EAST WIND: They Say Gentrify — We Must Unify!

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By MIYA IWATAKI

“It is ironic that on the 75th anniversary of the Japanese American concentration camps, we are once again being evicted from the same community, Little Tokyo.”  — Multimedia Artist Bruce Yonemoto

On Saturday, July 29, I was part of a lively coalition of Little Tokyo and Arts District stakeholders that held a spirited rally to bring attention to, and gain support for eight artists facing eviction from their homes at 800 Traction St. in the Arts District.

Many of the Traction artists are Japanese and Japanese American seniors, longtime community artists who have enriched the cultural life of Little Tokyo. Some are family friends that I have known for decades. But I only just learned that their early presence here from the 1980s was fundamental to the creation of what is now known as “The Arts District.”

Now in their senior years, they face the threat of eviction in one month by DLJ Real Estate Capital Partners (managed by Credit Suisse), who recently purchased the building.

Bolstered by a rousing taiko performance by Maceo and friends, followed by an old-school rendition of “Wake Up Everybody” by Asian Persuasion, 110 supporters gathered at 800 Traction Street to demonstrate their solidarity with the artists. We were there to expose the underside of gentrification as a continued destruction of the dwindling number of historic cultural centers.

Gentrification has eliminated most of the working artists who gave the Arts District its name and identity as a creative, cultural enclave. In their place are upscale apartments, offices, retail shops, galleries, restaurants and bars…leaving an Arts District with no artists.

In 1983, Nancy Uyemura, a mixed-media artist, and Mike Kanemitsu, an abstract expressionist, moved into a loft at 800 Traction St. in what was then still part of Little Tokyo. Back then it was an old warehouse. They built it out — putting in walls, and a kitchen, bath, electrical, plumbing.

Artists facing eviction from 800 Traction include (standing, from left) Mark Oberhofer, Aiko baden, Jaimee Itagaki, Nancy Uyemura, Miles Hamada; (seated, from left) Stanley Baden, Bruce Yonemoto. (JUNKO YOSHIDA/Rafu Shimpo)

Back then “we had to watch where we parked and who was around, but there was a community (at Traction) and we all felt like we were taking care of each other,” Nancy recalls. During the earthquake and other disasters, they looked out for each other. The artists had built a family.

“Our dreams were to make art and to build a community and just live creatively,” she says. “…To just ask us to leave like in a month without any kind of relocation assistance…there’s something wrong about that.”

Photographer Jaimee Itagaki needed a larger space for shooting and began looking for a loft. Nancy told her about an available space at 800 Traction and in 1997 she moved in.

“I was so elated. I saw it, loved it, wanted it, and it was…mine! I got to live in a wonderful space,” she exclaims. At that time, the lofts were still warehouses. “…It was rough and tumble – like urban camping out, but I didn’t care at all. The windows! And light! Heavenly! As a photographer, the light is everything!”

I tell you, Jaimee is one of the most effervescent people I know!

“The history of the location, the character of the buildings and textures all were art-inspiring!” she continued. Eviction would be devastating “… if I don’t live in a loft space as a creative person, and to not have the creative community … my life will require a huge adjustment … so much so, I can’t even say or imagine.”

Stanley Baden and Aiko Sasaki Baden moved to Little Tokyo 26 years ago; they have lived at 800 Traction for 24 years. They saw it as a space where they could both reside and pursue their art. “We had a familiarity with the Little Tokyo art scene from our graduate studies at the then Otis Art Institute of the Parsons School of Design,” explains Stanley, an art professor in Pasadena. “We have stayed in the area because we enjoy the Japanese culture represented in Little Tokyo and its close proximity to the Los Angeles art exhibition and academic institutions.”

Eviction would not only be devastating to Stanley and Aiko, but would also impact the artists they work with and nurture. “In our space we have a fine art printmaking studio where we produce our own work and the work of other artists, including artists that have been pivotal influences in the global art scene.”

Little Tokyo has survived 75 years of evictions: the unjust incarceration during WWII of Americans of Japanese ancestry into barbed-wire concentration camps under armed guard; longtime tenants and residents forced out by big business in the 1970s and ’80s; and the gentrification of the 2000s slowly ripping out the cultural heart and soul of Little Tokyo.

The artists and their supporters are calling upon DLJ Real Estate Capital Partners to cease their attempts to evict the residents at 800 Traction. They are requesting a meeting with Andrew Rifkin, DLJ managing partner, to speak directly with the Traction residents prior to the Aug. 31 date, to address their concerns.

Most importantly, they are looking to the community for support – through petitions, getting the word out, letter-writing, and showing support when the call goes out – whether at a rally or a City Council meeting.

“At this late point in my career and age, it is incredibly debilitating to have to move my art practice, let alone to find another studio,” says renowned multimedia artist Bruce Yonemoto, who moved into 800 Traction in 1999. “It is ironic that on the 75th anniversary of the Japanese American concentration camps, we are once again being evicted from the same community, Little Tokyo.”

SAVE OUR COMMUNITY!

GAMBARE!

Petitions are being circulated online at: https://www.gopetition.com/petitions/stop-the-evictions-at-800-traction-avenue.html

The anti-eviction coalition meets Tuesdays at 6 p.m. at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, 244 S. San Pedro St., hosted by Sustainable Little Tokyo. For information on opportunities to get involved, and to be notified about future events in support of the Traction artists, contact Taiji Miyagawa, coalition chair, at [email protected]

Miya Iwataki has been an advocate for communities of color for many years, from the JACS Asian Involvement Office in Little Tokyo in the ’70s, through the JA redress/reparations struggle with NCRR while working for Congressman Mervyn Dymally, to statewide health rights advocacy. She also worked in public media at KCET-TV, then KPFK Pacifica Radio as host for the weekly radio program “East Wind.” She can be reached at [email protected] Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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