Artists Testify Before Cultural Heritage Commission

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800 Traction Ave. owners told to revise application for historic status.

Residents of 800 Traction Ave. (from left) Miles Hamada, Jamiee Itagaki, Nancy Uyemura, Bruce Yonemoto and Mark Oberhofer testify before the Cultural Heritage Commission on Oct. 5. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu Senior Editor

The artists/residents of 800 Traction Ave., who are under threat of eviction, made a passionate case for the preservation of artists in the Arts District, not just a building that houses them, on Oct. 5 before the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission.

More than 30 supporters filled the hearing room as the commission considered an application for historic cultural monument status by DLJ Real Estate Capital Partners, who purchased the Joannes Company Building for $20 million.

“It is entirely ironic that the artists, most of whom are Japanese American, are being evicted this year, the 75th anniversary of the World War II relocation to concentration camps of our parents and grandparents,” stated Bruce Yonemoto, a resident of 800 Traction. “This eviction underscores the lack of empathy towards ‘cultural history’ by the DLJ Real Estate Partners. How many times do Japanese Americans have to be evicted from their homes?”

Dorothy Wong, Ph.D, a historic preservationist, presented a report to the commission critical of the DLJ application and recommended that it be rejected. She noted that it listed the years of historic significance as from 1917 to 1959. Wong prepared the National Historic Landmark nomination for Baldwin Hills Village.

“This span covers only about 40 percent of the building’s 100-year existence. The application omits 60 percent of its history, which represents two historic groups’ substantial contributions to the cultural life of Los Angeles City — the Japanese Americans and the early artists of the Arts District,” Wong stated.

“It is recommended to the commission that the preparer (representing the applicant) revise the Joannes Brothers building application by working with the Little Tokyo community, the Arts District, and the current 11 tenants … I am requesting that the Los Angeles Conservancy and the California State Office of Preservation provide oversight to this process.”

The artists also received letters of support from the Artists’ Loft Museum of Los Angeles, Asian Mammas Working in the Arts, former Assemblymember Warren Furutani, Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, Sandy Gooch of Gooch Enterprises, Little Tokyo Community Council, Little Tokyo Historical Society, Little Tokyo Service Center, Visual Communications and King Cheung of Chinatown Community for Equitable Development.

The commission voted unanimously to consider DLJ’s application, but to ask the property owners to work with Wong to fill in the gaps in the application and expand the years of historic significance.

The issues of eviction and gentrification were beyond the scope of the commission, but the commissioners questioned whether a future agenda should not also consider the value people bring to the historic districts and structures of Los Angeles. The historic-cultural monument designation emphasizes architecture, structures and past historic and cultural significance.

“This is a designation of request for historic cultural status. I can’t think of a better embodiment of culture than artists,” said commissioner Gail Kennard. She asked city staff if there was a precedent for consideration of the cultural significance of the people who reside in a place.

Supporters of the artists at 800 Traction Ave. hold placards detailing the history of Little Tokyo and the Arts District during the L.A. Cultural Heritage Commission meeting. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

Richard Barron, president of the commission, added: “We’re very keen on keeping the original elevators and lobbies and flooring and all those things in adaptive reuse buildings and we often observe that we love to see refurbished … If there are artists living in the first artists loft, doesn’t that add to the cultural significance of the building? Just as the wonderful elevator lobbies and terrazzo floorings are significant to that building.”

During testimony, staff explained that “The designation of a building as historical alignment doesn’t in itself result in that type of cultural preservation that retains the people in place.”

Barron urged the artists to reach out to Councilmember Jose Huizar, noting that he sided with Little Tokyo earlier this year on the decision to raze Parker Center, over the recommendation of the Cultural Heritage Commission.

“The Japanese American community is a really strong community. You need to go see Mr. Huizar on the Arts District issue. He will be sympathetic — whether he has the tools to deal with it is another thing,” Barron stated.

Speaking afterwards, artist Nancy Uyemura, a resident of 800 Traction, said she was encouraged by the commissioners’ response.

“I think it was really good to build awareness with the commission, even for all the residents and supporters to go through the process and see the commissioners’ reaction,” Uyemura said.

Since the residents were given the eviction notice, they have fought back by staging rallies, organizing petition drives and holding arts parties. Uyemura said they are planning more arts parties in November and December. She noted that younger artists have also joined their campaign.

“The people who are still there are bonding together. We’ll ride it out as long as we can. Having these art events, the younger people who have come to support us have really added a lot of energy. I think that’s been helpful because it shows there will be a life for the arts even after us,” Uyemura said.

“The more time we have, the more support we gain, the more research that can be done — that’s really important. There’s been a lot of people who have come through that building that people should know about and remember.”

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