LITTLE TOKYO, INC.: Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Regional Connector

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By JONATHAN KAJI
(First published in
The Rafu Shimpo on November 4, 2010.)

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Do you remember the Stanley Kubrick movie “Dr. Strangelove,” a classic made during the height of the Cold War (remember that?) U.S. Air Force General Jack Ripper (?!) completely “losing it” and launching an atomic attack on the USSR? Unleashing, “the Doomsday Machine?”

The focus of the movie was “MAD” or “mutually-assured destruction” of the world through nuclear holocaust.  It was a dark comedy made by a master filmmaker, but revealed our common fear of the unknown and impending doom and destruction.

I had the opportunity to attend the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority board meeting and witnessed their decision to move forward with the Westside light rail extension as well as the Regional Connector.

It was a long meeting before the Board got to the Regional Connector item on the agenda. Someone in the audience, remarked about one of the proponents of the Westside Subway, “Is he completely mad?” For some strange reason, that triggered a flashback to Dr. Strangelove!

The Rafu Shimpo has extensively covered the issues facing little Tokyo, including the economic downturn, the sell-off of major properties in the community and the nascent resurgent growth of Little Tokyo fueled by a new population of younger, affluent Gen-X’ers and Gen-Y’ers who have taken up residence in Little Tokyo, the Arts District and throughout Downtown.

My take on our community is that, while we support the fully-underground alternative, we still have a real concern about the construction impacts on the local economy.

I did note the comments made by Mr. Yoneda from the Miyako Hotel.  The parent company, Kintetsu, is one of the largest private railroad companies in Japan.  Mr. Yoneda stated that there are rail construction techniques used in Japan, that can greatly reduce the impacts on traffic and commerce above ground during construction.

“Cut and cover” is one method; the “shield” method is another approach. My understanding is that both approaches are combined in the excavation and tunneling process, the “shield” method being less invasive and intrusive.

The need for a “financial safety net” to protect Little Tokyo businesses underlined the community’s muted support for the Regional Connector.

Little Tokyo will struggle with exactly what level of financial support will be required to keep local businesses afloat during the construction period.  However, short of building a “Noah’s Ark,” some folks have come up with some interesting concepts.

Construction will dislocate businesses, but will also bring in thousands of construction workers, engineers and consultants as part of the $1.3 billion project.  Of course, these workers will have to eat, will need basic services along with business support.

Little Tokyo business currently rents retail and office space to operate.  Some of these businesses may have to pack up and become “mobile.”  While there is still some open space in the area, a “food-truck” or temporary, pop-up store option might allow for those affected businesses to decamp within close proximity of their current locations.

For the Little Tokyo Community Council, Little Tokyo Business Association and the Little Tokyo BID, we’ll all need to sit down and take the full-measure of the Regional Connector, including not only the potential negative impacts but also the immediate, direct benefits that are associated with a major, multi-billion dollar infrastructure project.

I remember the story of Levi Strauss, who joined the thousands who moved to San Francisco during the Gold Rush, hoping to “strike it rich” in the California gold mines.

Instead, Strauss set up shop making tents and denim jeans for the 49’ers who headed off to the Gold Country to seek their fortune. Levi Strauss never made it to the mines; he made his fortune in supplying the miners.

Hmmm…is there a Little Tokyo moral to this story?

Needless to say, there will be direct construction impacts that on Little Tokyo. However, my sense is that the Regional Connector provides a great opportunity for a close collaboration between “Japan Inc.” and “Little Tokyo Inc.” Could it be that a large percentage of the $1.3 billion to build the Regional Connector will benefit both Nikkei and Japanese-owned firms?

Perhaps, the better question is, “How much of the $1.3 billion will benefit Nikkei and Japanese-owned firms?”

It may be that our common and mutual interests for securing Little Tokyo’s future will hinge on the use of both Japanese subway construction engineering, technology and process management. The Little Tokyo/Arts District station along with the Regional Connector can become a showcase for both Japanese engineering prowess and Nikkei cultural, business and political power.

Ambitious?  Absolutely.  However, I cannot think of a better opportunity to combine our common interests and resources in a manner that will be mutually-beneficial for Little Tokyo, Japan, California and the United States.  The efforts of community redevelopment were a defensive effort to protect Little Tokyo.

Of course, we should continue to be greatly concerned about the Regional Connector. We’ve all experienced wrong-headed policies that put us in the concentration camps and almost destroyed Little Tokyo. However, now, it’s time for Little Tokyo Inc. to take the “offense” and define our economic  future. The Regional Connector’s coming. Let’s make the most of it.

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Jonathan Kaji is president of Kaji & Associates. He was a member of the President’s Export Council under President George Bush (1990-1992) and served as the Director of the State of California Office of Trade and Investment. Opinions and ideas expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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1 Comment

  1. I’m glad somebody noticed the connection between the Miyako Hotel and the giant Japanese private passenger railroad company. Yes, one of the bigger businesses in Little Tokyo has its roots firmly planted in rail transit!

    Subway construction is no big deal in “Big Tokyo”, and the neighborhoods which the subways connect and link together thrive. Subway station entrances are common landmarks on street maps and advertisements.

    Little Tokyo can and will thrive through, during and after subway construction.

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