We Are Here: LEAP Emerge Community Impact Project

LEAP 2019 Cohort, We Are Here

LEAP 2019 Cohort, We Are Here

Over the summer, our 2019 LEAP Emerge cohort conducted a series of interviews for the Community Impact Project: We Are Here, which aimed to shed light on the issue of gentrification as it relates to the ethnic enclaves of Little Tokyo, Historic Filipinotown, and Thai Town. The project culminated in a one-day, gallery presentation where the community gathered to see and hear the stories of leaders in LA. The interns worked really hard over this project all summer - from planning and implementation, to conducting interviews and transcribing, and presentation and incorporating technology, check out their work below!

+ Perlas Santos

Asian Pacific Health Center, Historic Filipino Town

1st Generation Immigrant

This interview was roughly translated from Tagalog/Taglish to English

Where do you work?

A community clinic. It’s federally qualified. We get benefits to promote programs of the government. It serves people who are low income, and the mission is to be the medical home. All that come are Asian and we provide support for seven languages. We have official staff for translation work. Recently we made a family caregiver support group. We meet every third Friday of the month. I also do civic engagement, voter registration focusing on Filipinos, and medical access services for undocumented Filipinos.

What does Historic Filipino Town mean to you? Describe this community.

I lived in the Historic Filipino town between 2008 to 2019, so 11 years. Most of my work in the community is on advocacy. That is my passion.

What’s your history with Historic Filipino Town?

I used to live there. The management of the owner was not kind. This year they increased rent by $140 every month. The tenants had to pay for all the repairs. I did not want to leave Historic Filipino Town because that is where my community is, where my advocacy work is, my “kababayan” (community). I am on the board of SIPA. I help seniors. I do community outreach at the clinic for better health education, where we focus on breast cancer and cover vaccinations.

What businesses have disappeared from your neighborhood? What businesses have come in? What effect do you feel this has had on your neighborhood?

Over the years there have been many changes. These changes happen faster now. When I first moved in, it wasn’t that fast. (In Historic Filipino town) we organize parades, caroling nights, festivals and food. There’s a feeling of home. It’s happy. If you’re together (as a community) you’re bonding. Even if you don’t know each other, you relate to each other because you do the same activities that you like and create a familial bonding. There’s someone who teaches Tagalog as a volunteer. They are so hardworking. They teach for free at SIPA (Search to Involve Pilipino Americans). Her name is Ivy. We teach the community protection so that wherever they are they are empowered. We have so many activities, things on Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day.

Have there been/are there currently cultural preservation efforts in your neighborhood?

We wear traditional wear to preserve our culture. We teach Tai Chi, ballroom dancing, karaoke, line dancing to elders once a week. We give out “merienda” (snacks) once a week. (The town) has church groups. Everyone always shows up. We’re all happy to do communal activities because we have a group where we encourage each other. For example, if they don’t have a Barong or Filipiniana there’s always someone who’s willing to let them borrow or make it for them.

If you have children, are you raising them in the neighborhoods where you grew up?

None of my children are here. The last time I came home was 2018. I recently had to go to Switzerland and couldn’t see my children.

Are you familiar with the term “gentrification”? What does “gentrification” mean to you?

It’s when they expand the space. This is what they’re doing to Historic Filipino Town. I think the government is behind this. They’re the ones changing the community here. They’re always the ones who tell everyone that they want to “beautify” our home. Us as a community cannot do anything if they say it, because their words have more authority.

Where do you want to see this community go in the future?

I hope that (Historic Filipino Town) maintains its identity, that Filipino culture does not disappear. This is the only Filipino town that exists. I hope it still has its own identity, like the Thai, the Koreans, because they have a place to call their own. Filipinos… they’re on their own and are comfortable with that, and couldn’t care less because they can take care of themselves, and disregard the “kababayan” (community).

+ Mike Murase

Non-profit Administrator, Little Tokyo Service Center, Little Tokyo

3rd Generation (Sansei) Japanese-American

Background

In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed which meant that a lot more Japanese were recruited here to be laborers. So, there was a big group of Japanese that came in the 1880s-90s - mostly young male laborers. By 1924, there was another exclusion act that prohibited Japanese from coming. Demographically, there's a big hump of first-generation, then there’s a trough because of the exclusion act. When first-generation started having children, the children became second-generation - there’s another big hump. First and second-generation are culturally distinct. Baby Boomers are the third-generation (another hump). Fourth, fifth, and sixth start to level out - the years in which they’re born get stretched out. My father was second-generation [first group to be born in the US]. My father was born in Arizona in 1917. My father and mother married in Japan. My mother was born in an area Japan occupied when the military was expanded. As my mother’s kid, I’m second-generation. I was born in Japan, so I’m an immigrant. I’m first-generation. I consider myself first, second, and third-generation. Culturally, as I was growing up, my cohort was third-generation sansei. So, I consider myself sansei the most.

What does Little Tokyo mean to you? Describe this community.

Childhood

I came to this country when I was nine years old. Born in Japan. Came with my family and we settled in an area called Crenshaw District, which is part of south central. As a child, I frequently came to Little Tokyo. My parents brought me to the barber shop, go shopping, eat at some of the restaurants here. So, probably 2-3 weekends a month, we came to Little Tokyo. My parents came here because they were immigrants who spoke mainly Japanese and they found it comfortable coming here.

College

When I went to UCLA and I got involved in the interest in the Civil Rights Movement mostly in the black community and in the south and also the anti-war movement. Soon after that, I became involved in the struggled to start ethnic study centers and departments. In doing that, when we won the right to offer classes, we didn’t have textbooks or professors who could teach those things, so we came to our historic communities - Little Tokyo being one for Japanese-Americans. In that process, we came here to learn about things from elders who were our primary source because there were no secondary sources. In the course of it, we learned that a lot of Japanese-speaking elders needed services. So, we started helping them with what they needed while we learned from them. That’s how I developed an interest in a stake in Little Tokyo. Even though it’s changed even in the time that I’ve been coming here, I think it still represents both a historical and cultural center for the dispersed Japanese community who now live all over Southern California.

Anti-eviction Activism

We also became aware that there’s a lot of redevelopment and basically evictions of local people taking place. The 1970-80s was a period when, in many cities across the country, there was what’s called urban renewal. A lot of the inner cities, which Little Tokyo is a part of the larger downtown area, was undergoing a lot of changes and many corporations and other investors were investing money to property in downtown. They were building hotels, office buildings. Even prior to that, the city had wanted to expand Civic Center so that they could have more office space for the city’s workers and the LAPD. They had taken a block of Little Tokyo. That was before I started coming around. I knew that there was this tremendous kind of upheaval in things changing. Naturally, when we worked with the elders, we found out from their point of view that they or their friends were being evicted for an office building, mall, or hotel to be built. So, we started working with them trying to help them ensure that they get relocation benefits or replacement housing or somewhere to go or subsidies if they had to go to a new place. We knew that new buildings would have higher rent. We thought they should have subsidies so that the jump in the rent wasn’t so extreme that they couldn’t afford it.

We formed an organization called Little Tokyo People’s Rights Organization [LT Pro] and we worked with the residents and we demanded of the city that these people would not be displaced without some kind of compensation. That was some of the biggest struggles we were involved in -- anti-eviction. And I would say that that was one of the first efforts that I was involved in trying to preserve Little Tokyo. We weren’t saying that they couldn’t build new buildings or that old buildings have to stay. It was more like the people here should be taken care of. LTSC is kind of a direct descendant of LT Pro and other organizations like that. LT Pro was founded in the early 1970s.

Recent (within the last decade)

I think there’s been a continuous history of trying to maintain Little Tokyo as a Japanese-American community. I would even say a history of resistance to unwanted changes. Even today, there's an organization called Little Tokyo Council, which is a coalition of over 90 stakeholders, groups, businesses, and individuals. There’s an organized body that tries to stay informed of what’s going on in the community, to help each other, and to advance issues that are important to us. The community would not be the same if it were not as organized as it is.

What sparked your community involvement?

The Baby Boomers -- my age people -- were becoming young adults in the 1960s and we were not only seeing the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement, but also the impact of the US’ growing economy and then the advent of a lot of technology - having a colored television set in every house was a big deal in the 1960s. It introduced everybody to seeing, for example, dogs sicking people in the south; the police in the south using water hoses to break up demonstrations; the atrocities going on in Vietnam and other places (all over the world) in our living room. That has an impact of raising consciousness about what’s going on. You start questioning, ‘Why is the US fighting a war 5,000 miles away?’ and ‘Why are black people treated so badly?’ I happened to read the autobiography of Malcolm X. That was a very profound book about how Malcolm X was treated and what he advocated. For Asian-Americans, we knew the history of being discriminated against. In the 1960s, it’s like you have to be asleep to not notice these things. Then it became reflected in the culture and music. The boomers were the largest generation population-wise, larger than the generation before us. I think we felt like we had a disproportionate impact on society in general. When it came to music, a lot of big record companies catered their music to the boomers because that’s who were buying all the records. The artists themselves, I think, they were influenced by what was going on too - and vice versa. There was a lot of message music...In terms of me personally, in that environment, me coming from another country seeing my parents being treated as if they’re stupid because they spoke broken English...just day-to-day interactions that they had to swallow because they didn’t want to cause problems. People might say rude things to them. As a kid, I noticed these things and thought I should stand up. So, I thought, ‘When I grow up, I’m gonna stand up.’ Little by little, I learned that this happened to other people - a whole group of people. We called it ‘awakening’ or ‘raising of our own consciousness.’ That made me interested in learning about my own history, community, people.

Where do you want to see this community go in the future?

I think it’s important for us to have a place where people can identify with and hopefully in a positive and proud way. To have a museum like JANM [Japanese American National Museum], a cultural center, Budokan [a sports center], institutions that are a part of the community. I think that’s important. To also have a mix of businesses, residences, and things to do. I think now, Little Tokyo is very multicultural, multiracial -- lots of people come here evenings and weekends from all over the city. I would like to still see the roots of Japanese-American history and culture being retained in some ways. Having symbols like that fire tower or having a cluster of Japanese restaurants is good not only for Japanese, but good for the city and for everybody. In the end, having diversity is important. It provides a base for activism, for talking about issues that concern all of us (past or ongoing), and solidarity work.

What does gentrification mean to you?

That term, gentrification, has been more in vogue in the last 15-20 years. Gentrification has to do with, for example, there’s a phenomena of large cities across this country becoming city centers, becoming deteriorated, uncared for “ghettoized areas.” With the advent of public transportation, the need for corporations to have areas in which they can conduct business. They saw the inner cities and started coming back to the cities to buy up land. In the case of Little Tokyo, which is centrally located right next to city hall and the financial district.

History of Little Tokyo WW2 and Post-WW2

The history of Little Tokyo from 1884 until now has been a continuous history of efforts to displace people and efforts to resist evictions and other negative changes. The biggest break in history was in World War II when Japanese were taken to concentration camps, so Little Tokyo became a ghost town for a period of time and then when they came back, many of them were able to settle, but immediately after that - in the 1950s and 60s - is when the redevelopment, urban renewal started to take place, so Little Tokyo started to be hemmed in by its neighbors like the Civic Center and Arts District (which used to be a part of Little Tokyo). There used to be a lot of Japanese-owned businesses and even Japanese families living in the area that is now Skid Row.

Prior to World War II, in the 1930s, Little Tokyo used to be maybe 10 times the physical size that it is today going all the way down to the LA river and to Olympic. The 1930s is what I call the ‘Hey Day’ of Little Tokyo or like the Golden Age of Little Tokyo because there were about 30,000 Japanese-Americans in this area. Now, it’s probably less than 3,000.”

Why does Little Tokyo exist?

A part of the reason why Little Tokyo, and other ethnic enclaves, exist is because in the early days when there was more racism, hostility, and segregation - there were many areas in the city that Japanese-Americans and other minority people could not live in. Each immigrant group felt more comfortable with their own culture, their own language. What happened in the case of Japanese-Americans is that, after going to concentration camps during WW2, when they were released they were encouraged not to speak Japanese, to be more American. They were encouraged not to congregate as Japanese because in somebody’s mind, it was more threatening to have large groups of anybody. As a part of that, Japanese-Americans learned English. Economically, little by little, they advanced too. A large positive factor is that, because of the influence of the Civil Rights Movement, there used to be anti-alien land laws that prohibited non-citizens from owning land - in addition to residential segregation. Those laws were overturned, so that people could live in the other areas. They lived in other places that they couldn’t live in before the war. They were able to do that because they spoke English and could afford to live in other areas, suburban areas. That meant the dispersal and shrinking of Little Tokyo. Both negative and positive factors played into that.

+ Elson Trinidad

Musician and writer / Program Director, Thai CDC, Thai Town

2nd-generation (first member of my family tree to be born in the United States).

What does Thai Town mean to you? Describe this community.

When I was a child, Thai Town as it exists now did not yet exist. Not only was it not yet designated, but there were not many Thai businesses on Hollywood Boulevard at the time. I did grow up in a very ethnically diverse community and had classmates/friends of Thai heritage who lived south of the current Thai Town. Our family frequented the local Thai restaurants (which were mostly located on Melrose Avenue or Vermont Avenue). The East Hollywood community of my youth was an extremely diverse community of Armenian, Guatemalan, Mexican, Filipino, Thai, Korean, Vietnamese, Russian, El Salvadoran, Arab and Chinese immigrant families.

Within the past decade, which overlaps my involvement with Thai CDC, as I was a member of the Thai CDC Board of Directors from 2003 to 2016, it has become the cultural and commercial center of Los Angeles’ Thai community and an important part of the multicultural mosaic of Southern California. Whereby during my youth the various immigrant communities planted seeds, Thai Town has grown into a virtual living tree with established roots. Aside from its acclaimed restaurants and shops, the annual Songkran Thai New Year Festival is a magnet/anchor for the Thai community and a showcase of the community to share with non-Thais who come to visit.

It’s largely the same as the past 5-10 years, though with slightly improved, yet not fully realized community engagement (i.e. the Thai Town Council). Although, one of the community’s biggest institutions, the Thailand Plaza restaurant (aka Jinda Thai Cuisine) is now closed. For my family, that was our go-to formal Thai restaurant to go to.

What businesses have disappeared from Thai Town? What businesses have come in? What effect do you feel this has had on Thai Town?

Aside from the aforementioned Thailand Plaza Restaurant, the Bamboo House restaurant on Hollywood and Edgemont has closed down due to development (the minimall it was located in will be torn down for a large mixed-use development). The newly-built Ocha Classic is a new and very visible restaurant, and the hot new Northern Thai Food Club restaurant on Sunset is making waves. As far as non-Thai restaurants, also understand that Little Armenia both borders and virtually overlaps Thai Town, so Thai and Armenian establishments next to each other in both Little Armenia and Thai Town are not uncommon. But even many Armenian businesses have either relocated to Glendale (a.k.a. Big Armenia) or closed down altogether.

Could you provide your own definition for the term “gentrification”? What does this term mean to you?

Gentrification is an issue facing all major American cities in today’s world. But in the context of Los Angeles, I see it as the loss of longtime cultural communities/institutions in favor of short-term white transplant Millennial upscale-oriented businesses and housing arrangements.

Have there been/are there currently cultural preservation/events in Thai Town? Do these cultural preservation efforts/events interplay with, or counter, possible or ongoing gentrification of Thai Town?

I do believe that though there are and will be facets of gentrification in the East Hollywood area (which includes both Thai Town and Little Armenia, as well as adjoining communities to the south), I do not think it will “take over” this neighborhood in the same way that gentrification has taken over communities like Echo Park, Silver Lake and Highland Park. I think large annual events like the Songkran Festival, the Armenian Genocide March for Justice, the DEFISAL (El Salvador Independence Day Parade on Santa Monica Boulevard on Labor Day Sunday) and other events solidify this community as a multicultural immigrant community and even many of the newer white arrivals in the community seem to respect that, and some consider it an asset to the community. It also helps to have an officially-designated Thai Town and Little Armenia as a virtual cultural imprint.

If you have children, are you raising them in the neighborhood(s) where you grew up?

[I don’t have children.] But if I did have children, I would either try to or at least expose them to this neighborhood as much as possible.

Where do you want to see this community go in the future?

I would like to see the community retain its character as a culturally diverse immigrant community, yet I am a realist/pragmatist enough to see that things cannot stay the same. The housing crisis has called for more units to be built; I have a moderate stands towards development – I support it generally, but at the same time, there are bad developments that should not be built and reckless overdevelopment is bad for the community. I support more mixed-use housing with as many affordable units as possible along transit corridors and major thoroughfares, but large developments should not abut residential areas. And there should be room for recreational open-space that is sorely needed in this park-poor community. The Thai community needs open cultural space for events, which communities like Chinatown and Little Tokyo already have. It’s also troubling that there are only two parcels in Thai Town proper that are Thai-owned. I would like to see more investment and ownership of Thai Town by the Thai community. And also as someone who has been a community organizer/activist in East Hollywood for over 20 years, I’d like to see more Thai Americans become active within Thai Town and do things like own property (both commercial and residential), become more active in local affairs like the neighborhood council, and continue to operate businesses here.

+ Loretta Hatsuko Meza

Intern (Sustainable Little Tokyo), Little Tokyo

Millennial; Yonsei, 4th generation Japanese American

What does Little Tokyo mean to you? Describe this community.

I grew up in Pasadena, California, which is about 15 minutes by car, so I was pretty close and I was pretty active in the Japanese-American community outside of Little Tokyo doing temple and going to Obon. I’d come to a lot of events that were hosted by Little Tokyo community organizations. In high school, I started doing more of the youth leadership programs.

Originally when I was little, Kizuna was still Youth Can. It was centered around educating Japanese American youth to be aware of their history and the empowerment behind figures in the community. I started the program when I was maybe 12? [My cousin] introduced me to the program…I remember going to their culmination and seeing these projects that they would do based around the Japanese American community and being like, “Wow, I want to do that.”

I’d say the Little Tokyo community is lively, but also very gentrified. You can see it changing a lot - less so by the buildings and more so by the people that are coming. A lot less Japanese-Americans walking around, a lot less Japanese being heard. Maybe because I was just surrounded whenever I came by people that were coming for the same events, but I definitely feel like you didn’t see as many people walking around [Little Tokyo] and the businesses here were only Japanese-American owned or majority Japanese-American owned. But it still feels like home. I can definitely feel like I’ve been away for a while.

What businesses have disappeared from your neighborhood? What businesses have come in? What effect do you feel this has had on your neighborhood?

The biggest one that I noticed was Rafu Busan, which used to be a traditional Japanese dishware [business]. It was one of those things that when you got married you went to Rafu Busan’s for wedding dishes. And seeing it leave was just like “Wow, this is actually happening.” Businesses have to move because of taxes on rent and buildings.

There seems to be a lot of fusion things I’ve noticed. Like Japanese and something; it’s not just Japanese. There’s a lot more boba shops around, which is amazing. I remember when Little Tokyo used to have maybe one boba shop, but it seems like they’re following the trends. On one note, it’s bringing a lot more people and a diverse population to the community. I just worry about the pressure of its popularity affecting smaller businesses and mom and pop businesses. There’s a couple [boba shops] that are independently owned. But even then there’s three Starbucks in the amount of square feet that Little Tokyo is.

Have there been/are there currently cultural preservation efforts in your neighborhood? How do these cultural preservation efforts and/or events interplay with possible/ongoing gentrification of your neighborhood?

I think maybe because I’m older, I’m more aware of the programs going on, and working for the JACCC [Japanese American Cultural & Community Center] makes me more aware of the creative programs that they’re doing. They’re bringing back Japanese classes or even having the Japanese - Hawaiian ukulele classes going on. But I think JACCC just doesn’t, or Little Tokyo community just doesn’t have a community space for multiple different cultural activities. I think the closest we have is the JACCC, which can only hold so much.

The programs are definitely still drawing in Japanese-American people and Japanese-American communities because those are the people paying attention to them and aware or want to come back. But even the effect that Nisei week is having on now businesses and Los Angeles street closure means that it’s a lot smaller than it used to be. Little Tokyo has opened up the community to other people and other businesses, so it’s not as enclosed within the community.

There still is a strong sense of Japanese-American community here. Maybe not as strong as I remember. I remember being a kid and walking around Little Tokyo with my family and people always constantly stopping us and saying hi, and I didn’t know that they were cousins, relatives, friends. I still get to see a lot of people daily that I know, but there are also instances where I look around and I’m like, wow, none of these people are [Japanese American].

From what I’ve heard, Little Tokyo has a little more cultural preservation and history than the other Japantowns. But I think just the rise of Japanese culture being cool and modern is also affecting it a lot. It’s no longer, “I’m coming to Little Tokyo to learn about Little Tokyo,” it’s more “I’m coming to Little Tokyo to come and learn about Japan.” I don’t think many people outside the Japanese-American community know that there’s a difference between being Japanese-American and Japanese. There’s such a different history and different experience.

What drew you to the internship?

I go to school in Williamette University, where there’s barely any Japanese-Americans, let alone Asian-Americans, so being away from such a tight knit community like the Japanese-American community in Little Tokyo woke me up to how appreciative I was growing up with this. I wanted a way where I could come back and be in Southern California and be here, and NCI [Nikkei Community Internship] was a great way to give back to the community as well as be physically present here.

I always say that I like my internship way too much. I’m sad it’s going to end because I feel like there is so much work to be done and not enough manpower, and being able to give and make programs and do things and help contribute something to the community feels really good.

Are you familiar with the term “gentrification”? What does “gentrification” mean to you?

Gentrification’s always felt less about people and more about money. Even if there are these historic buildings, the businesses inside them aren’t protected in any way by the city or by California. The buildings can physically be there, but it’s the people that run those businesses inside that make the community and give back to the community. In addition to keeping the historic businesses going, it’s also important for us to be aware of the businesses that are contributing to the Little Tokyo community and support those too. I think gentrification’s about going into Shoe Palace and having no connection to the community and going to buy something.

After losing the plot across from the JACCC, that’s all upscale apartment complexes now and losing so much of that affordable housing is definitely affecting the community too. When the rent prices went up in LA, it affected Little Tokyo because we’re a part of LA. I think it’s convenient for some people. Southern California has a large Japanese-American population. The physical closeness does affect the community a lot.

Where do you want to see this community go in the future?

Right now the whole battle for First Street North is going on, and I think that’s going to determine the fate of Little Tokyo. It’s this piece of land that has a historic World War 2 monument on it, and the city of LA has just done so much land grabbing during World War 2 that it’s kind of fractured our community. It’s about the community banding together and hanging onto this land. I think this is really going to affect the community in addition to the regional connector project that’s going on. I think it’s important not only for the Japanese-American community to know about protecting small businesses and coming and being active, but also people who are interested in the Japanese-American community, which is kind of a hard balance.

I think we really do need to open up ourselves a little bit more. I feel like Japanese-Americans, especially people who are community activists, really do see the intersectionalities of other communities and want to band together to keep everyone together. People really need to open up a little more to intersectionalities of race and ethnicity and gender and such.

Kizuna has done a really good job of making us aware of the intersectionalities between our community and our history and other communities, in addition to areas where the Japanese-American community needs to do better, such as mental health awareness or the stigma against Asian Americans coming out as LGBTQ - sub-communities of our big community that we need to embrace and support more.

Growing up with really great community leaders as a child, seeing the organization Kizuna being built from the ground up and realizing that those people were my age. They were Nikkei community interns and they built this youth program, and seeing a lot of people going through this pipeline is really inspiring. There is hope for people who want to support and build the Little Tokyo Community - there are places that are open and want them.