‘We Have No Place to Go’

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JA artists among tenants fighting eviction from lofts in Arts District.

Nancy Uyemura in front of the building at 800 Traction Avenue in the Arts District. The building has been a home to Japanese American artists who have worked in the Little Tokyo community for decades. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

By MATTHEW ORMSETH, Rafu Contributor

Nancy Uyemura had been in limbo for months, wondering whether her building — nestled in a fast-gentrifying corner of the Arts District that has developers salivating — had been sold, and to whom.

Last month, the waiting game came to an end: DLJ Real Estate Capital Partners, a New York private equity firm, had purchased the building for $20 million.

She has until Aug. 30 to move out, they told her. Until then, Uyemura and the building’s 15 other tenants plan to “at least stand up and yell a little bit,” she said.

Uyemura’s building at 800 Traction Ave. dates back to 1916, when the Joannes Brothers Company commissioned famed architect John Parkinson to build a facility to house their coffee, tea and spices. The building later held desks for Angeles Desk Company before being converted into artist-in-residence lofts in the ’80s.

When Uyemura moved in, the area was gritty: “lofts” was a loose term that roughly referred to warehouses partitioned into living and work spaces, many without heating or plumbing. But rents were cheap, and there was ample space for galleries; no one wanted to live in the desolate, once-industrial area that had acquired a reputation for ready drugs and prostitution.

Today, that has changed — astoundingly so, said Uyemura. Boutiques and bistros have moved in, along with a pair of micro-breweries that flank her building. Hauser & Wirth, a Swiss art house, opened a gallery in a former flour mill. Warner Music relocated its headquarters from Burbank to an old auto plant.

The bleak landscape, the lack of greenery, the looming warehouses — all of which made the area undesirable in the past, and cheap for Uyemura’s generation of artists —is drawing wealthy young people and the concomitant gentrification to the area. Bleak, it seems, is now chic.

Change is part of life, said Uyemura, and it is neither good nor bad.

“Gentrification is not necessarily a bad thing,” she said. “It’s just done so erratically, with no thought for the long-term residents. We have no place to go to.”

The building’s tenants have enlisted the help of Fred Nakamura, an attorney who has fought evictions for over 30 years. Nakamura works with the Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County (NLSLA), a law office established in 1965 as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.

The story of Los Angeles is a story of displacement, resettlement and friction between newcomers and locals, said Nakamura.

“Gentrification’s been happening forever,” he said. “Communities always change.”

But the last decade has stood out as middle-class preferences shifted away from the suburbs and back to the cities.

“In the last ten years, there’s been a lot of white, middle-class people moving back into the inner cities,” he said. “People are paying crazy rents for what was once slum housing.”

The new owners, DLJ, have purchased a number of historic buildings in Los Angeles and converted them into upscale apartments, lofts and commercial spaces. In 2011, the group bought the Taft Building on the corner of Hollywood and Vine; the group also owns the Eastown apartments in Hollywood and Thornton Lofts in Venice.

DLJ, which manages more than $4 billion in assets, has a history of receiving public money to renovate their purchases. Records show the group has applied for historic status for 800 Traction, which would give DLJ funds to restore the building’s exterior.

DLJ filed an application for “historical-cultural monument” status with the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission through Clarett West Development, the same firm that handled the Taft Building restoration.

The building “reflects the broad cultural, economic or social history of the nation, state or community,” the application states. It is unclear how much DLJ would receive to retrofit the building’s exterior.

Uyemura and the rest of the tenants plan to hold a rally Saturday to alert the Arts District and Japanese American community to the building’s sale. For her, the building’s transfer from the previous owners — Rollins & Rollins, two brothers who owned the building since 1978 — to the New York financial behemoth is part of larger a shift that has changed the complexion of Little Tokyo, too.

“What is happening in Little Tokyo and the Arts District is not at all different from what has gone on before,” a statement from the tenants reads. “It is simply a continuation of forced displacement.”

Come Aug. 30, Uyemura has no idea where her neighbors will go if their efforts are unsuccessful. They’ll scatter to less expensive corners of the Southland, she expects: San Bernardino, the Valley, the industrial area south of the 10 Freeway.

If that is the case, the artists who made the cluster of warehouses and factories the Arts District will become a thing of the past, she said, banished when they could no longer keep pace with rising rents. The irony is that their efforts to make the once-industrial landscape a beautiful and vibrant place to live were so successful that they essentially priced themselves out of the neighborhood.

“Artists tend to upgrade the community — we’re very resourceful. As you’re working, you’re constantly improving the space you’re in,” she said. “I’m not going to hold on forever; young people and new things have a place. But there are some things we shouldn’t just forget.”

Most of 800 Traction’s tenants are elderly, and many of them have worked in the JA community as artists, screen-printers and sculptors.

Their statement was simple, their outlook grim: “We are looking at a possibility of a Little Tokyo without Japanese, and an Arts District without artists.”

The July 29 rally will be held from 2 to 3 p.m. For more information, email [email protected] or visit “Save Little Tokyo: Artists Fight Back” on Facebook.

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