LOS ANGELES (CN) – For tourists exploring Los Angeles’ downtown periphery, Little Tokyo’s vibrant displays of culinary and cultural Japanese tradition are a marvel. But residents worry the neighborhood’s identity will be erased by encroaching development and the city’s plan to radically reshape the urban core.
Tourists entering the bustling pedestrian-only Japanese Village Plaza are immediately ensnared in a wave of fragrances from local kitchens and bakeries. In what feels like a postcard image of an old Japanese village, hanging red lanterns, cherry trees and Japanese architecture loom over visitors.
Rows of ramen shops, world-class sushi joints and confectionaries dot the landscape, sending visual and olfactory receptors on an odyssey.
Locals – including Francis Cullado, director of Little Tokyo-based media organization Visual Communications – cherish the unique commercial district that has been built over time here. They also want visitors to acknowledge the history of the Japanese people who live here.
“We understand people come to different neighborhoods for consumption, to consume culture,” Cullado said in an interview. “But I want people to come away with the idea, ‘Oh, this is a vibrant neighborhood.’”
The more than 130-year-old community, tucked between highways and skyscrapers, was formed by Japanese migrants who arrived in the late 19th century. But it was shaped overtime by urban renewal, war and economic booms and busts.
Japanese businesses – everything from sweets shops to tailors – thrived in this patch of the City of Angels during the turn of the 20th century, despite passage of the Exclusion Act of 1924 which restricted immigration from Asia.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Japanese residents were forced from the neighborhood and interned in isolated camps throughout the West. Residents like the Kito family, which operated the popular confectionary Fugetsu-do, were given only days to abandon – without the promise of return – the lives they established.
After the war, some Japanese returned to Little Tokyo or to neighboring Boyle Heights while others moved south to Orange County or east to cities in the San Gabriel Valley. Today, the community is one of three remaining Japantowns in the United States with the other two located San Francisco and San Jose.
A monument to the more than 16,000 Japanese-American soldiers who fought in World War II opened in 1999 behind the Japanese American National Museum and Go For Broke Museum, which together illustrate the contributions Japanese-Americans have made to the city and to the country.
Community organizations and social service groups, such as the Little Tokyo Service Center, organize year-round festivals and gatherings that attract local residents and hundreds of Japanese-Americans who live in surrounding cities.
But neighborhood’s vibrancy, and its identity, could be at risk, Cullado says.
City officials have initiated a master land-use plan that would revamp the downtown core over the next 15 years, bringing housing, retail space and a new park across from City Hall. The ongoing demolition of a building that was once the Los Angeles Police Department headquarters is part of that plan.
On the edge of the neighborhood, cranes tower over restaurants and excavators and jackhammers carve out the city’s $1.75 billion transit project that will eventually connect rail lines through tunnels under downtown.
Edgar Cisneros, an East LA resident who has worked in Little Tokyo restaurants for over 20 years, said as he was coming off the Gold Line train that the new development has made prices go up for everyone, including workers.
A simple lunch now hovers at or above $15 in an area where visitors used to find plenty of $5 lunch options, Cisneros said.
Rent has gone up for businesses while tourism has risen only slightly, meaning workers’ wages have remained stagnant as the cost of living rises citywide, Cisneros said, adding he rides the train because he can’t afford to drive his car.
Cullado says Little Tokyo residents are working to ensure that the city’s plan – which envisions a new district that will coax pedestrians to the east end of downtown – includes housing for them and spaces to preserve and practice their culture.
The tension is playing out in a stretch of three city-owned parcels known as First Street North behind the museums, which is up for redevelopment this year.
Residents want the city to lease the land – currently a massive parking lot – to local organizations so that affordable housing, a park and cultural institutions can be constructed there, Cullado said.
City Councilmember Jose Huizar, whose district encompasses Little Tokyo, said in a statement he is a longtime supporter of both Little Tokyo and the Go For Broke Museum.
“In August 2018, the councilmember introduced a motion allowing Go For Broke to modify its lease, with the possibility of adding a new education center and permanent supportive housing,” Huizar’s office said.
Local business owner Brian Kito, who still maintains his family’s mochi shop Fugetsu-do, said city officials need to support residents who fear being priced out of their community.
A soon-to-be-opened subway station, coupled with the ongoing transformation of the neighboring Arts District from industrial to chic foodie Mecca, will push rent prices to unaffordable levels for long-term residents, Kito said.
“We are up against a lot of uncertainty,” Kito said. “Normal mom-and-pop businesses cannot survive under higher rates. It’s going to have an effect on whether we can still call this Little Tokyo in the future.”
Kito’s concerns about new developments pricing residents out are rooted in his own family’s forced exodus.
After President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 in 1941- which forced the evacuation of all people of Japanese ancestry – Kito’s father Roy had no choice but to liquidate all property tied to his Fugetsu-do mochi shop and report to a military center for transport to the Heart Mountain internment camp in Wyoming.
Upon return from the camp, Kito’s family had to sleep in the Koyasan Temple while his father worked to recuperate their lives, working as a waiter after being denied reclamation of his mochi-making machinery.
But Kito’s fears of an unchecked development boom are also rooted in the popularity of buzzwords such as transit-oriented development, a planning method called necessary for the state to alleviate its shortage of 3.5 million homes.
Legislation such as Senate Bill 50, a bill proposed by state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, would encourage construction of denser housing near public transit stations and job centers.
Kito says the bill, if passed, represents policies that encourage unhealthy speculation on property in Little Tokyo and leaves residents feeling as though the government prioritizes developers over residents.
“People just want a fair shake,” Kito said. “But if they get beaten down, there are enough young leaders to shake their fists.”