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!

 

How Will Communities Stay Connected?

Rafu Shimpo staff circa 1920.

Rafu Shimpo staff circa 1920.

Recently a friend sent me a link to a story about the Rafu Shimpo, a Los Angeles-based newspaper that serves the Japanese-American community. Publisher Michael Komai released an open letter explaining that the paper has been losing money for years and is in danger of closing. Not a big surprise, but still sad news. Newspapers everywhere have been struggling to survive in a world awash in new media options. Technology offers more ways for people to get their news than over before, although I’m often surprised at what folks call “news” these days.

Newspapers may not disappear altogether, but they’re going to occupy much less space in our culture than they did thirty years ago. LA’s major English-language papers, the Times and the Daily News, have seen their circulation and their staff shrink drastically. Our Spanish-language daily, La Opinión, is a shadow of what it used to be. Many of the smaller publications that serve specific communities or cultures have gone on-line or gone away.

The disappearance of these small community papers is troubling. It seems to me we’re losing something important here. These little, independent publications came into being to give a voice to people who didn’t have one. They covered events and issues that were often underreported or completely ignored by the mainstream media. And even with stories that got lots of play in the media, these papers sometimes offered perspectives that weren’t being heard anywhere else.

No question, the internet also gives people a chance to make their voice heard, sometimes far beyond the boundaries of their community. But even though you can reach a huge audience through social media, sometimes it’s hard to figure out who you’re talking to. Two of the key factors that used to bind groups together were place and race. The internet can render both of those things meaningless, or at least effectively obscure their meaning. Is this a good thing? Nowadays people can create their own cyber communities based on the music they like, their sexual orientation, or TV shows they watched as children. You can make friends with people on the other side of the planet, and you don’t even need to speak the same language.

All of that’s great, but every once in a while we have to drag ourselves away from the net and get back to our lives in the physical world. Even if we’re not crazy about the place we live or the people we live with, we still need to deal with that reality. You may be able to fly in cyberspace, but if the sidewalks on your block are buckling, you could fall flat on your face when you go for a stroll. There are a zillion amazing musicians to be found on the net, but the musician who plays at the local bar, who may even be your neighbor, would probably really appreciate your support. And if your community is threatened by neglect or crime or overdevelopment, your only hope of turning the tide is by connecting with the people next door.

The internet can help with that. It’s one more tool we can use to create connections. But small papers like the Rafu Shimpo exist to keep people connected to what’s happening in their own community. Their whole purpose is to bring people together. It may be that advances in technology and market dynamics will slowly bury them. But we will be losing an important resource. Don’t kid yourself that social media is going to fill the void. Sharing kitty videos with a million strangers may be loads of fun, but in the long run you’ll be better off if you take the time to learn what’s happening in your own neighborhood.

Here’s a link to the letter from Michael Komai.

Open Letter from the Publisher of the Rafu Shimpo

Pros and Cons of Expanding Transit

It’s hard to even keep track of all the different projects that the MTA is working on throughout the county. New rail lines are being constructed, old ones are being expanded, and improvements are being made to increase safety and ease of use. The photos below represent just some of the projects that are currently under construction.

In Little Tokyo, work is beginning on the Regional Connector. This will be a 1.9-mile underground light-rail system that connects the Gold Line to the 7th Street/Metro Station. It will also make it easier for passengers to transfer to the Red, Purple, Blue and Expo Lines.

First and Central, future site of a stop for the Regional Connector

First and Central, future site of a stop for the Regional Connector

Material and equipment stored on the site at First and Central

Material and equipment stored on the site at First and Central

Construction on the Crenshaw/LAX Line started last year. This will be 8.5 miles of light rail running from the Expo Line to the Green Line, with below-grade, at-grade and elevated segments.

Crenshaw/LAX Line construction site at Crenshaw and Exposition

Crenshaw/LAX Line construction site at Crenshaw and Exposition

Another shot of the site from Crenshaw and Rodeo

Another shot of the site from Crenshaw and Rodeo

This project could provide a huge boost to businesses along the line, although there are already signs that it could encourage gentrification which may drive long-time residents and business owners out of the area. Click on the link below to see what may be in store for the community once the line is finished.

Plan to Turn BHCP into a 24-Hour Community

There are smaller projects going forward, too. In North Hollywood, a subterranean tunnel will connect the Red Line station to the Orange Line station just across the street. This is a great idea, and hopefully will reduce the number of riders dashing across Lankershim against red lights in order to make a connection.

Construction of subterranean tunnel in North Hollywood

Construction of subterranean tunnel in North Hollywood

Another shot of construction at the North Hollywood site

Another shot of construction at the North Hollywood site

The photos below are a few months old, but they show MTA crews working on the Purple Line expansion at Wilshire and Fairfax. By day, traffic flowed through the intersection as usual. But at night, construction crews would show up with barricades, heavy machinery and blinding lights. This project highlights the problems of constructing a major transit line in a dense urban area.

Crews working through the night at Wilshire and Fairfax

Crews working through the night at Wilshire and Fairfax

Another shot of construction at Wilshire and Fairfax

Another shot of construction at Wilshire and Fairfax

All this sounds great in theory, but this kind of rapid expansion brings plenty of problems with it. I don’t have a car, so I use public transit almost every day. If you ask a simple question like, “Are you glad that the MTA is expanding its transit network?”, I can give you a simple answer like, “Yes.” But if you ask, “What long-term impacts will this expansion have on the City of LA?”, the answers are much more complicated.

In my mind, the biggest thing to worry about is whether or not we can afford all these projects. The MTA is facing a long-term budget shortfall, which could seriously impact its ability to function. Last year they raised the cost of the day pass and the monthly pass by 40% and 30% respectively. But there are almost certainly more increases to come, and it’s uncertain whether riders will pay the higher prices. Here’s an article that LA Streetsblog published in January of this year. It explains that while last year’s fare increase brought revenue up, it may have brought ridership down. If that trend continues, we’re in deep trouble.

MTA Revenue Up, Ridership Down

The MTA is receiving tons of federal funding for these projects, but those funds depend not just on increasing ridership, but also on increasing the share of operating costs covered by fares. If we see a decrease in ridership and/or revenue, we may not be able to count on the money from the feds.

Some people will point to the fact that the LA City Council just voted for a huge increase in the minimum wage, saying that this will enable low-income riders to afford future fare hikes. I don’t buy it. First, the cost of living in LA is increasing at a phenomenal rate. The amount we spend on housing is skyrocketing, DWP rates could easily double or triple, and food is getting more expensive as the impacts of the drought become more pronounced. A significant rise in the cost of public transit will be just one more blow to the bank accounts of minimum wage workers. And there are thousands of MTA riders who don’t even earn minimum wage. LA is the wage theft capitol of the country. Lots of people who work in the restaurant and garment industries are already being paid below the minimum, not to mention the undocumented workers who will take whatever they can get. Many of these people need public transit to get around, and none of them will earn a nickel more after the minimum wage rises.

I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t extend the reach of public transit, but I do question whether this massive expansion is sustainable. I guess all we can do is wait and see.

A Patch of Green in the Grey

LT X05 Pl Trees

Week before last I went downtown to attend a meeting at City Hall. When I got there, the room was packed. It was hard to even find a seat. The zoning administrators started off with the obligatory preliminaries, which went on for quite a while. I looked around me and realized that there were dozens of people besides me who wanted to speak. I knew I was in for a long, dull morning.

So I split. They didn’t need me, and it seemed crazy to sit there waiting for a chance to talk when I knew there were other people who would cover everything I had to say, and probably say it better than I could. I decided to grab some breakfast and find a quiet place to chill. I got some food and some coffee and headed over to the plaza by the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center (JACCC).

LT X10 Pl Guys

I love to hang out there. It’s spacious and usually pretty peaceful. Unless there’s an event going on, it’s unlikely you’ll find more than a handful of people on the plaza. One side is shaded by tall trees.

Opposite me I could see people coming and going at the JACCC. They do a lot of interesting programming. They even offer ukulele lessons.*

LT X12 Pl Uk

Take a look at the web site to find out about upcoming events.

JACCC

I spent a while looking at the kites on the west side of the building, as they rose and fell with the breeze.

LT X15 Pl Kites

Then I was ready to go. But as I was leaving I saw a grove of trees off to one side. I’d never really noticed them before, so I walked over to take a closer look.

LT X25 Pl Gdn Trees View

And as I neared the trees, I realized that they were part of a garden that rested just below the level of the plaza.

LT X30 Gdn Wide

As I stood there by the locked gate, an elderly woman walked past and told me that the garden was open to the public. All I had to do was go to the JACCC and sign in. So that’s what I did.

It was so cool to discover this peaceful patch of green in the middle of downtown. I walked around snapping photos and enjoying the quiet.

LT X45 Gdn Path

I’m sure the sound of traffic was all around me, but I was more focussed on the sound of the stream that runs through the middle of the garden. I would’ve loved to spend a while just sitting on a rock and gazing into the water. Unfortunately, I had other stuff to do, so I moved on after about fifteen minutes. But I will be back.

LT X50 Gdn Water

*
In surfing the net, I noticed this comment by a woman who’s apparently a regular at the JACCC. “It is ukulele heaven in DTLA.” An amazing claim, which I can’t verify. You’ll have to check it out yourself.

Boom Town

Dntn Fed 3 Skln

Downtown is exploding. There’s so much construction going on I can’t even keep track of it. Massive new office and residential buildings are springing up all over the place. There are also efforts underway to revitalize a number of older buildings. Some of this stuff is cool, some of it is dumb, but I’m less concerned about the quality of the individual projects than I am with the cumulative impact of all this construction. More on that later.

Let’s start by sampling a few of the projects currently under construction….

Dntn 00 ChTown

This is the Blossom Plaza, which combines retail and residential, including a fair number of affordable units. It took years for this to get off the ground, and there was a recent hitch when workers uncovered remnants of the original Zanja Madre, but things are moving forward. Curbed LA has been following the story for a while, and you can read more about it by clicking here.

Dntn 05 LT Site 2

I had a harder time finding current info about this project. The most recent report I read said this was a 240 unit complex being developed by the Irvine-based Sares-Regis Group. Whatever it is, it looks like it’s going to be huge. The site is located at Second and San Pedro, right next to….

Dntn 10 Ava Trees

….the recently completed AVA Little Tokyo, another massive mixed-use structure. Apparently young people are flocking to Downtown LA these days, and developers are doing everything they can to capture that crowd. Check out this ad, seen in one of the windows on the ground floor.

Dntn 15 Ava Ad

The way I read this is, “If your highest priority is mindless self-indulgence, this is the place for you.”

And since we don’t have enough luxury rental units in Downtown LA already, Carmel Partners has generously agreed to build 700 more. As you can see in the photo below, it’ll be a while before the project is complete.

Dntn 20 Bldg Frame

You may want to put a deposit down soon. Given the list of amenities, I don’t doubt that the Eighth & Grand complex will be popular. I was sold when I heard about the rooftop pool surrounded by cabanas. For more details, click here.

Dntn 30 Fed 4 Skln

But let’s talk about a project that might actually benefit the people of Los Angeles. Here’s the new federal courthouse, which is finally going up after being delayed for years. The courthouse is just one component in a larger scheme to revitalize this part of the civic center. Building Los Angeles offers a rundown on some of the related efforts.

Dntn 35 Broad 3

Honestly, of all the projects under construction in Downtown LA, the only one I can really get excited about is The Broad. It’s still a long way from completion, and the web site just says that it will open in 2015. But it’s something to look forward to. And they’re already doing some cool programming. Click here to find out what’s going on.

Dntn 40 TB Backhoe

And let’s wrap it up with the New Wilshire Grand. It’s said that when the project is completed, this will be the tallest building west of the Mississippi. Who cares? I’m so tired of this kind of development. Does this really have anything to do with making the city a better place to live? Or is it just another monument to greed and vanity?

There’s a lot of talk right now about how LA has to embrace higher density development. Fine. There are good reasons to create a more compact city, and certainly sprawl has been a major problem throughout our history. But can anybody demonstrate a need for skyscrapers of this size? And looking at the bigger picture, do we really have the infrastructure to support development on this scale? I’m thinking especially of water, since we are in the middle of a drought. The projects I’ve highlighted here are just a few of the dozens that are either currently under construction or in the permitting process.

When I look at the avalanche of development that’s hitting Downtown LA, I have to ask if anybody at City Hall is thinking about the future, because I don’t see any evidence of rational planning. Instead, I see an onslaught of construction driven by developers who are falling all over themselves to get in on the gold rush. I really question whether the Mayor or the City Council have given any serious thought to how this massive growth spree is going to affect LA down the road. I wish I could believe they were really concerned about the well-being of the people of Los Angeles. It seems more likely that their chief concern is keeping their developer buddies happy.

The Devil Is in the Details

Aerial view of Regional Connector station at First and Alameda.

Aerial view of Regional Connector station at First and Alameda.

To show you how clueless I am, I hadn’t heard anything about the MTA’s proposed Regional Connector project until a few days ago. This is a major undertaking, and it has major implications, not just for the downtown area but for all of LA. Briefly, the purpose of the project is to link together the Gold Line’s Little Tokyo Station with the Red Line’s 7th & Metro Station, which could make things a lot easier for transit riders. For a more complete explanation, here’s a link to the Regional Connector page on the MTA’s web site.

MTA Regional Connector

And if you’d like to see what the completed project would look like, click the link below to see proposed designs, as well as maps laying out the location of the stops. I thought some of the comments were interesting, too. A lot of people are less than thrilled with the way the stations are laid out.

LA.StreetsBlog

As with any project of this size, there are pros and cons. Overall, I think the Regional Connector could be tremendously beneficial. But there are also potential problems, and three different groups are suing the MTA over the project. One issue is that a number of local businesses will be displaced. Even businesses that don’t have to worry about being demolished are very concerned about being able to function during construction. Many of these are family-run enterprises, and a significant loss of customers over a period of years could kill them.

I spent some time this morning checking out a number of articles on the Regional Connector, and often the comments were the most interesting part of the story. A lot of downtown residents are totally gung ho on this project. Many of them dismiss the concerns of the local businesses as though the owners are worrying over nothing. A few of the commenters are so angry about the lawsuits that they suggested a boycott of the businesses involved. I wonder how these commenters would feel if an enterprise they’d worked for years to establish was threatened with extinction.

I also wonder if the people who are so enthusiastic about this project remember the last time the city built an underground rail line. I’m referring to the construction of the Red Line, which ran way behind schedule and way over budget, and caused massive problems when they were tunnelling under Hollywood Boulevard. The street actually sank six inches during this period, and the digging also affected water lines. There was also evidence of massive corruption and sub-standard work by the contractors. Here’s a link to some of the comments posted at the LA Times during this period.

LA Times – Red Line Comments

I do think the Regional Connector could be really good for LA, but we have to show a healthy skepticism about any project of this size. The picture the MTA paints makes it all sound great, but there’s a big difference between creating digital renderings and actually getting it done. Don’t forget, they’ve burned us before.

A Walk Around Downtown

As many people have pointed out, LA is different than most major cities. New York, Chicago, and San Francisco all have suburbs surrounding them, but people still go downtown for work, shopping, entertainment. Years ago that was also true of LA. When I was a kid my dad worked downtown, and we went there regularly for one reason or another. But over time the suburbs kept spreading farther outward, and many of them gradually became self-contained communities. There are a lot of people who live in LA who have never been downtown. What’s more, they don’t ever want to go there.

I love downtown LA. I go there often. Last month I made a couple trips downtown with a camera. What follows is a record of my ramble through the city center. So if you’re too busy or too tired or too scared to make the trip yourself, this will give you a taste of what you’re missing.

I started by taking the subway to Union Station. The photo above shows the main entrance. I was hoping to include a link with photos of the interior, but I couldn’t find a single site that did it justice. You can, however, just search for images of Union Station. There are many of them on the net. Trust me, it’s worth taking a look.

Olvera Y

Right across from Union Station is Olvera Street. Sure, it’s a tourist trap, but it’s the coolest tourist trap I know of. You may have to fight your way through the crowd, but there are some restaurants that are worth the trouble. And it’s part of the historic core of LA. Among other things, you’ll find the Avila Adobe, the oldest building in the city.

Plaza Y

Right next door to Olvera Street is the plaza that sits at the center of El Pueblo de Los Angeles, a state historic park. The plaza is surrounded by a number buildings that date back to the nineteenth century, when this was the center of activity in the city.

Chinatown 1 YIt won’t surprise you to learn that Chinatown got its name because it was home to a large Chinese community. These days, though, the name may be misleading since the area seems to be mostly drawing immigrants from Vietnam and Thailand. Now the largest Chinese communities are located in the San Gabriel Valley. Walking along Broadway, I have to say my impression was that the area is past its prime, but I see that some interesting events are taking place there in the next few months. Maybe I just caught Chinatown on a slow day.

Musician YThis is an image of a woman playing traditional Chinese music. I passed another street musician, an older man, singing songs that sounded like they must have come from the old country. Sadly, these people are part of a dwindling minority. My impression is that even in China traditional music is quickly being forgotten as people rush to embrace pop, rap and techno. It’s frightening how Western pop culture buries everything it can’t market. When this older generation dies off, will there be anyone left to sing the old songs?

Tents

A tent settlement on Spring Street. Homelessness continues to be a problem all over LA.

LT First

Little Tokyo is one of my favorite places to go, partly for the food, but I also just like the vibe. This is a row of shops and restaurants along First Street. And just around the corner….

LT Plaza 2

….is the Japanese American National Museum. The building on the left is the historic older building which I believe houses the museum’s offices. The newer building on the right is the exhibition space, and I have seen some very cool shows there.

St V Sign 2

As I was walking down Second, I looked up and saw St. Vibiana. It’s one of the oldest buildings in the city, and we’re lucky it’s still standing. During the nineties, the Archdiocese made a deal with the City of LA to tear the cathedral down. The process was stopped by preservationists, who managed to get a court order which halted the demolition. Today it serves as a performing arts center and event venue.

StairsI was walking down Broadway and passed this doorway and it caught my eye. The stairs lead up to an organization called SHARE! which provides services for people dealing with a variety of issues. I looked up their web site and found this.

SHARE! empowers people to change their own lives and provides them a loving, safe, non-judgmental place where they can find community, information and support.

Walking through some parts of downtown there is definitely a sense of desperation. While gentrification is rapidly turning some neighborhoods into upscale enclaves, just around the corner you’ll find people living in total despair. I guess happening across this stairway I felt like I’d found an unexpected message of hope.

Bradbury 1I fell in love with the Bradbury Building years ago, and I try to visit it whenever I can. It has been standing at the corner of Third and Broadway since the end of the nineteenth century. The interior is gorgeous, but unfortunately these days only people who have business with one of the tenants can go above the first floor.

The Bradbury Building was designed by George Wyman, and the story of how he got the job is pretty unusual. To learn more about how it was created, and to get a glimpse of the inside, click here.

Broadway used to be the original theatre district in LA. In the photo below, the Bradbury Building is on the left, and on the right hand side you can see the Million Dollar Theater, which is where Sid Grauman set up shop when he first came to LA back in nineteen eighteen.

Broadway
Grauman didn’t stay on Broadway long. In a couple of years he moved to Hollywood, where he first built the Egyptian and then the Chinese.

LA Theatre 3Farther down Broadway you’ll find the Los Angeles Theatre. This spectacularly gaudy movie palace was designed by S. Charles Lee, who designed many other theatres during his career. The first film to play there was City Lights. I’ve been inside only once, years ago, and I have to say it was pretty amazing. The lobby alone was worth the price of admission.

Unfortunately, it’s only open for special screenings these days, but if you get the chance I urge you to check it out. The Los Angeles Conservancy sponsors a series every summer called The Last Remaining Seats, during which they show films at some of the old movie palaces. The bad news is that this year’s screening of All About Eve at the Los Angeles Theatre is sold out. But you can check out photos of the interior on the theatre’s web site. Use the menu on the left to see images of the lobby, auditorium, etc..

Restaurant
This was taken at the corner of Sixth and Main. Upscale restaurants seem to be proliferating rapidly downtown.

People Street
Meanwhile there are still plenty of people who can’t even afford a cup of coffee. These folks don’t even have tents.

MC 1
The Music Center is another mid-century classic by Welton Becket and Associates. It’s comprised of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the Ahmanson Theatre and the Mark Taper Forum, and was completed in nineteen sixty seven. Becket believed in “total design”, meaning that he encouraged his clients to have the firm create not only the structure, but also furniture, carpeting, signage, dishes and flatware. Originally the Music Center did have an amazing unity of design, but in recent years there have been a number of additions to the plaza, and I feel like they’ve messed the place up. Still, the individual buildings are stunning. In nineteen ninety four, Ellerbe Becket Architects supervised some alterations to the Ahmanson, and the end result actually works pretty well.

Library 1
And this is where I ended up, as it was getting close to seven pm. The western entrance to the LA Public Library. I took this photo, then got back on the subway and went home.