By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
Supporters of the community artists facing eviction from the 800 Traction Ave. building in L.A.’s Arts District are planning their next move following partial success at a Cultural Heritage Commission hearing on Dec. 7.
DLJ Real Estate Capital Partners, the new owner of the century-old building, has applied to the city for cultural-historic monument status, which critics say will provide millions in tax breaks once the tenants are gone.
The 800 Traction Ave. Support Committee said that a report on the building’s significance done for DLJ by GPA Consulting ignored the contributions of Japanese American artists. After hearing testimony from both sides, the five-member commission approved DLJ’s application but amended its findings to include Japanese Americans and other ethnic groups in the development of the Arts District and the Artist-in-Residence Ordinance.
The commissioners stressed that they are sympathetic to the plight of the artists, some of whom have lived at 800 Traction for decades, but that their purview is limited to the historical and cultural value of the building and not affordable housing.
The status of the building will next be taken up by the City Council’s Planning and Land Use Management Committee at a date to be determined. The committee is chaired by Councilmember Jose Huizar, whose district includes Little Tokyo and the Arts District.
Speaking outside City Hall after the CHC hearing, artist resident Nancy Uyemura said of the commission, “They only care to a certain degree, and then after that they have no power. They don’t care.”
She was uncertain about the significance of the amendment and expressed concern that it would just be filed away and forgotten.
Artist resident Aiko Baden said she was “surprised that they had such patience to listen to us,” but also questioned whether the outcome of the hearing was a victory.
David Monkawa of the support committee said that the amendment “does mean that they’re looking at us, it does mean that they’re concerned,” but emphasized that there have been other gains from “sustained resistance” over the past six months. “All of you here who signed petitions … close to 2,000 [signatures], and guess what happened? DLJ started to initiate talks with the tenants … It’s a big deal because of your work and also give props to Councilman Huizar. There’s movement.”
The packed hearing also demonstrated that “support has grown far and wide … Different nationalities, artists coming here to support us …. The artist community is all behind us,” Monkawa said.
Curator Ana Iwataki added that the changes that are going on in the Arts District have gotten coverage from the arts press as well as The Los Angeles Times and LA Weekly.
Taiji Miyagawa of the support committee said, “When we started this fight back at the end of June, these renters/tenants, they have no legal protection under rent control, like a lot of buildings across L.A. … We’re trying to extend rent control and legal protections for all the renters in Los Angeles. But one of the things that we wanted to do, if nothing else, was to extend the time period that they can stay, to try to plan out what they’re going to do with their lives if we can’t resist the evictions completely.
“But the other benefit, as we can see today, every week that we have been able to extend this fight, our support has actually grown … We didn’t even know we have connections with the Korean and Vietnamese community now, because we found out they’re basically fighting for a lot of the same things we are …
“I think it’s very significant and it speaks to how we can build this fight across the entire region against City Hall and bodies like the Cultural Heritage Commission, who are clearly in collusion with the developers to gentrify and displace our community.”
Brenda Perez of Restorative Justice for the Arts saw parallels between developments in the Arts District and her own neighborhood. “We actually found out that our murals that were being erased in Highland Park are due to ‘poverty pimps’ who are from the North Figueroa Business Association who have nothing to do with Highland Park … This erasure of our culture goes hand-in-hand with gentrification …
“We decided to fight and not just for our Latino murals that have been there since we were children and generations before, but … this is also happening in Little Tokyo, this is happening in Chinatown … This is happening in a lot of cultural neighborhoods. So this is what needs to happen — we need to join together, join forces and show our support, not just for our own culture, but other cultures as well.”
Coco Kim of the Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement commented, “Boyle Heights was designated as an arts district, but the city is sort of using that designation to perpetuate speculative development and gentrification … We’re not against art, but we do see that the city, their real estate developers and other forces are looking to use artists and tokenize artists as a means to an end … Part of why I’m here and we stand with the residents of 800 Traction is because we see that as contributing to the erasure.”
Regarding next steps, Miyagawa said, “We’re going to continue talking to DLJ. The residents are going to continue talking to DLJ and try to see if we can work some kind of thing out. We hope for a win-win type of situation, but … the good thing is that at least we’ve been able to force that dialogue only because of the support and community pressure.”
Art exhibitions at 800 Traction will continue to support local artists, especially people of color, who don’t get exhibition space in other parts of the city,” he said.
Scott Oshima, project manager for Sustainable Little Tokyo, was one of the speakers at the hearing and shared his thoughts afterwards. “For me, it’s really unfortunate that the CHC is not really considering their complicity in the displacement of the residents … Their decision does have an impact because it gives tax breaks and in some ways would probably allow for the building to be flipped into market-rate housing or commercial space that has absolutely no cultural or community value to us anymore … It’s really disappointing that they didn’t take a stand for the community and see their involvement in this.”
Supporter Mark Masaoka recommended that after the PLUM Committee hearing, “we need to make it a major issue when this comes to the full City Council and every city councilman, who has to come to their own constituents for votes, has to take a position on that … We really heightened the level of struggle.”
Masaoka, who does not have a background in arts, said, “I’ve learned about how artists all over town, that there’s a huge number of people who are artists or very sympathetic or active with arts that really want to express their support for this kind of work. But there is no organization for them … We need to build some kind of ongoing progressive organization of artists and their friends to continue the struggle … and respond to these attacks in the future. I think that will be a great legacy.”
For updates, visit the “Stand with 800 Traction Avenue” page on Facebook.
Photos by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo