The Story of the Little Tokyo that Could...and Will

By Shelley Poticha and Dean Matsubayashi

Diversity in Los Angeles is a core value.

The city has residents from more than 140 countries who speak 86 languages. It's full of diverse ethnic enclaves, including the neighborhoods of Boyle Heights, Chinatown, Koreatown, Leimert Park, Little Tokyo, Thai Town, Little Armenia, Fairfax's Jewish-Russian community, and Little Bangladesh - to name only a few.

It is in these neighborhoods that the city's culture thrives.

We would like to keep it that way.

Responding to a threat

Like other developing urban markets, LA is experiencing gentrification and displacement pressures that threaten the health and financial well-being of many of its residents.

As reported in every major news outlet in 2015, gentrification is a growing force in American cities that is raising home prices, straining transportation, displacing residents, and dividing governing bodies and the citizenry. It has become such a common topic of discussion that "gentrification" as a concept may have lost its meaning.

But the challenges with new development in some of LA's culture-rich neighborhoods are very real.

In November, LA Streetsblog reported on Little Tokyo's neighboring community of Boyle Heights and its ongoing struggle against gentrification and displacement, most recently connected with the arrival of East Coast art dealers. Michele Maccarone, one such dealer from New York, was quoted in The New York Times calling the area unclaimed, "edgy" space ripe for new galleries. Some locals countered that the so-called "discovery" of their neighborhood exemplifies gentrification's devaluation of existing rich cultural and historic neighborhoods in LA.

A painful backstory

Little Tokyo, in the heart of downtown, similarly has a history of being at the center of national debates not of its making.

The second oldest ethnic neighborhood in LA, Little Tokyo started in 1885 when Charles Hama, a seaman from Japan, opened Kame Restaurant on East First Street. By the beginning of the 20th century, Japanese immigrants settling in Los Angeles continued to open up several businesses. The neighborhood thrived with restaurants, shops and markets supplying goods to nearly 30,000 Japanese residents in the area. However, this cultural community was both physically and psychologically displaced during World War II when in 1942 Executive Order 9066 called for the internment of Japanese Americans along the West Coast.

Little Tokyo survived that dark period as well as a series of subsequent urban renewal efforts and city-driven redevelopment.

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Today, a smaller geographic footprint reflects that unfortunate history. Little Tokyo continues to see the effects of the gentrification in neighboring Downtown LA and the Arts District - the evidence being the ubiquitous construction cranes visible along the downtown skyline, the development of a new light rail station scheduled to open in 2021, and ever-rising rents. New studio apartments, for example, cost an average of more than $2,000 a month.

Externally, this growth looks like progress but there are downsides. What Little Tokyo is experiencing - that onlookers and passersby perhaps don't see - are long-time community anchors being pushed out. Small businesses with deep roots in Little Tokyo, like the recently closed Oiwake Restaurant, can no longer afford the speculation-driven commercial rents. It's textbook gentrification with its colonizing, profit-driven approach that renders existing occupants invisible, displaces them and makes way for a wealthier class able to pay more.

An urgent need

The year 2015 saw at least a dozen local businesses close their doors in Little Tokyo - a place whose cultural identity is intertwined with local commerce that provides community residents with products and services in their own language while engaging with embedded stakeholders to appreciate and respect the history of the neighborhood. Without this authenticity, such neighborhoods cease to exist.

An initiative called Sustainable Little Tokyo (SLT) is a neighborhood-wide, collaborative and holistic approach seeking to develop a community-driven future for supporting the continued existence of this historic neighborhood. By promoting environmental, cultural and local economic sustainability, it's an innovative model for organizing and activating a community to disrupt the gentrification that began in earnest in 2013.

SLT's leadership is anchored by the Little Tokyo Community Council, the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, and the Little Tokyo Service Center. Together, with individual residents and local stakeholders, community groups, resource partners and public agencies and departments, SLT has donated more than 2,000 pounds of surplus produce from a local farmers market to a food bank, advised 50 businesses and 160 residents on how to save energy and water, hosted traditional arts events at the three historic trees in the neighborhood, and collaborated with the local council district office to decorate 12 utility boxes with SLT-inspired art.

Inspiration for the future

But perhaps even more importantly, Little Tokyo now has a larger vision for the future, with access to funding sources and a focus on sustainability. It has a platform from which to advocate for itself with local government, transportation agencies and other entities to help determine its future. It's becoming a place where LA wants to live and work, while also preserving its beauty and uniqueness - for both long-time residents and newcomers.

To help support this vision, NRDC has been a resource partner to Sustainable Little Tokyo, along with Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), Enterprise Community Partners, Global Green, NeighborWorks America, Mithun and others. NRDC's work has been part of Urban Solutions' Green Neighborhoods initiative that assists sustainable community development.

The work began in 2012 when stakeholders reached out to Little Tokyo's external resource partners as they grappled with aggressive cultural displacement. Through this partnership, we were able to start thinking beyond single-building projects and look at whole blocks and at the neighborhood in its entirety. Following a community charrette in the fall of 2013, the Little Tokyo Community Council adopted the proposals and launched the next phase - realizing those plans.

Now, that vision has been established. We plan to continue what has already been a four-year successful commitment, helping to bring in the city, Metro, and others that will play a role in the development process. We are honored to be working alongside each other as Little Tokyo is poised to become a Cultural EcoDistrict and a leader in green urban redevelopment.

All hands on deck

SLT embraces any and all efforts toward a community-driven future for Little Tokyo -- redevelopment that benefits and sustains its 100-year-old nine square blocks -- for the community, itself, not an absentee niche of developers and investors. Moving forward, SLT will continue to bring to life sustainable projects that support local businesses, the environment, the arts and the cultural heritage of Little Tokyo.

SLT includes the participation of over 75 individuals, 20 community groups, eight public agencies or departments, and four resource partners - including the Natural Resources Defense Council. SLT would like to thank all of its funders, especially the Low Income Investment Fund and Citi Foundation for its critical support through Partners in Progress in the early stages of the initiative. For more information, please visit: www.sustainablelittletokyo.org

Shelley Poticha is the director of Urban Solutions at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Dean Matsubayashi is the executive director of the Little Tokyo Service Center.

About the Authors

Shelley Poticha

Director, Urban Solutions

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