What Does this Building Mean?

Pkr Ctr 01 Vert

What does a building mean?

It’s an interesting question, and there’s no easy answer. Any building is going to have different meanings to different people. But the question is crucial when you start talking about preservation. Maybe we want to save a structure because it’s beautifully designed. Or maybe it held a special place in the community. Sometimes we want to hang on to a structure because of the role it played in the city’s history. Then again, there may be reasons why people want to see a building go away….

Back in 2016 I was at a City Planning Commission (CPC) hearing when Parker Center was on the agenda. The former home of the LAPD, the building has been closed for years. It was built in the mid-50s, and was orginally called the Police Administration Building (also the Police Facilities Building).* It was renamed Parker Center after the death of Chief William Parker in 1966. But it’s been empty since the LAPD moved into its new headquarters almost a decade ago. And since then the City has been trying to figure out what to do with it.

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The marker at the entrance bearing the dedication to Chief Parker.

Actually, it doesn’t seem like there was much debate at City Hall over the building’s fate. A new master plan has been proposed for the Civic Center, and there seems to be general agreement that Parker Center needs to be demolished. But the LA Conservancy argued that the structure should be preserved, both because of its design and the role it played in LA history.

So on the day I was at the CPC hearing there were two speakers on different sides of the issue. One was Jeremy Irvine, who argued for saving Parker Center. He pointed out that it was designed by Welton Becket & Associates, an innovative architectural firm that played a crucial role in shaping the look of mid-century LA. Irvine went on to talk about the building’s place in the life of the city, arguing that it was an important piece of LA history.

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A side view of Parker Center

The other speaker agreed that the building had played a role in LA history, but from her perspective it represented pain, loss and prejudice. Ellen Endo is a journalist with deep roots in Japanese community. She talked about how at the beginning of the 20th century Little Tokyo’s boundaries extended far beyond where they lie now, and how over the years LA power brokers have carved out large chunks of the neighborhood. The site where Parker Center stands now used to be a part of Little Tokyo. Endo said that for many in the Japanese community the building represented prejudice and opression.

Pkr Ctr 40 From First

A view of Parker Center from First Street

So at the hearing in 2016 the CPC heard two very different versions of what Parker Center means. And really, I think the discussion was moot. The Conservancy’s efforts delayed the process, but I believe it was decided long ago that the building’s coming down. The Board of Public Works will be reeciving bids for demolition through February 21. It will probably be gone by the end of the year.

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The main entrance to the building.  The sculpture, by Tony Rosenthal, is meant to depict a policeman protecting a family.

As to what’s going to replace it, I think that’s still an open question. While the City has an ambitious master plan for Civic Center, nobody knows where they’ll get the money to build it. The plan lays out a long-term vision with multiple phases, and it could be years before any real decisions are made. If you want to learn more, check out this article from the Downtown News.

New Civic Center Master Plan

(* Sam Fuller fans may remember that Parker Center is featured in The Crimson Kimono. Shot in Downtown during the late 50s, the film spends a good deal of time documenting life in Little Tokyo. It’s an amazing view of the community at that time.)

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To Have and Have Not

Bilt Where Will

I was so bummed. I desperately wanted to go to UCLA’s 32nd Annual Land Use Law & Planning Conference. Unfortunately, the $535 registration fee was a little too pricey for me. But just the thrill of being close to all the movers and shakers who were attending the conference drew me to Downtown. Even though I couldn’t afford to go in I just stood on the sidewalk across from the Biltmore, gazing up at the windows where I knew the attendees were debating lots of heavy issues.

Bilt Angle

The conference brochure definitely made it sound cool. They had a bunch of high-powered attorneys and consultants on hand to talk about CEQA reform, the housing crisis, infrastructure and other important stuff. And beyond all those big, heavy issues, they even found time for a session entitled Community, Health, and Planning for Environmental Justice. I mean, okay, they kind of jammed that into a half hour slot along with about half a dozen other topics, but I’m sure they covered everything they needed to.

Unfortunately, my reverie was interrupted by a bunch of noisy protesters who were standing nearby, holding signs and chanting slogans. What were they complaining about? Well, they were angry because one of the speakers was Sacramento superstar Scott Wiener, the Senator from San Francisco. The protesters had a problem with a bill the Senator just introduced, SB 827, which takes zoning authority away from cities. Wiener says if we override local zoning to allow developers to build housing up to eight stories along transit corridors, we can solve both our housing problems and fight climate change. Doesn’t that sound great? According to Wiener, his bill will let developers build tons of new units so housing prices will definitely go down. And because the new units are close to transit, everybody will dump their car and jump on the train.

I wonder if anybody at the conference asked Wiener about a recent report from UCLA that shows transit ridership is way down in Southern California, even though local officials have been approving pretty much any crazy project developers propose as long as it’s near transit. If so, I really would’ve liked to hear his response. I’m sure Wiener had a ready answer for the cynics who point out that in New York housing is still outrageously expensive even though the city has been building tens of thousands of new units every year. And so what if cities like Vancouver and Toronto have thousands of units sitting empty while middle-income and low-income families struggle to pay the rent? Foreign investors need homes, too, although, okay, maybe they don’t always really need them.

Bilt Speaker

At lunch all the power players adjourned to the Gold Room, where they heard the keynote address from Richard Rothstein, author of The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. Rothstein apparently talked about how federal, state, and local governments have implemented and upheld racist policies to create and maintain segregated communities since this country’s inception. Of course, he’s absolutely right. I wonder if he spoke about the fact that many of these policies were formed as a result of intense lobbying by development and real estate interests that wanted to protect their investments? Kind of like the development and real estate interests that are pouring money into Sacramento right now. It would’ve been nice to hear what he had to say about research from the Urban Displacement Project, which shows that current government policies promoting transit-oriented development have resulted in gentrification, pushing low-income people of color away from transit hubs in LA and the Bay Area.

Bilt Hand

Even though I was standing across the street, I could feel the soothing vibrations emanating from the collective wealth and wisdom gathered inside the Biltmore. So what if most of these people make six figures, live in single-family homes, and drive nice cars? So what if most of them rarely ride transit and never had to worry about getting evicted? They’ve got college degrees and lots of money and they go to a lot of conferences. They’re well qualified to tell the rest of us what to do about housing and transit.

But the protesters kept disrupting all the good vibes I was getting from the Biltmore. I guess some of them are facing eviction, or they’ve already been evicted, and they’re ticked off because they’re losing their homes. Yeah, okay, that’s a bummer. But they need to trust the folks inside the Bltmore. All we need to do is listen to people like Scott Wiener and let developers build tons of new housing around transit. Just because the median income for people living around rail lines in LA is mostly between $30,000 and $40,000 a year, and they could never afford the new units, which usually start around $2,000 a month, is no reason to keep the developers at bay. I’m sure at some point we’ll have such a housing glut that these new units will lose 50% of their value, and then the families that were kicked out could return to their neighborhoods.

So, okay, it could take decades. And yeah, it might never actually happen. But that’s no reason to rethink policies that are displacing the poor and destroying communities.

Is it?

Bilt No Nos

 

From Benevolence to Malevolence: The Awful Story of PAMC

PAMC 01 Flowers

It’s amazing how running across a random news story can open doors you never knew existed. A couple days ago I was flipping through the Downtown News web site and I came across an editorial dealing with the closure of the Pacific Alliance Medical Center (PAMC). I’d never heard of it before, but the article made clear that shuttering the facility was a major problem for the low-income Asians, Latinos and Blacks that live in the area. Local politicians were apparently talking to County and State officials to try to find other healthcare options for the community.

Like I said, a week ago I didn’t even know PAMC existed. After a few hours of surfing the net, I’d read enough to realize that this facility wasn’t just a crucial part of the local healthcare network. It had also played an important role in the City’s history. It began as a laudable effort by 19th century Angelenos to care for the people of the community. Sadly, it seems to have ended as a result of the greed and dishonesty that plague our healthcare system.

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View of Pacific Alliance Medical Center at Hill and College

It was a surprise to me that back in 1860 there was a significant French community living in what we now call Downtown. When it became clear that LA’s first hospital, St. Vincent’s, couldn’t provide care for the growing population, local leaders banded together to form the French Benevolent Society. In time they acquired some land at what is now the corner of College and Hill, and built the first version of the French Hospital. The lovely building that stands there today is much larger than the original structure. It was expanded and remodelled a few times over the years. According to the LA Conservancy, architects W. S. Garrett (1916), Armand Monaco (1926 remodel), and R. C. Nielsen (1964 remodel and expansion) were among those involved. If you want to learn more about the history of LA’s early French community and the origins of the hospital, here’s a link to the blog Frenchtown Confidential.

Joan of Arc in Chinatown: A Brief History of Los Angeles’ French Hospital

PAMC 25 Joan

Statue of Joan of Arc

The hospital has been operating continuously since it was founded, but in the 80s it ran into financial trouble and was acquired by a group of doctors and investors. That’s when it became the Pacific Alliance Medical Center. By that time it had become a crucial resource for the Chinatown community, serving the local Asian, Latino and Black population. It offered healthcare to thousands of low-income residents who were covered by Medicare and Medicaid. Also important, staff at PAMC spoke a variety of languages that enabled them to communicate with patients who spoke little or no English.

Fast forward to fall of 2017. In early October PAMC abruptly announced that the hospital would be shutting down. The owners claimed that they were closing the facility because it didn’t comply with seismic safety requirements, and said they couldn’t afford to build a new structure. PAMC was shut down on November 30. With less than two months notice, the patients who had been receiving care there had to find other doctors, and over 500 employees were out of a job. Here’s the editorial from the Downtown News that makes clear what a hardship this is for the community.

Pacific Alliance Closure from Downtown News

The owners claimed they closed the place because they couldn’t afford to comply with State earthquake requirements, but some people suspected there were other reasons. Earlier in 2017 PAMC had paid a $42 million settlement as the result of a Justice Department investigation. A whistleblower had accused PAMC of creating marketing arrangements that provided kickbacks to physicians and also of paying inflated rates to rent office space. The owners denied this had anything to do with the closure.

PAMC 40 Green

A small green space at one corner of the building

Arranging for kickbacks to doctors and boosting payments for office space may sound bad, but there are reasons to believe it’s a lot more serious than that. I took a look at PAMC’s filing on the California Secretary of State’s web site dated November 18, 2016. It listed Dr. Carl Moy as the CEO. A quick search revealed that his reviews on Yelp were lousy. But I also found Moy listed on another filing at the State web site, this time as Secretary for a company called SynerMed.

Never heard of SynerMed? I hadn’t either. Turns out they’re one of the country’s largest medical practice management companies, with hundreds of thousands of patients in California. They work behind the scenes, acting as a middle-man for doctors and clinics, collecting millions of dollars in payments from Medicare and Medicaid. Unfortunately, it looks like a lot of that money wasn’t going to patient care. In early October Synermed’s Senior Director of Compliance, Christine Babu, presented a report to her bosses. Apparently for years company employees had been improperly denying care to patients and faking documents to cover up the practice. According to Babu, the company made an effort to keep her quiet. Not long afterward her report ended up in the hands of state regulators.

SynerMed has announced that it will be closing down, and the State has launched an investigation. But the thing that caught my attention was the connection with PAMC. Dr. Moy has been listed as an officer for both companies. And it was just days after Christine Babu first presented her report that PAMC announced it was shutting its doors. In light of that, I have a hard time believing the seismic safety story. Just months ago they paid $42 million to settle a suit related to kickbacks, and now someone who served as a corporate officer is tied to a company that’s under investigation for massive Medicaid fraud. To me it sounds like there’s been shady stuff going on at PAMC for years, and it’s finally caught up with them.

If you want more details on what’s gone down at SynerMed, here’s the story the Daily News ran.

Managed-Care Firm SynerMed Improperly Denied Care to Thousands

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Sign posted on the side of the building facing Hill

This is really a tragedy. Whatever level of care PAMC was providing to the Chinatown community, the patients are out in the cold now. Some of them will find other places to go, but it’s getting harder and harder for low-income families to find providers who will welcome them. Add to that the fact that many of the patients are seniors who may have difficulty travelling farther, and those Asian patients with limited English skills could be hard pressed to connect with doctors who speak their language.

So that’s the story. A hospital is founded in the 19th century by a group of citizens who realize that the community needs healthcare. In the 20th century it expands to meet the challenge of providing care to a diverse, low-income neighborhood. And now, less than two decades into the 21st century, its doors are closed, seemingly the result of rampant greed and dishonesty.

Why do I feel like this story is just one more depressing reflection of the times we live in?

PAMC 90 Man Cane

 

Going Gray in LA

Going Gray in LA

Today I was down at the Central Library and stumbled across a very cool show about growing old in Los Angeles. Journalist Ruxandra Guidi and photographer Bear Guerra spent time with seniors living in four communities along Broadway: Lincoln Heights, Chinatown, Downtown and South LA. The show is called Going Gray in LA: Stories of Aging Along Broadway, and it documents a side of the city that most of us pay little attention to. The images the media presents of LA are generally focussed on the young and beautiful. Senior citizens, unless they’re rich and famous, are usually ignored.

You can see the show like I did, in two small galleries on the first floor of the Central Library.

Going Gray in LA at Los Angeles Central Library

If you do make the trip Downtown, you can pick up a free print version of the material, with text in English, Spanish, Japanese and Chinese.

You also have the option of viewing the images and stories on KCRW’s web site.

Going Gray in LA at KCRW

Either way, you should check it out. The images are beautiful and the stories open a window on a world most of us don’t pay enough attention to.

Downtown Artists Fight Eviction

AE 01 Coming Soon

Artists are being forced out of the Arts District. This isn’t news. It’s been happening for years. The news is that now the artists are fighting back.

On Saturday, November 4, two groups of artists facing eviction organized a parade to bring attention to the rampant displacement that threatens their community. Earlier this year the residents at 800 Traction were told by the new owners of the building that they’d have to leave. Also this year, the people behind the Artists’ Loft Museum Los Angeles (ALMLA) were hit with a steep rent increase that seems intended to force them out. So the two groups have gotten together to let the world know that they’re not going quietly.  On Saturday, November 4 they staged a parade through Downtown.

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The parade started in Little Tokyo.

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Took a right on Alameda.

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Then the protesters headed down Alameda toward Fourth.

The parade started in Little Tokyo, cut down Alameda to Fourth, then wended its way along Seaton, Fifth and Hewitt, finally winding up at 800 Traction. It was an interesting walk. Protesters waved signs and displayed artwork. Two giant skeleton figures towered over the crowd. A few cars honked to show their support.

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A momentary pause on Alameda.

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Marching along Seaton.

AE 20 Merrick

And then up Merrick.

We passed in front of the building that holds ALMLA, which is actually a brand new enterprise. Michael Parker and Alyse Emdur have lived in this space, along with other artists, for 16 years. Parker says that in just the last 6 years their rent has risen by 200%. The latest increase is beyond what they can pay, and Parker believes it was designed to force them out. So the artists at 454 Seaton decided to create ALMLA, which they hope will draw attention to their situation, and to the larger wave of displacement that’s sweeping across Los Angeles. Just before the museum’s opening, the landlord went to court to shut the event down. Fortunately he failed.

I used to hang out in this area back in the 80s and 90s. It’s depressing to see some of the changes that have taken place. While most of the buildings remain, with the onslaught of gentrification many of them now house chic boutiques and pricey restaurants. Anonymous LLCs have bought up a lot of the real estate, and investors seem bent on turning this part of Downtown into something very close to a suburban mall.

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Shop in the Arts District.

AE 42 Restaurant

Eat in the Arts District.

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Gentrify the Arts District.

Like I said, we ended up back at 800 Traction. A number of the artists who live in this building have been here for decades. Some were among the first wave of artists to move to the area back when it was more or less a decaying industrial ghost town. And most of the current residents at 800 Traction are part of the Japanese-American community, which is crucial to this story. This community has hung on in spite of successive waves of forced displacement going back to WWII. In the early part of the 20th century, Little Tokyo stretched far beyond its current boundaries. There were numerous Japanese-owned businesses and Japanese cultural institutions in the area between Alameda and the LA River. The first assault was the internment of Japanese-Americans after Peal Harbor. Since then City Hall has carved out one piece after another. And now these artists, after years of working within the community, are threatened with eviction.

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A performance featuring two of the Downtown elite enjoying a round of golf.

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They seemed to agree that gentrification wasn’t happening fast enough.

Hanging out with the other party guests, I felt like the room was filled with a kind of giddy energy, but there was also an undercurrent of tension. I spoke with Nancy Uyemura and Jaimee Itagaki, and they gave me the latest news about 800 Traction. The building’s new owners, DLJ Real Estate Capital Partners, had hired a property management firm, Pearson, that seemed intent on sabotaging the gathering. Pearson had called the cops before the party, apparently believing they could shut it down, but it went on as planned. They also sent security guards to keep an eye on the tenants and guests. Harrassment in situations like this is commonplace, and Pearson is doing their best to make things uncomfortable. Uyemura said that the tenants at 800 Traction were told in May that they had to leave, and they were supposed to be out by August. Recently they received an unlawful detainer notice. Their hearing date is in December.

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Protesters gathered at 800 Traction after the parade.

AE 62 Security

I hope the security guards enjoyed the party.

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Artists sketched their take on what’s happening Downtown.

The attempt to evict the artists at 800 Traction is bad enough, but there’s another layer to this story that makes it even more disturbing. DLJ has decided to go through the process of designating the building a Historic-Cultural Landmark, which will enable them to get significant tax breaks for renovating the structure. They hired GPA Consulting to do the research for the nomination. GPA’s report talks at length about the building’s architect and Beaux Arts revival style and the food processing industry. They even mention Al’s Bar and LACE. But somehow they completely avoid any mention of the Japanese-American community that thrived in the neighborhood for decades. They also neglect to mention that the current residents have deep ties to the current Japanese-American community, and that some of them were among the first artists to move to the neighborhood back in the 80s.

In other words, GPA’s report completely whitewashes the community’s history. At the Cultural Heritage Commission (CHC) hearing where the nomination was considered, some attendees pointed this out, among them Dorothy Wong, herself a preservation consultant. Wong was baffled by the fact that the report didn’t refer to Little Tokyo once, and made no mention at all of the Japanese-American artists who had lived and worked at 800 Traction for decades. To their credit, the CHC agreed that the report was incomplete and chose to defer their decision until further work was done.

This may seem like a small victory, but it goes to the heart of what’s happening in Downtown. Ruthless investors are kicking artists and others out of the area so they can turn it into a sanitized, upscale urban destination. The Mayor and the City Council are doing everything they can to help make that happen. The people who have lived and worked in the area for much of their lives, the people who built communities and kept them going through tough times, are being told to leave. And while City Hall makes a great show of preserving historic structures, they’re destroying the communities that gave those structures life.

It’s hard to say whether the artists at 800 Traction and ALMLA will win this battle. They’re a determined group, and they seem committed to fighting til the bitter end. But LA has become increasingly hostile to artists, and the Mayor’s vision for Downtown is all about handing the area over to developers.

What have real estate investors put into this community? Money. What do they want out of it? More money.

What have the artists put into this community? Their lives. And what do they want? To continue working with and for the community, as they’ve been doing for years.

Find out more by following these links.

800 Traction

ALMLA

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Visualizing Language: Oaxaca in LA

Oax 01 Head

We may think of images and language as two separate things, but they’re not. They’re bound together in a million complicated ways, and it’s impossible to pull them apart. In a city like Los Angeles, we’re constantly surrounded by a swirl of words mutating into images (think the Hollywood sign, or a street artist spraypainting their name in neon colors) and images with easily recognizable meanings (a green cross, or a peace symbol).

In Visualizing Language: Oaxaca in LA, a series of murals on display at the Central Library, the artist collective Tlacolulokos takes on the endlessly complex relationship between words and images, and at the same time they explore the equally complex cultural landscape of indigenous people who have migrated to Los Angeles.

Oax 05 Crowd

This newly written visual history is meant to be a response to earlier versions of history, specifically the series of murals by Dean Cornwell that decorates the Central Library’s rotunda. Cornwell’s images tell the story that the City’s leadership wanted to hear back in 1933, the discovery of the New World, the spread of Christianity, the march of Civilization. Of course, the indigenous people represented in those murals were generally down on their knees, waiting for salvation.

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One of the murals painted by Dean Cornwell for the Library in 1933

There’s no point in me trying to write about these murals, because they speak so eloquently themselves. I’ll let the images do the talking. Just a word about the way they’re organized. The murals are conceived as three sets of diptychs, and the title for each set is given in Zapotec, the language of the indigenous people of Oaxaca.

Gal rabenee ladxuu/For the Pride of Your Hometown

Ra galumbanuu xhten guccran nii/The Way of the Elders

Ne guitenala’dxinu ca binni ma cusia’ndanu/And in Memory of the Forgotten

Oax 30 Boy Bus

Gal rabenee ladxuu/For the Pride of Your Hometown

Oax 35 Boy Bus Close

Gal rabenee ladxuu/For the Pride of Your Hometown (detail)

Oax 37 Never Forget Close

Gal rabenee ladxuu/For the Pride of Your Hometown

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Ra galumbanuu xhten guccran nii/The Way of the Elders

Oax 45 Cal Close

Ra galumbanuu xhten guccran nii/The Way of the Elders (detail)

Oax 47 St Sign 1

Ra galumbanuu xhten guccran nii/The Way of the Elders

Oax 50 Tattoo

Ne guitenala’dxinu ca binni ma cusia’ndanu/And in Memory of the Forgotten

Oax 60 Corona

Ne guitenala’dxinu ca binni ma cusia’ndanu/And in Memory of the Forgotten

The exhibition, a joint effort by the Library Foundation of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Public Library, is part of Pacific Standard Time. Of course, these photos don’t do the murals justice. Really you should just head on down to the Central Library and see them for yourselves.

Visualizing Language: Oaxaca in LA

 

Commemorating Japanese Internment by Evicting Little Tokyo Artists

Little Tokyo Artists

It’s been 75 years since the US Government issued an order to intern all residents of Japanese descent. DLJ Real Estate Capital Partners is going to commemorate that event in a special way.  The company will soon be evicting the tenants at 800 Traction, another reminder to the residents of Little Tokyo of just how little their lives really mean.

Of course, you hear about evictions all the time in LA, and City Hall has let us know repeatedly that renters are completely disposable when their lives are weighed against investor profits. Mayor Garcetti has used the Department of City Planning like a sharp knife in carving out his radical gentrification agenda, and tenants from Boyle Heights to the beach communities know they have a target on their back.

But still, this case stands out, because of the history involved….

You see, Little Tokyo used to cover a lot more territory than it does now. While 800 Traction is no longer considered part of the district, prior to WWII it fell well within the bounds of the Japanese community. Many Japanese residents lost their homes and businesses because of the internment. City Hall took more land away in the 50s to build Parker Center. More land, more housing, more businesses were lost when (ironically) Japanese corporations moved in during the 70s and 80s. And so over time Little Tokyo has been reduced to a shadow of what it once was.

But there’s another layer to this that makes it even more disturbing. A number of the residents at 800 Traction are Japanese-American artists who’ve been living in the community for decades. They’ve worked with local cultural institutions, creating art for the people who live in Little Tokyo. They have deep roots in the neighborhood and helped create the Downtown art scene when nobody wanted to live there. Many people have pointed out the horrible irony in the fact that real estate interests have spent a fortune on branding the area as the Arts District, all the while kicking out the artists who made the place happen.

The tenants could be forced out by the end of this month. It’s hard to say whether they have any hope of keeping their homes, but it can’t hurt to raise your voice to support them. Please write to Councilmember Jose Huizar, and ask him why he isn’t doing more to protect the artists of 800 Traction against the soulless vampires at DLJ Capital Partners.

Here’s a clear, straightforward subject line.

STOP THE EVICTIONS AT 800 TRACTION!

Councilmember Jose Huizar
councilmember.huizar@lacity.org

And don’t forget to copy Mayor Garcetti, so he understands the damage his gentrification agenda is causing.

Mayor Eric Garcetti
mayor.garcetti@lacity.org

If you want more details, here’s an excellent piece from the Rafu Shimpo.

They Say Gentrify – We Must Unify!