By MO NISHIDA
When I read the lead article in the May 11 issue, “ ‘Lonely Deaths’ Feared in Tohoku’s Temporary Houses,” it brought back painful memories to me. I thought, “Man, finally some of the powers that be have caught on.” That we as humans/social beings are not just about physical survival only.
The article stated that the lesson was learned from the aftermath of the 1995 Kobe earthquake, when authorities dispersed folks into temporary housing by using a lottery system that disrupted regional (and community?) bonds, leaving 235 people to die alone in temporary housing.
The article said that local and central authorities should try to prevent “lonely deaths” by encouraging recognition of the importance of community bonding to an individual’s well-being. When I read that, a sense of guilt and sadness over came me. I knew that!
I saw it happening during the mass evictions of our “Shitamachi” (downtown, J-Town) hotels, when our folks were being dispersed by the “redevelopment process.” Meaning, throwing residential tenants out so big developers would have a free hand with no one living on the land to fight them.
I was a member of the “anti-eviction task force,” the continuation of our youth movements’ involvement in the “redevelopment process.” We were trying to influence the redevelopment of J-Town in a more positive and favorable direction for our people, by taking the painful lessons learned from San Francisco’s J-Town experience.
We were also the predecessor to Little Tokyo Peoples Rights Organization (LTPRO). We had evolved from a redevelopment task force (trying to work with them) into an anti-eviction task force, opposing any evictions, trying to keep the community intact by whatever means we could. We had learned through direct interactions with the system that “they” didn’t give a damn about our community.
“We” had evolved from trying to influence/reform the system to outright opposition to the forced removal, to figure out a way to keep our community and people intact. In hindsight, it’s clear that “community” meant (at least for me) the oppressed peoples, local workers, residential tenants and the moms and pops who catered to the local workers and residents. They were the folks who gave Shitamachi its color, character and soul. Don’t believe me? Look at J-Town today.
We failed and our people were being evicted and bribed by being offered relocation monies/benefits. As soon as this process starts, we start hearing horror stories of some folks being put in places where they are isolated and some taken advantage of. Others move out and lose their benefits; many were only Japanese-speaking. And it’s my opinion that many, too many, died “lonely deaths” away from the only place in America that they could call home.
It is my opinion that the elected officials, Redevelopment Agency bureaucrats and the L.T. Community Development Advisory Committee failed to live up to the trust and responsibility given to them. In fact, redevelopment law was willfully sidestepped, ignored and at times violated.
The ugly face of racism was used within the community and class put-downs were practiced throughout the process. Three examples:
1. When a delegation went to the Little Tokyo Redevelopment Agency office and inquired for the whereabouts of certain displaced individuals, the staff could not help us. The best they could do was to say that they had a forwarding address for certain individuals that they owed money to. Redevelopment law requires that anyone displaced by the process has first crack at any replacement housing built. If one doesn’t keep track of the displaced tenants, how can they be notified?
Also, one of the largest hotels on San Pedro Street was taken over by a large corporate social service group, and in order for them to receive redevelopment benefits, they made a deal with the agency to ignore relocation benefits and just kicked the tenants out! Much later, notes or minutes recording this deal-making were discovered and a lawsuit started and won. Problem was, there were no records of where the tenants went, and they made the tenants they found come up with receipts and stuff that most of us throw away when we move.
2. The Sun Hotel was a large hotel on Weller Street, now Onizuka Street. Early on, the agency targeted the site, since the New Otani Hotel was to go up there. The agency got most, if not all, of the Japanese tenants to move with relocation benefits. But instead of demolishing the building, they allowed someone to continue to manage it, and rooms were rented out to mostly Latin American folks. When final demolition was announced, the tenants were evicted, without benefits. Although a few stayed and fought the eviction, the agency at first refused relocation pay to them. When LTPRO backed these tenants, some monies were finally won.
3. The Alan Hotel, on the corner of Second and San Pedro, was bought up by a Japanese corporation, which began to evict the tenants without paying any relocation monies. The tenants organized and began to resist. The corporation claimed that since the Community Redevelopment Agency was not involved in buying or selling the land, they were exempt from paying benefits. We went to the agency board of directors and talked to their chair, James Wood. He said we were at the wrong place — the agency board was not the responsible group; the Little Tokyo Community Development Advisory Committee was the one to decide if the tenants would be compensated. In my opinion, LTCDAC disgraced the community by refusing to honor the intent of the law. The tenants who were left opted to carry out the tactic of occupation and some compensation was won.
What am I trying to say? First and foremost, the interests of the different classes are different, so when anyone claims to speak/represent all of us, they’re lying! Tenants, lower-income workers, fixed-income retirees do not/cannot have the same interests as the banks, insurance agencies, large businesses, corporations, professionals or even small businesses. They are primarily interested in making money. We are interested in making our geographical community a comfortable place to live, work, eat, play and sleep. This is where we WANT to live. Which is the exact opposite of the circumstances involved in the “lonely deaths.” Whether in Kobe, Fukushima or J-Town.
What can be done? Forty years ago I woulda said “revolution,” and most people woulda laughed, except us lefties. Today, J-Town has been whacked, not much left from the past. So for those of you who wish to live in a concentrated expression of our people and enjoy the high points AND low points of being a Buddhahead, now is the chance to come together with those old-timers — like the Hawaii guys, younger Isseis, older Niseis and all the rest who see themselves as Shitamachi-Nihonjinmachi folks — and build something new that is our contribution to future generations, not a tourist trap!
What we need is a united front organization made up of a tenants’ group, workers’ organization, younger folks who want to live here and any others who feel like they can support the effort. The first priority must be low-cost/low-rent housing. We have the example in Little Tokyo Towers — modular, prefabricated construction. In the Lil Tokyo Fraternal Workers Association, we are a self-help, self-reliant, self-determining, self-defense organization dedicated to the organization and betterment of the workers of our community. I think these principles are a good starting point.
We have a great history and a culture that is broad and vibrant. The beauty of starting almost from scratch is that we can pick and choose what represents the future from any and all cultures, especially our own. We, the workers and oppressed of our community, are not to be written off by a few measly bucks or just a roof over our heads and empty promises. We are alive and well and are beginning to understand our place in our community and society.
So watch out! Here we come! To all you dog soldiers of this turtle island, we have work to do, on behalf of the next seven generations.
The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.