THROUGH THE FIRE: What’s in Store for Little Tokyo?

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bill watanabeBy BILL WATANABE

From time to time, I get asked about the future of Little Tokyo — what will it look like in the coming years, or will it even continue to exist?

Even though I have worked in Little Tokyo for the past 35 years, I don’t believe anyone can really know or even intelligently guess what may happen to our beloved ethnic neighborhood in the coming years. But I do have some thoughts about what is being done to help preserve this historic ethnic enclave and to keep some sense of an “authentic neighborhood.”

First, a little context of optimism and I bring up the movie “Castaway,” in which Tom Hanks has been marooned for years on a deserted island in the Pacific and has given up hope for rescue. One day he is aimlessly sitting on the beach watching the waves breaking onto the shore, as the waves have repeated for eons of time. Suddenly a piece of flotsam is thrown by the waves onto the shore — a large broken shell of an Andy Gump portable toilet from out of nowhere! Hanks grabs this piece of plastic junk and eventually uses it to form a raft to get off the island.

This experience becomes a symbol of optimism and hope for Hanks because he realizes no matter how dark things may seem, “you never know what the tide might bring.” What might the tide bring for Little Tokyo?

Firstly, there’s a new facility about to appear on the horizon — it’s called the Budokan of Los Angeles! Nonprofits like the JACCC and JANM contribute much to the vitality of Little Tokyo. The Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC) has the property and has raised about half the construction money needed ($10 million so far) and expects to raise the remaining funds within one to two years!

The new Budokan could be built by 2018, which will attract many ethnic (and non-ethnic) youth and families for basketball, volleyball, and martial arts. Young people are the future of any community — and our Nikkei young people are engaged in sports and other interests like anime and cosplay. The Budokan could be the most important new facility for the future Little Tokyo and it is exciting to wonder what else that tide might bring.

Secondly, there’s a train appearing on the horizon — it’s the Metro Connector! This subway station to be located at First Street and Alameda is now under construction and scheduled for completion in 2019. The Metro Connector to the existing Gold Line station will bring thousands of additional riders to Little Tokyo coming from all parts of the County. (There will be a second station near Second Street and Broadway, about two blocks from the Budokan). This will bring more visitors and will undoubtedly attract new businesses that want to be in a setting like Little Tokyo.

The Metro Connector subway will provide economic help to existing ethnic businesses like the many Japanese restaurants, ethnic confectioneries like Fugetsudo and Mikawaya, Anzen Hardware, and gift shops like Rafu Bussan and Bunka-do. In a few years, throughout the Metro district, all people will have to do to enjoy a Japanese cultural experience is just jump on the Metro and head for Little Tokyo without the traffic and parking hassles! This will be a big wave that the tide brings in for Little Tokyo, but a wave that also brings the powerful challenges of dealing with the forces of gentrification and demographic change.

But wait, thirdly, there’s a planning process going on right now — its called “Sustainable Little Tokyo”! In the past year or two, there have been a series of meetings led by various Little Tokyo groups to address the need for community planning and empowering community advocacy. This is the goal of Sustainable Little Tokyo so that the community can set its own priorities and deal with the forces of gentrification and change.

This planning process is being led by people like Craig Ishii and Kristin Fukushima of Kizuna, and Thomas Yee of LTSC — all of whom are in their 20s and 30s. Sustainable Little Tokyo has engaged assistance from national experts and has been recently selected as one of nine national “Eco-Districts” — and the only one west of Colorado! All of this means that planning for the future of Little Tokyo is in capable and knowledgeable hands that can address the challenges that are coming in future waves.

What will the future bring for Little Tokyo? No one can say for sure, but I am hopeful and optimistic that our community has at least another century to go.

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Bill Watanabe writes from Silverlake near downtown Los Angeles and can be contacted at [email protected] Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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