The Indirect Effects of Martial Arts on Community Development and Urbanization: A Look at West Coast Communities of the United States, Part I

Originally written for an Urban History course during my graduate career, the following is the first part of study that explores the connection between martial arts and community development/urbanization. This is the first part of a two-part article. Read the second part here.


Martial arts and its effects on urbanization in the United States is a difficult topic to cover, as there is not much historiography linked to this specific subject. Many, by most rights, place martial arts into the sports category. So then, by association, what effects do sports have on urbanization? As kinesiology professor Stephen Hardy explains in his 1997 historiographical review article, sports were first a way to a better sense of health, morality, and community. After the Civil War, Americans “demanded” more time for sports, leisure, and recreation. This allowed people to spend money on sports, either partaking or watching the activities.[1] Once money becomes involved, sports became a business. The topic of discussion then can move into two different fields: the effects of sporting events (community, regional, national, international) on urbanization or the effects of small, local businesses on urbanization. The former, as Hardy, Brian Soebbing et. al, Ryan Brewer and Kayla Freeman, and Larissa Davies contend, is to create revenue for the respective cities, towns, etc. so the municipalities can use said revenue to update/upgrade or build on to the current urban area. Different urban areas complete this process in varying degrees of success in each urban area.[2] The latter, as Ko Koen and Rhodri Thomas, Mike Raco and Emma Tunney, and Stacey Sutton assert, small businesses can either help build the urban area from the influx of participants in sporting events or create a rebirth in a downtrodden part of town by giving back to the community. This, in effect, would create more jobs for these businesses, and in some cases, make the products more affordable for locals, and help expand that urban area.[3]

Where do martial arts fit into the above scenario then? Unlike other small businesses, like the stores and restaurants that make up most of the mainline of any given city that rely on a rotation of new customers, martial art schools rely on consistent membership to keep its doors open and to sustain its community involvement. Unlike other small businesses, however, martial art schools do not offer jobs to the community to help grow the industry, per say either; nor do the average martial arts school attract members outside of the community like a baseball or football game would. Practitioners usually, on the average, reside within a two to five-mile radius of the school. Perhaps this would suggest there is no direct effect from martial arts on urbanization. Cities do not build stadiums and centers solely for the usage of martial arts training and/or tournaments nor is there a high demand or pressing need to sell property to martial art instructors to open training halls.

How martial arts and their respective schools in the context of urban development effect the process is much more personal. Martial arts schools directly affect the individuals who practice them, who, then in turn, affect their respective communities. These communities can be homogeneous or heterogeneous of ethnic cultures. Next to church and religion, as political science assistant professor Joseph Yi states in his 2009 book, sports and martial arts are activities to help build not only the individual, but the greater community as well. Hal Lawson concurs with Yi’s opinion in his 2005 article, to where sports and their community programs (Lawson mentions sports, exercise, and physical education [SEPE] in his writings) can help empower a populace and incite development within a community, especially from poverty. More specifically, anthropologist John Donohue and political scientist Max Skidmore both assert that the martial arts school is a community in of itself and from this subcommunity, it helps an individual build and find their own identity in the traditions, customs, and structure that are part and parcel in the martial arts.[4] The Chinese and Japanese immigrants, and the American citizens all along the West Coast, San Francisco, and the city’s surrounding areas best demonstrate a connection between martial arts and community during the late nineteenth century throughout the twentieth century. After giving a brief history on the city of San Francisco, this study will briefly look into the evolution of martial arts in the United States and investigate martial arts’ effects on the homogeneous communities of Japanese immigrants in the early and mid-twentieth century and on Chinese immigrants, specifically Chinatown in the 1950s and 1960s, and lastly on a heterogeneous community headed by the famed Bruce Lee in the 1960s. Martial arts, therefore, became activities for people to form communities – both homogeneous and heterogeneous – in San Francisco, along the West Coast, and throughout the United States. Through its philosophies and practices, the martial arts allowed citizens to become better people, which built a better community for everyone involved, thus furthered urbanization.

San Francisco

San Francisco began its time as a city under Spanish colonial rule in 1776 when explorer Juan Bautista de Anza founded the presidio (fort) that would later become the basis for the city. Trading and shipping runs became the usual day-to-day activities of the city’s inhabitants. Then, in 1821, the Mexican Empire emerged, and San Francisco gained independence from Spanish colonial rule. Though San Francisco experienced a change in rulership, this transition did not hinder much of its daily routine. With the city’s climate mirroring that of the warm summer Mediterranean climate, farming in and around the city proved to be difficult. In combination with this type of weather and its hilly geography, the city and its citizens were prone to experiencing microclimates, or different climates in different parts of the city, further making agriculture difficult in the area.[5]

In 1835, Englishman William Richardson and city mayor Francisco de Haro devised and laid out street plans that would later help develop the city during and after the Gold Rush of 1849. Despite these street plans, not many citizens were quickly moving into the city as anticipated. After the Mexican-American War in 1848, the United States claimed the city and the next year, citizens struck gold, resulting in the Gold Rush. Easterners of the United States traveled the length of the continent to try their luck at finding gold. Americans, however, were not the only ones to make the trek to San Francisco and the West Coast of the United States. Once word spread, Latin Americans, Europeans, Australians, and Chinese found their way to California and into San Francisco looking for gold. With roughly 300,000 prospectors coming from all over the world, some called the small city home, growing its population of 200 residents in 1846 to 36,000 residents in 1852. By 1850, California entered statehood and by 1890, the city of San Francisco grew to approximately 300,000 residents. Thanks to the city plan laid out by Richardson and de Haro, San Francisco began to expand, building more homes, roads, churches, schools, and most importantly, railroads. The railroads allowed San Francisco and other Western cities to trade farther, linking the city to other trading centers in Dallas, Kansas City, and Seattle. Because of both the Gold Rush and the addition of railways to and from the city, San Francisco became a financial center for both American and global commerce businesses.[6]

The destruction of the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 taken after a few days of the disaster. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

During the Gold Rush in 1851, a paint and upholstery store caught fire, and with help from the high winds, the flames spread throughout the city, burning for ten hours. In the ashes lay three-fourths of the city. Without skipping a beat, however, the city and its citizens began to rebuild and continued on with gold rush fever. Another disaster hit San Francisco in 1906, when an estimated 7.9 earthquake shook the northern coastline of California. In the catastrophe, 3,000 people perished along with eighty percent of the city. This resulted in 227,000 to 300,000 San Franciscans homeless out of a total of 410,000, as shown in the photograph above. Though the city was quick to rebuild itself again like it did after the 1851 fire, many of its displaced citizens and businesses moved further south to Los Angeles, allowing Los Angeles to become the business center in California.[7]

In the postwar years after the Civil War, immigration from the Asian countries, especially China, began to soar in San Francisco and the West Coast. These Chinese laborers, who first traveled to San Francisco with the Gold Rush some twenty years earlier, gravitated more towards agriculture and railroad work. Never really accepted in American society and cities, Americans secluded these Chinese laborers, mainly bachelors, to a few blocks of each respective city. These few blocks would become the Chinatowns of the future. In San Francisco’s case, the Chinese laborers who remained after their work was finished were secluded in the center of city, making the large square their home. Here, excluded from most aspects of American society, Chinatown became a place for immigrant laborers to continue with the customs and traditions from their home country and a place to begin new business ventures in the laundry and grocery industries. San Francisco’s Chinatown would become a cultural center for outsiders wanting to know more about Chinese customs and traditions. Though the Chinese made do with the hand they were dealt, the United States passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 (later repealed in 1943), which effectively prohibited immigration of all Chinese laborers and their families to American shores. In a bout of historical irony, the United States used the same language and types of legislation to exclude Japanese immigrants and laborers, who would also established ethnic areas along the West Coast in Japantowns, in the early 1900s from American shores.[8]

Map of Chinatown, c. 1885. Notice the color-coded buildings where moral vices were located, as opposed to other places of business. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a new movement began to sweep the nation’s larger industrial cities – the City Beautiful Movement. The brainchild of Daniel Hudson Burnham, Burnham first proposed his concept of reversing the negative social effects of industrial capitalism on cities at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, Illinois. In his “architectural manifestation of the social response to failing[s of] urban life,” Burnham attempted to decrease the dirt, disease, and overall ugliness of the industrial cities by creating spaces and buildings that were for the benefit of society. These namely came in the form of parks and other green, open areas, allowing city dwellers a reprieve of the dirt and grim infested city.[9]

With other major cities – Chicago, Cleveland, Ohio; Detroit, Michigan; and the nation’s capital of Washington, D.C. – investing in Burnham’s movement, San Francisco was no different. Burnham recruited two men, Edward H. Bennett and Willis Polk, to help plan the city’s own beautification. The three men (though Bennett and Polk did most of the heavy lifting) completed the plan in 1905, where they proposed to create grid patterned neighborhoods and districts in an effort to reduce the social ailments the Movement wanted to achieve. Disaster struck the next year when an earthquake destroyed most of the city as mentioned previously. The earthquake, as a result, dashed the beautification plan in light of the city’s massive rebuilding process. During the rebuilding, however, the city built the Civic Center complex proposed in the plan, but nothing else from the 1905 plan. In the aftermath of the disaster, the city thought it would be best to reestablish the much-needed buildings and structures to sustain the city instead of focusing on transforming the city into something akin to a tourist destination.[10]

It appeared that, whatever San Francisco chose to do, the city became a popular place in the decades that followed. With the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in December 1941 and the mobilization of troops in the beginning months of 1942, many Americans began traveling to the West Coast to partake in the new technology and defense industries that were quickly developing. Much like the prospectors of the Gold Rush almost a hundred years prior, many Americans would become permanent residents of San Francisco in the postwar years. This shift resulted in two things: the first being a rise in residency, increasing the city’s population from 634,536 in 1940 to 775,357 in 1950, and the second was an expansion and redevelopment of urban planning in the West Side neighborhoods in the 1950s and 1960s to accommodate these newer and plentiful residents. During this time, the city also became a hub for the counterculture movements that swept the nation in the postwar and the pre-Vietnam War years. The Beat Generation/Movement, focused on the exploration and expression of the human mind, body, and spirit through unconventional (for the times) methods from different cultures, countries, and ideologies, which helped influence the Hippies, the Gay Rights Movement in the 1970s, and later the New Age Movement.[11]

The 1970s, with the completion of Transamerica Pyramid, began a surge of building large skyscrapers, or “Manhattanization,” in the city, lasting well into the 1980s. Despite the growth in construction, San Francisco experienced an increase of homelessness, beginning in the 80s, in spite of the spur in construction and development. By the late 1990s, the industry in city began to change as the computer was becoming more affordable for the average American. With this change, many computer companies built their headquarters in and around the city, creating more jobs and another subsection of the technologies industry. The computer industry soon morphed into the social media industry in the mid-2000s, again resulting in more jobs and a creation of another subsection of the technologies industry.[12]

Overview of Asian Martial Arts in America

It is here that we reconnect ourselves to the martial arts in urbanization. As we have previously discussed, the martial arts themselves do not widely or greatly impact or influence San Francisco’s decision-making for its future. Martial arts, however, do have an effect on the smaller level, on the individual and ethnic community level of cities and other urban areas. Though the initial postwar years saw little introduction and expansion of martial arts, both Chinese kung fu and Japanese judo/jujutsu, popularity began to surge in the 1950s and 1960s, sometimes in the context of the Beat Movement and other similar counterculture movements, like karate-do, aikido, and tea kwon do. These martial arts stressed both a physical and mental philosophy that, to some, offered more than the standard Judeo-Christian education. To others, martial arts offered a way for individuals to create and enter a community, creating bonds, while also pushing them physically and mentally, all each offering a new perspective of thinking and doing. Yet, to understand these effects, we must first go back to the Colonial Period of America.

The martial art traditions of the Chinese laborers, and later the Japanese laborers, were not the first foreign fighting systems to make their way to American shores. As historian Geoffrey Wingard declares, a European fencing instructor by the name of Edward Blackwell attempted to build a fencing school in 1734. Blackwell had great difficulty attracting students, as not many colonials walked around with swords and sabers by their hips, especially in the cities. In order to adapt, Blackwell appealed to the health and physical benefits of fencing classes, to where the main goal of training was not to bring bodily harm to an opponent (though, with the techniques learned, one could do so), but help build a better and healthier practitioner. As the American continent began to become more urbanized in the later nineteenth century, the rough-and-tumble fighting behaviors from the rural areas of the continent could not be sustained or tolerated and were not widely welcomed in the newly urbanized communities, as cities became a melting pot of different cultures and practices. In order to adapt, the Western martial arts teachers of boxing, wrestling, and some fencing began to follow the “advertising” model that Blackwell utilized almost a hundred years earlier.[13] So set the precedence in the United States that martial arts and combat sports were more than just overcoming one’s foe in the ring or in the street – they were a means to a better life.

Theodore Roosevelt (center left) with his Rough Riders after the Battle of San Juan. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

With anything new, as history has shown, communities are not always apt to welcome newcomers, specifically when the new martial art originates from an Asian country that is set on imperialism, i.e. judo/jujutsu, at the turn of the twentieth century. The wrestlers and boxers in the cities, according to history professor Wendy Rouse, proclaimed that their styles of combat best represented honorable and manly American men, as these American martial artists participated in the Yellow Peril hysteria of the early twentieth century. While many Americans, both Western martial artists and average people, feminized the Japanese and their martial art, many others began to both appropriate and exoticize judo/jujutsu into their own systems and to the American public.[14]

One of these “others” was none other than the twenty-sixth United States President, Theodore Roosevelt. Throughout his life, Roosevelt was physically active, partaking in boxing, wrestling, tennis, and any other activity that offered him a chance to express his masculinity. This expression of masculinity coincided with his personal philosophy (originating from both the Victorian era thought and Muscular Christianity theology). Roosevelt summed up his philosophy in an 1899 speech, aptly entitled “The Strenuous Life.” In the speech, he stated that success came from the “danger, hardship, [and the] bitter toil” that one puts themselves through. It was through the notion of sports and activities – what he deemed as manly sports and activities – that helped instill the proper characteristics of facing challenges and attempting to overcome them into the young men of that time.[15] It was in this context that Roosevelt began his own training in judo/jujutsu.

Yoshiaki Yamashita. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

He began studying under Yoshiaki Yamashita in March 1904. Yamashita, a rokudan (sixth degree black belt) in Kodokan Judo, initially came to America to teach a Seattle businessman’s son and others in late 1903 but soon found himself meeting the President of the United States and becoming his instructor. Martial arts historian Joseph Svinth points out that Roosevelt took up judo/jujutsu to lose some weight, but given Roosevelt’s background, it is safe to assume the President wanted to go through the “hardships” of judo/jujutsu training. Though Roosevelt only trained under Yamashita until the summer months of 1904, he held his training and the art in high regard and great enthusiasm, and attempted to demonstrate his prowess (to which Svinth points out, quoting Yamashita, he was “very heavy and very impetuous”) and effectiveness of his newfound martial art on anyone who would pay him audience in the White House.[16]

With the endorsement of Roosevelt and other wealthy students, this new Japanese martial art soon filled a void to martial artists who wanted to train in a safer environment. As a result, judo/jujutsu in the early twentieth century, according to Wingard, “set the stage for the introduction of other martial sports in America.”[17] It would take the United States’ inclusion into the Second World War for a renewed awareness of the art, which remained alive in the hands of practitioners in small pockets around the country. This early and initial knowledge of judo, however, helped those who wanted to learn other martial arts find the different styles of kung fu and karate-do in the 1950s and 1960s.

This is the first part of a two-part article. Read the second part here.


[1] Stephen Hardy, “Sport in Urbanizing America: A Historical Review,” Journal of Urban History 23, no. 6 (1997): 676–77, 682–85.

[2] Hardy, 675; Brian P Soebbing, Daniel S Mason, and Brad R Humphreys, “Novelty Effects and Sports Facilities in Smaller Cities: Evidence from Canadian Hockey Arenas,” Urban Studies 53, no. 8 (2016): 1675–76, 1685, 1687; Ryan Matthew Brewer and Kayla Marie Freeman, “Inexpensively Estimating the Economic Impact of Sports Tourism Programs in Small American Cities,” Indiana Business Review 90, no. 1 (Spring 2015): 1; Larissa E. Davies, “Sport and the Local Economy: The Effects of Stadia Development on the Commercial Property Market,” Local Economy 23, no. 1 (February 1, 2008): 32–34.

[3] Ko Koens and Rhodri Thomas, “Is Small Beautiful? Understanding the Contribution of Small Businesses in Township Tourism to Economic Development,” Development Southern Africa 32, no. 3 (May 2015): 320–22, 328; Mike Raco and Emma Tunney, “Visibilities and Invisibilities in Urban Development: Small Business Communities and the London Olympics 2012,” Urban Studies 47, no. 10 (September 1, 2010): 2069–70, 2072, 2074–75; Stacey A. Sutton, “Rethinking Commercial Revitalization: A Neighborhood Small Business Perspective,” Economic Development Quarterly 24, no. 4 (November 1, 2010): 353, 356, 362.

[4] Joseph E. Yi, God and Karate on the Southside: Bridging Differences, Building American Communities (MD, United States: Lexington Books, 2009), 62, 66–68, 104; Hal A. Lawson, “Empowering People, Facilitating Community Development, and Contributing to Sustainable Development: The Social Work of Sport, Exercise, and Physical Education Programs,” Sport, Education and Society 10, no. 1 (March 1, 2005): 136–37; Max J. Skidmore, “Oriental Contributions to Western Popular Culture: The Martial Arts,” Journal of Popular Culture; Oxford 25, no. 1 (Summer 1991): 140, 146; John J. Donohue, Warrior Dreams: The Martial Arts and the American Imagination (Westport, Conn: Praeger, 1994), 26–27, 101–5, 116–17; Andrew Crawford, “The Martial Yen: American Participation in the Aikido Tradition,” Journal of Asian Martial Arts 1, no. 4 (1992): 34–35.

[5] Howard P. Chudacoff, Evolution of American Urban Society (Boston: Routledge, 2017), 5; “San Francisco,” in Wikipedia, November 25, 2019, accessed November 26, 2019,; Russo, Striking Distance: Bruce Lee and the Dawn of Martial Arts in America, 17–21.

[6] “San Francisco”; “California Gold Rush,” in Wikipedia, November 23, 2019, accessed November 26, 2019,; Library of Congress, “Chinese Immigration to the United States – For Teachers,” text, Library of Congress, accessed November 26, 2019,; Chudacoff, Evolution of American Urban Society, 79; Russo, Striking Distance: Bruce Lee and the Dawn of Martial Arts in America, 20; “San Francisco: Economy – Major Industries and Commercial Activity, Incentive Programs, New and Existing Companies,” City-Data, 2019, accessed November 26, 2019,

[7] “San Francisco Fire of 1851,” in Wikipedia, October 23, 2019, accessed November 26, 2019,; “1906 San Francisco Earthquake,” in Wikipedia, November 21, 2019, accessed November 26, 2019,

[8] Russo, Striking Distance: Bruce Lee and the Dawn of Martial Arts in America, 17–21, 21; Library of Congress, “Chinese Immigration to the United States – For Teachers”; Kathryn E. Wilson, “From Bachelor Enclave to Urban Village: The Evolution of Early Chinatown,” Pennsylvania Legacies 12, no. 1 (2012): 12, 14; Gail Lee Dubrow, “Contested Places in Public Memory: Flections on Personal Testimony and Oral History in Japanese American Heritage,” in Oral History and Public Memory, Critical Perspectives on the Past (Temple University Press, 2008), 125–26. Though Wilson speaks of Philadelphia’s Chinatown, that city’s Chinatown originated with Chinese immigrants driven out from the West Coast. Therefore, both East and West Coast Chinatowns share many, if not all, similarities.

[9] “City Beautiful Movement in San Francisco,” Planning History of San Francisco, 2020, accessed March 27, 2020,; James B. LaGrand, “Understanding Urban Progressivism and the City Beautiful Movement,” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies 87, no. 1 (February 28, 2020): 11–13, 17.

[10] “City Beautiful Movement in San Francisco.”

[11] “San Francisco”; “San Francisco: Economy – Major Industries and Commercial Activity, Incentive Programs New and Existing Companies”; Laurence Coupe, “‘This Is IT’: Alan Watts and the Visionary Tradition,” in Beat Sound, Beat Vision: The Beat Spirit and Popular Song (Manchester University Press, 2007), 22, 27–29.

[12] “San Francisco.”

[13] Geoffrey Wingard, “Building Men on the Mat. Traditional ‘Manly Arts’ and the Asian Martial Arts in America,” Revista de Artes Marciales Asiáticas 4, no. 2 (July 16, 2012): 10–13.

[14] Wendy Rouse, “Jiu-Jitsuing Uncle Sam: The Unmanly Art of Jiu-Jitsu and the Yellow Peril Threat in the Progressive Era United States,” Pacific Historical Review 84, no. 4 (November 1, 2015): 449–55, 462–68.

[15] Theodore Roosevelt, “The Strenuous Life,” in The Works of Theodore Roosevelt in Fourteen Volumes, vol. 1 (New York: G. P. Putman’s, 1901), 3, 21; Justine Greve, “Jesus Didn’t Tap: Masculinity, Theology, and Ideology in Christian Mixed Martial Arts,” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation 24, no. 2 (2014): 145–47.

[16] Joseph R Svinth, Getting a Grip: Judo in the Nikkei Communities of the Pacific Northwest, 1900-1950 (Guelph (Ontario): EJMAS, 2003), 42–45. Rouse points out that though Theodore Roosevelt eagerly learned and endorsed judo/jujutsu, he still felt that boxing and wrestling were the manlier fighting systems.

[17] Rouse, “Jiu-Jitsuing Uncle Sam,” 476; Wingard, “Building Men on the Mat: Traditional ‘Manly Arts’ and the Asian Martial Arts in America,” 18.

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