Lives of the East Bay 2016

We say goodbye to people of remarkable talents whose deaths leave us contemplative and saddened. Their legacies live on through their amazing art and the good works they set in motion.


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Jennifer "Kiyomi" Tanouye

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The Bay Area is more than just a place; it’s a community of people—people of tremendous spirit, from scientists whose discoveries changed the world and artists who spread joy to ordinary people whose extraordinary kindness touched souls. Some blessed us with a long lifetime of giving; others were taken far too soon. Especially now, with the East Bay reeling from so much tragic loss in the twisted wake of the Ghost Ship warehouse fire, it’s important to remember the individuals who transformed the East Bay into a place of warmth and welcome. Their deaths have left the world a dimmer place.

 

Ghost Ship Tragedy Leaves a Void

Jennifer ‘Kiyomi’ Tanouye, 31

A vivacious personality with a punky aesthetic, Jennifer “Kiyomi” Tanouye was an irrepressible force in the Oakland arts community. She worked a day job as music manager for Shazam but also spent her free time boosting the local do-it-yourself art scene. Many who met her first remarked on her multicolored hair or her septum piercing, but what they ultimately remembered was her winning smile, her constant generosity, and her willingness to do anything for her art. She fell into band promotion and booking, but was always eager to give her last dollar to help out fellow artists; in one interview, she recalled using the money that she made from cat-sitting to help pay a band for its performance.

Tanouye, a Mills College graduate with a biology degree, had previously worked at Piedmont shop Issues and the Exploratorium in San Francisco. She was instrumental in bringing the Mission Creek Music Festival from San Francisco to Oakland and helped manage it for several years; many credit Tanouye for keeping the festival afloat during its fledgling years and until it established Oakland as a preeminent arts destination. In her free time, Tanouye also loved the challenge and creativity of nail painting; she would often travel to parties with her own “underground nail art” booth so she could paint elaborate designs on friends’ fingernails.

Tanouye, who preferred being called Kiyomi, which means “pure” and “beauty” in Japanese,  was one of 36 victims of the Ghost Ship warehouse fire, the deadliest building fire in Oakland’s history and the worst in California since the 1906 Earthquake. The warehouse housed an artist colony that used the space to host underground concerts and art events. The fire quickly burned out of control, sweeping through the building, which lacked sprinklers and fire escapes, and trapping concertgoers in its maze-like corridors. On that night, Tanouye had set up her nail art booth on the warehouse’s second floor.

The victims of the fire included people from all walks of life—teachers and students, baristas and artists—who had all come together to celebrate a love of music. But the evening ended tragically, cutting short the lives of too many young musicians and music lovers. Disk jockey Johnny “Nackt” Igaz, 34, and house musician Chelsea “Cherushii” Dolan, 33, were scheduled to perform on stage that night, but never got the chance. Many other victims were also well-known members of the Bay Area art and music scene, including poet Em B, 33; filmmaker Alex Ghassan, 35; Cash Askew, 22, guitarist for up-and-coming San Francisco dream-pop duo Them Are Us Too; and Draven McGill, 17, a member of Oakland’s Pacific Boychoir. Their loss has left a city in mourning and a void that cannot be filled.

 

photo courtesy of John Towata Jr.

Georgianna "Anna" Towata.

Brightened Many Special Occasions

Georgianna ‘Anna’ Towata, 99

For over 60 years, Alameda residents passing by the little green flower shop on Alameda’s Santa Clara Avenue would stop to admire the striking flower arrangements in the window. But it was more than the flowers that made Towata’s Flowers so special; it was the person who made them—proprietor Georgianna Towata, the kind-hearted family matriarch always ready with a gentle smile and a kind word. A tender woman of infinite humor, she made sure that no one ever left Towata’s Flowers without a smile on his or her face. Beloved by customers and employees alike, Towata made it her business to treat everyone as a friend.

Despite her genial attitude, life was not always kind for her. As a child, she was often teased by schoolmates for her mixed Japanese-German heritage, and, during World War II, Towata and her husband, John, were forced to relocate to an internment camp in Utah. Despite adversity, Towata persevered and flourished in an era when Japanese Americans were viewed with distrust. After the war, the Towatas eventually moved to Alameda to open the shop that would be their lives for decades to come. After John died in 1991, Mrs. Towata continued to run the business alone, until her retirement in 2009.

Her greatest joy was to see other people happy, so even after retirement, she still remained active in community affairs and could always be counted upon as the first to volunteer. She volunteered with charities and nonprofits throughout Alameda, including 50 years with the Alameda Hospital Auxiliary, and donated—always—flowers to the Kiwanis and the girls’ club events. The building where the flower shop once stood has since been designated as a historical site and continues to linger as a lasting tribute to Towata’s impact on the city she called home and the people she called friends.

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