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Artists Are Addressing the Tide of Gentrification in LA’s Little Tokyo

The Little Tokyo Service Center is piloting an artist residency designed to help local residents and small businesses address the gentrification affecting Little Tokyo and other parts of Los Angeles.

Daimaru Hotel on First Street North, Little Tokyo (photos by the author unless otherwise noted)

LOS ANGELES — In 2015, the Obama administration, in one of its major arts policy achievements, announced a three-year $3 million grant to the Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC), one of six grantees of the ArtPlace America Community Development Investments program. The one-time program invested in projects that embed arts and culture strategies into six community development and planning organizations across the country. Three years later, LTSC, a neighborhood-based organization founded in 1979, is piloting an artist residency designed to help local residents, small businesses, and other community members address the tide of gentrification hitting Little Tokyo and other parts of Los Angeles. Since May, four artists selected to be part of the inaugural +LAB Artist Residency have been living in the Daimaru Hotel, an SRO hotel in the historic First Street North block of Little Tokyo.

“You are in the heart of Little Tokyo for three months with the people of the community,” Clayton Campbell, a consultant who helped design the residency, told Hyperallergic. “Two-thirds of the residents are permanent residents. Half of them only speak Japanese. There’s a common kitchen, and you have to get in there and cook with everyone else. LTSC insisted on this.”

Window display on First Street North

LTSC used a portion of Artplace America grant funds to purchase the Hotel Daimaru and preserve its stock of low-income housing. Five units were set aside to support artist residencies. Another major investment was financing the Terasaki Budokan, a community recreation center in which the arts will be a central part of its programming when it opens in 2020. Projects like these are designed to support the goals of community control and self-determination (also the themes of the +LAB residency) in a neighborhood with a long history of surviving displacement and urban change.

The First Street North block is the historic core of Little Tokyo, east of San Pedro Street and west of Alameda. In 1940, 75% of the 35,000 Japanese Americans in the city lived within three miles of First Street North. In 1941, after the US government forcibly placed Japanese Americans in concentration camps during World War II, the city of Los Angeles acquired large parcels of land in their absence. The district never recovered its pre-war population of Japanese residents, with only a third of the original residents returning to Little Tokyo after the war. In the ’50s, the city took over the entire block west of San Pedro, replacing small businesses and low-income housing units with the Parker Center, a police complex containing the former LAPD headquarters.

Union Center for the Arts

Facing further encroachment by civic development in the ’80s, small businesses and local organizations like LTSC successfully placed First Street North on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988 (it was additionally named a National Historic Landmark in 1995). The following year, LTSC became a co-owner of the nearby San Pedro Firm building, making available 42 units of low-income housing in the neighborhood. In 1998, LTSC completed a renovation of the Union Center for the Arts, a former church now home to three local arts organizations: East West Players, Visual Communications, and L.A. Artcore. Flanked to the east by the Japanese American National Museum (JANM), First Street North continues to play a significant role in the cultural life of Japanese Americans in Southern California, helping to preserve one of three remaining Japantowns in the US (the other two are also in California cities, San Jose and San Francisco).

Today, transit-oriented development driven by the Little Tokyo/Arts District Gold Line station and the Regional Connector Transit Project is poised to transform the neighborhood into one of the city’s busiest transit hubs. The promise of more light rail and Little Tokyo’s proximity to popular destinations like the Arts District are also increasing construction of market-rate housing that has led to the evictions of long-time residents, including Japanese American artists with ties to the Little Tokyo community.

“Within Little Tokyo, we tend to work with senior citizens and develop low-income housing for anyone who wants to live there, regardless of ethnicity,” Grant Sunoo, Director of Planning at LTSC, told Hyperallergic. “When we think about displacement as it relates to mass transit and the changes in residential composition of the neighborhood, small businesses and residents are really at risk. To the extent that we can, we’re trying to develop art-based strategies that will support them.”

Each of the four artists in residence — visual artist Susu Attar, performance artist Dan Kwong, visual artist and filmmaker Tina Takemoto, and calligrapher and dancer Kuniharu Yoshida — have unique relationships to Little Tokyo and the Japanese American community. While their disciplines or approaches are distinct, it was important to LTSC staff that the artists share a real interest in communities being displaced.

“The artists talked a lot about how it’s not about parachuting into the community, getting them excited, and suddenly leaving,” Campbell said. “They’re very sensitive about that as they’ve done a lot of community-based work and understand the responsibilities that come with it. They gravitated toward projects that they feel are achievable within the time frame and their capacity as artists, looking at what’s authentic and respectful. These projects are not creating expectations beyond what the artists are able to provide and the awareness they are generating to people outside of the community.”

Japanese American Cultural & Community Center (JACCC)

Over the past three months, the artists in residence have been producing a series of projects, workshops, and events designed to strengthen ties to the neighborhood while creating interest in addressing the issues of displacement. Local arts and cultural organizations like JANM, Japanese American Cultural & Community Center (JACCC), and Visual Communications have each co-hosted an artist with LTSC by providing staff support, studio space, and other resources to work on projects that will be showcased in a culmination event on July 28.

Through these partnerships, the artists have sought to highlight the cultural assets that already exist within the community. They have also been working with the goals of the Sustainable Little Tokyo initiative, a campaign that in 2013 invited over 200 community members to participate in a development plan in the area based on their own needs and values. Among the initiative’s vision for Little Tokyo are low-income housing, support for small businesses, eco-friendly infrastructures, and open space.

Planning for the +LAB residency took a similar approach by engaging community members and multiple stakeholders in its design. “The first thing we did was to set up a committee to make sure the residency supported the goals of LTSC and served the needs of the community,” Campbell said. “We looked at how to sustain small business in the community, deal with homelessness compassionately, and retain communities as the population ages.”

According to Neighborhood Data for Social Change, 25% of the Little Tokyo population is 65 years or older, with older residents being nearly twice more likely to be living in poverty than their peers in the rest of Los Angeles County. Sixty percent of the older adult population is linguistically isolated, while 70% live alone. Rapid changes in the neighborhood are likely to be especially jarring for older residents who might remember a time when Little Tokyo was the only place to go as a Japanese American.

+LAB artist in residence Kuniharu Yoshida performs in front of the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) (photo courtesy Rudy Espinoza)

Artist-in-residence Kuniharu Yoshida, a transplant from Japan, always wanted to be a bridge between his home country and the US. Trained in both hip-hop dance and Japanese calligraphy, he’s also bridging generations by leading calligraphy workshops for local seniors. Prompting memories with old photographs of Little Tokyo, Yoshida helped a group of seniors, some of whom had not picked up a brush in years, express their histories and emotions. After overcoming their self-consciousness or need to create a perfect line, the participants — one of whom was blind and another diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease — began opening up and producing large-scale works on paper.

“I wanted them to change their mind about traditional calligraphy and express their emotions on paper,” Yoshida told Hyperallergic. “This was the most fun and toughest part. After they understood what I was talking about, they started to write characters with freedom. A couple of them told me, ‘I don’t have a place to go; I don’t have any fun staying at the apartment.’ They worked hard when they were young, but now they’re feeling that the city is not for them. I wanted to make them feel more involved in Little Tokyo.”

LTSC staff reported the seniors are feeling a stronger sense of empowerment and willingness to be part of the community as a result. “We found that the seniors are becoming more socially engaged,” Sunoo said. “It’s been difficult to have them come out and talk about emotional issues they’ve been facing, but this workshop has had a much deeper impact on participants than we’ve anticipated.”

+LAB artist in residence Dan Kwong (photo courtesy Quincy Surasmith)

For his Tales of Little Tokyo project, Dan Kwong initially set out to interview senior citizens whose stories and memories of the neighborhood would be shaped into a theatrical piece. Kwong has deep ties to the Little Tokyo community, having family members who have worked at JANM and JACCC and having known Visual Communications since the beginning of his career. As a familiar face in the neighborhood, Kwong reached out to individuals he knew personally and others who played prominent roles in the Japanese American community. Early on in the process, he decided to make the project multi-generational. Over a month, he conducted story circles at his host organization, JANM, with mixed groups of people, some of whom were referred to him and others who showed up spontaneously.

“People enjoyed being listened to with quality attention and enjoyed telling their stories even when it’s not an easy story to tell,” Kwong told Hyperallergic. “To me, this idea of telling your story has powerful healing implications. To be truly heard is a rare and profound thing. It has a way of validating your life and experiences. From that perspective, that part of my residency was valuable in and of itself.”

Kwong interviewed 55 individuals who ranged in age from 17 to 97. The stories and perspectives he gathered painted a portrait of a community with pluralistic values and aspirations for Little Tokyo. One subject was a developer in the community while others were activists fighting to preserve the neighborhood. The wide range of beliefs within the community spoke to the challenge of coalitions like the Little Tokyo Community Council, whose members include individuals from JANM, LTSC, and JACCC, and whose goal is to build consensus and present a unified front against City Hall and commercial development.

“These people are not casual participants,” Kwong said about his interviewees. “They’re fighting for the important and valuable things that are here now. How do we prevent the continued erosion of the community? Ultimately, you’re facing capitalism. That’s the biggest, largest force at play here. It’s a big machine that some people don’t even want to stop, and that others are accepting of. There’s a wide spectrum of opinions and perspectives about Little Tokyo’s future, from more conservative business perspectives to more radical progressive perspectives. There’s no unified block of how people see things here.”

+LAB artist in residence Susu Attar facilitates the Food on First art and film workshop at the Daimaru Hotel’s storefront (photo courtesy Rudy Espinoza)

Susu Attar recalls a moment when members of the Japanese American community did come together, showing up in solidarity with her own Muslim community. Shortly after September 11, 2001, Attar began volunteering at the Muslim Public Affairs Council to help address the influx of hate crimes and discrimination against American Muslims. During that time, she was introduced to Japanese American organizations like Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress (NCRR), whose members had organized a vigil in front of JANM.

“On their own, [NCRR] had organized vigils at JANM and used their voice to say, ‘Hey, this is where we’re coming from, this is the history of incarceration that we lived through, and one of the values we work toward is not just watching as other people go through things,’” Attar told Hyperallergic. “I saw them as a model for what it looks like to be a witness for somebody else. When I saw this residency, there was an opportunity for me to enter this community and think about how my voice and work could lend themselves as a witness for this place. This was very important as a motivator.”

Although a multimedia artist by trade, Attar tapped into her past experience as a community organizer to invite other networks of people into her residency work. The series of events and workshops she helped produce were done in collaboration with other artists in residence, artist friends, and members of the Iraqi American community to which she belongs. One workshop, facilitated by Attar and conceptual artist Allison Yasukawa, invited members of local organizations to develop solutions to neighborhood issues. By sharing stories and using play as a creative tool, the group came up with ideas that could evolve into businesses or programs to serve the local community.

“One team created a bento box kitchen that would rehabilitate people who were homeless and create jobs for people,” Attar said. “Some of the inspiration behind it was local neighboring businesses like Homeboy Industries. The bento box was a symbol for being in proximity with each other and addressing healthy eating. Within the story, it was also a safe space for queer folks, keeping in mind an actual queer person who is part of the local homeless community.”

James Irvine Japanese Garden at the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center (JACCC)

On a warm July evening, Attar and a group of artists helped prepare an evening of food, drink, and storytelling at JACCC’s James Irvine Japanese Garden, an island of greenery in an otherwise dense, concrete stretch of Little Tokyo. Artist April Banks, a friend and collaborator of Attar, was putting on one of her Tea Afar events in which strangers get together to share food, tea, and stories about a particular country. Plates of labneh, baba ghanoush, and fatayer were passed around as guest storytellers shared memories of the evening’s subject, Jordan. One story recounted how a gift from a Bedouin visitor led the speaker’s mother to make her entire village a supply of quince jam, while another recalled an incident in which two men, after coming to blows at a hip-hop show in Jordan and being whisked away by police, emerged from the police station as close friends once they realized their shared history and friendships. Meanwhile, the sounds of excited laughter from youth performers at the nearby Aratani Theatre bled into the conversations at the garden.

“That night, we just got to be with people and feel the goodness of the cultures that we’re from,” Alison De La Cruz, JACCC’s Director of Performing Arts & Community Engagement, told Hyperallergic. “Susu mentioned how communities of color often only come together around moments of crisis, so she wanted people to get together around something inherent to who we are, which is hospitality. It’s about building authentic community connections and engaging in the ease of that connection.”

Beyond bringing up shared rituals of tea and hospitality, the evening’s emphasis on Jordan, a popular meeting place for Muslim and Arab peoples who cannot return to their home countries, served as a reminder of the connections that can take place across borders and the hospitality that can arise after experiences of displacement. Attar’s next project is to install painted noren, traditionally Japanese fabric hung over doorways to mark a border, around Little Tokyo to signal the neighborhood’s shrinking boundaries over time.

Close-up view of Sheila Levrant de Bretteville and Sonya Ishii’s “Omoide No Shotokyo” (1996), First Street North (between 120 Judge John Aiso to 125 North Central Avenue)

Pedestrians on First Street North might notice a bronze timeline on the part of the sidewalk that runs along the front of storefronts. Sections of this timeline, a public artwork titled “Omoide No Shotokyo” by artists Sheila Levrant de Bretteville and Sonya Ishii, are stained or cracked, making some of its letters difficult to read from top to bottom. Very few of the businesses etched onto its rows are still around, with the exception of neighborhood stalwarts like Fugetsu-Do Sweet Shop, which has been in business and run by the Kito family since 1903. The timeline ends with the 1940s, conspicuously represented by a black band. In front of Fugetsu-Do, the black row reads “Kitos interned at Heart Mountain,” in reference to the former World War II-era internment camp in remote Wyoming.

Tina Takemoto was curious about the period represented by the black row, which commemorated the erasure and incarceration of Japanese Americans but also omitted a brief but significant part of Little Tokyo history. Bronzeville was the name for the district between 1942 and 1945, when African Americans moved into the neighborhood in search of places to live and establish businesses. Lacking the racial covenants that prohibited black residents from migrating to other parts of the city, Little Tokyo, or Bronzeville, became a densely populated center for African Americans, now often remembered as the period in which Charlie Parker and other jazz greats passed through its venues and boarding houses.

1938-1939 Los Angeles Japanese Business Directory (photo courtesy Tina Takemoto)

New details about this period are emerging from research conducted by Takemoto for her project, “First Street North: Interactive Multidimensional Timeline.” Using the Omoide timeline and historical publications by media arts organization Visual Communications as points of departure, she is producing a comprehensive and visually rich timeline of First Street North with images and records from the Little Tokyo Historical Society and reverse street directories from the Los Angeles Public Library. Her findings are complicating the oft-told history in which African Americans allegedly departed Little Tokyo after the end of World War II and the Bronzeville period ended by 1946. Historical listings of business owners and residents along First Street North suggest that African Americans lived and did business alongside Japanese Americans through the ’50s.

First Street North timeline (in progress) (photo courtesy Tina Takemoto)

“When we talk about place-based stories, it’s not really about the physical place, it’s about the characters and people who were in that place.” Francis Cullado, Executive Director of Visual Communications, told Hyperallergic. “When we’re tracking people, we’re actually humanizing the space. In terms of our strategy regarding displacement, gentrification, and the shifting dynamics of the neighborhood, it’s amazing that Tina’s putting these things together. The possibilities are endless in terms of what we can do with these historical facts as a media arts organization. Tina and I are nerding out about it and excited. There is a lot of value in the work that she is doing.”

Takemoto is also working on an experimental film portrait of First Street North, using emulsion techniques and 16mm film that create impressionistic and abstract tracking shots based on images from her research and Visual Communications’ own archive dating back to 1970. While the timeline is still in progress, there are plans to build an interactive website or app featuring Takemoto’s work. This project, along with those of the other artists in residence, is likely to continue beyond the term of the residency, which concludes at the end of July.

Close-up view of First Street North timeline (photo courtesy Tina Takemoto)

“We want the residency to inform the artists’ projects and the way they work with other communities in the future,” Cullado said. “These three months have been pretty intense. The residency is almost ending, but we’re planning to keep Tina onboard and work with her for the next few years. We’ve been really blessed and grateful.”

Last weekend, a line of people stood outside the Matsumura Gift Shop, an empty storefront on the first floor of the Daimaru Hotel that is being used as a space to host events and workshops by artists in residence. Susu Attar and Tina Takemoto prepared a table of Japanese snacks and ingredients, some of them for eating and others for visitors to use to create cyanotypes. On the other side of the room, children and families packed into a long table set up with fruits and dyes to be used for painting as well as 16mm film strips and foodstuffs for creating experimental films of their own. On First Street North, it’s not unusual to see a packed storefront, although it’s usually for a bowl of ramen or one of the many popular restaurants along the street. That day, the streets were busy with foot traffic from visitors passing through the Delicious Little Tokyo food festival, a community event organized by the Little Tokyo Community Council.

+LAB artist in residence Tina Takemoto facilitates the Food on First art and film workshop at the Daimaru Hotel’s storefront (photo courtesy Rudy Espinoza)

That same afternoon, Kuniharu Yoshida set up a large base of white paper outside of JANM for the last of two pop-up performances. A small crowd began to gather around the perimeter as he treated them to a few dance movements. Nearby, a table was set up by organizers from Sustainable Little Tokyo to collect signatures for a petition to prevent Mayor Eric Garcetti and Councilmember Jose Huizar from selling off parts of First Street North, a large part of which is currently a parking lot on the north side of the block, to the highest bidder. Yoshida chose to do his performance in front of JANM for its symbolism. During the war, the space in front of the museum was the bus stop from which Japanese Americans were shipped off to concentration camps. After tossing a handful of sand he gathered from a visit to Manzanar, formerly the site of a World War II internment camp, Yoshida painted a set of characters and ended his performance with a few remarks about the site’s history.

+LAB artist in residence Kuniharu Yoshida performs in front of the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) (photo courtesy Rudy Espinoza)

“Even if you’re visiting, you should know there are roots here,” Yoshida said a few weeks before his performance. “People live here and do business in Little Tokyo. If you visit, you’re welcome, but I want to make it better for everyone, not just tourists.”

There is a delicate balancing act in the neighborhood’s desire to attract visitors in support of its small businesses and cultural amenities while making sure it remains accessible to community members most vulnerable to gentrification. Community organizers in nearby Boyle Heights and Chinatown, for example, view artists and gentrification as related and intractable issues, with calls for arts venues to leave their communities. When asked about how Little Tokyo, despite facing the same threat of gentrification, came to embrace the arts, Grant Sunoo at LTSC said, “Our community is one that has a history of arts and arts-based activism, a history of sustaining cultural practices and supporting artists within our community. I see a lot of that in [Chinatown and Boyle Heights] as well. A lot of it comes down to intentions and authenticity. Is this something that’s of the community? We haven’t experienced the same tensions although I certainly understand them.”

Social service organizations like LTSC understand that artists are not the solution to a problem, but they also believe they can play a role in supporting their daily work. Early plans are already under way for next year’s artists in residency. LTSC hopes to sustain the program on a long-term basis while developing other programming that’s less intensive and over a longer period of time.

“[LTSC staff] are now asking themselves how they can weave this into their own work, how they can build on the output of the artists,” Dominique Miller, Planning Administrator at LTSC, told Hyperallergic over email. “We can work alongside artists to discover ways to amplify our work and charge ahead towards our organizational and community goals. Artists help us see, visualize, engage, inspire, and evoke but they are not here to solve, because that is the commitment we made as LTSC staff members. I think we now understand that.”

For Dan Kwong, artists should play a supportive or catalytic role, communicating through art what can’t be communicated in any other way. “We’re artists, not necessarily political activists,” Kwong said. “Our work is about inspiring and calling out, making the invisible visible. It’s about amplifying unheard voices. That’s what I see as the unique way that art can function as part of social change.”

The LTSC +LAB Artist Residency Culmination takes place at the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy (100-198 North Central Avenue, Los Angeles) on Saturday, July 28, 6–8pm. All four artists in residence will be showcasing their projects, including a staged reading of Dan Kwong’s “Tales of Little Tokyo.”

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