-participant. "He wasn't a very open guy. I think Candy Cane Lane was the one place where he tried to interact with his neighborhood. But it was his fault if he couldn't do it any other way than his own."
35 YEARS AFTER
Kawabata moved away from Park Road in 1965, and to California in 1972 (The Stranger was unable to locate him--research was conducted through library records, interviews, and the UW's JACL archives). It's unclear whether, in the end, Kawabata was bitter about Candy Cane Lane. Certainly, residents paint a picture of a man increasingly absent and despondent. Only Victor Oliver will go so far as to say Kawabata was resentful: "He may have been pissed, but you gotta remember, we were pissed first!"
Today, Candy Cane Lane remains very much alive. The annual event boasts almost 100-percent collaboration among the boomer-generation occupants. (Three-year resident Bill Samuels describes how one Jewish family is a bit taciturn, "But that's because the neighborhood was mad at them for building a new, modern house on the only empty lot a couple years back," he says. "Besides, there's another Jewish family, and they participate happily.") Last year, residents celebrated the 50th anniversary of Candy Cane Lane, serving hot cider and passing out candy canes. The community remains devoted to the event, raising money every summer at the yard sale, and passing the hat if they need more. Kawabata's contribution isn't acknowledged, and indeed, his memory is fading with the last few residents of his generation. The monument that he pioneered has been democratized and absorbed into the mainstream of Park Road, where its most powerful legacy eluded the founder: "It's a great community-builder," smiles Samuels.