October 5 — The hearing room was packed! Artists. Little Tokyo community organizations. Folks struggling with gentrification in Chinatown and Boyle Heights. Supporters of Little Tokyo and artists.
What should have been a routine review and approval of an application for “historic cultural monument“ (HCM) designation for another venerable site ended instead with a preliminary victory for the artists and Little Tokyo community.
An application seeking HCM designation for the Joannes Brothers Company building located at 800 E. Traction Ave. was submitted on behalf of the new owner, DLJ Capital Partners, and presented to the L.A. City Cultural Heritage Commission by their hired consultants, Laura Doerges and Clarett West. The application did not bother to include any history of the building after the 1980s, nor its role as an integral piece of history of Little Tokyo and the Arts District.
No mention was made of the important historic and cultural contributions of Japanese American artists. They did not dig far enough to discover that the very first artists-in-residence were Japanese American artists in this very building – many still living there!
For 133 years, Little Tokyo has been the cultural heart and soul of the Japanese American community. Community organizations have become increasingly concerned about the rapid changes that are encroaching on our historic neighborhood. The Little Tokyo Historical Society came together based on that concern, and is committed to documenting, preserving and protecting the history and stories of Little Tokyo and all its residents.
Gentrification of Little Tokyo over the decades has had a profound impact on the community. Redevelopment in the 1970s driven by Japanese and U.S. corporations took a major toll on Little Tokyo. And now, lives and businesses continue to be disrupted by constant threat of displacement due to City Hall expansion plans, MTA construction through the heart of Little Tokyo, and outside developers coveting our prime real estate.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, which ordered the forced removal and unjust imprisonment of 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry into concentration camps during WWII. Now, real estate developer DLJ, led by Credit Suisse, a global finance company, threatens to displace our groundbreaking artists, who are now in their 50s and 60s, from their home of over 30 years. These evictions at 800 E. Traction are the latest chapter of forced removal and displacement of our community.
The contributions and history of many original artist-residents of 800 Traction cannot be overestimated. They were the very first artists-in-residence in the Arts District; they are the true historic and cultural pioneers. This previously unknown fact was important to the commission, and seemed to resonate with the commission chair.
The solid roots the Traction artists have in the community (Jaimee Itagaki’s family ran the Ginza Club during the ’50s); their invaluable contributions to the artistic development of Little Tokyo (Nancy Uyemura designed the façade of Casa Heiwa on Third Street); the national and international artistic credibility they bring to Little Tokyo (Bruce Yonemoto’s artwork is recognized in several countries) — all of these factors make it clear that the issue of conferring a historic cultural monument designation is much more than venerating a building and MUST include revering its people and culture.
This point was made many times through many perspectives by the 18 supporters who had the opportunity to testify against DLJ’s historic-cultural monument application until the Cultural Heritage Commission brought their meeting to a close. Strong letters detailing reasons for opposing the HCM designation were hand-delivered from organizations including Little Tokyo Historical Society, Chinatown Community for Equitable Development (CCED), Artist Loft Museum-LA, Visual Communications, Gooch Enterprises, Little Tokyo Service Center, Little Tokyo Community Council, Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, and Mamas Working in the Arts.
After the testimonies, some commissioners commented on how ironic it was to designate status to an elevator or a building, but not upon original cultural artists who played an integral role in the historic-cultural development of a building such as the Joannes Brothers Company building at 800 Traction.
In the end, the commission voted unanimously not to accept the application in its current form. They required the DLJ consultants to amend the application to research and include the history of Japanese Americans and the Traction artists; and they ordered them to consult with the community in doing so.
The commission was clearly impressed and influenced by the testimonies, the strong letters and the community support demonstrated by those who packed the hearing room. A united community, speaking with one voice, can make an impact. This is a preliminary victory. Our work continues, and we are moving forward!
What is an Arts District with no artists?
What is Little Tokyo without Japanese Americans?
For more information, or to get involved, please contact [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.