Written by Erica Stewart
My list of reasons for wanting to hop on a cross-country flight to Los Angeles just got longer.
I had the privilege of talking with Erich Nakano of the Little Tokyo Service Center last week about the history and revitalization of a four-block district that is the symbolic heart and soul of the city’s Asian-American heritage. The Little Tokyo Historic District is a National Historic Landmark located tucked between Skid Row, the Arts District, and the Civic Center in downtown L.A. The area became known as Little Tokyo after the arrival of two thousand Japanese immigrants who were recruited from northern California to lay tracks for the Pacific Electric Railway in 1903. The residents were later joined by thousands more from San Francisco following the 1906 earthquake and the racial tensions that ensued. The area has since experience waves of demographic changes, at times drawing a largely African-American population, and later, Latino. Its status as a vibrant, eclectic, and close-knit community has remained constant through its history.
The Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC) is, in many ways, is the common thread woven throughout much of the district’s modern history, promoting the economic revitalization of the district while fighting for the survival of its cultural and historical fabric. Its three thoughtful historic rehabilitation projects have brought affordable housing, community gathering spaces, and the arts to Little Tokyo, including a Save America’s Treasure project, the Far East Building and Café, which was a beacon of hope during the dark days of Japanese-American interment during World War II.
LTSC came on the scene in 1979 to provide essential assistance to the district’s Japanese-speaking senior citizens, including transportation, translation and consumer education services. Its mission expanded greatly in the mid-1980s when the city announced a redevelopment plan that would demolish many of the neighborhood’s city-owned buildings, displacing Asian-American businesses and low-income residents. Led by LTSC, the community rallied against the threat and convinced the city to protect thirteen sites from future development.
Their work was far from over.
Consider the 1925 San Pedro Firm Building. Despite being recognized by the city as historic, it was slated for demolition to make way for the expansion of the Civic Center--at the expense of its 28 residents, 15 offices and four storefronts, including Flora’s Barbershop, the Pacific Sewing School, a dentist, and a beauty salon. The city cared so little for the building that it was hardly livable at the time of the threat. Thanks to the grassroots efforts of LTSC, Little Tokyo was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1986, and the city passed a resolution to save the San Pedro Firm Building in February, 1987.
The Little Tokyo Service Center then found itself volunteering for the role of real estate developer. LTSC proposed it lease the Firm Building from the city for free. The city wisely agreed, and along with the L.A. Community Design Center, they completed a five-year, $4 million rehabilitation of the property in 1991 which restored the four commercial storefronts on the ground floor and created 42 units of affordable housing on the top floors.
Next up for LTSC was to propose that it rehab the city-owned Old Union Church next door into an arts center. It formerly housed a Japanese-American Christian congregation but was condemned following the 1994 Northridge earthquake. The city again concurred, and after $3.5 million in renovations, it opened in 1996 as the Union Center for the Arts. Today, it houses three premiere Southern California arts institutions and a 240-seat theater.
Meanwhile, LCST wasn’t the only one who recognized the district’s treasures were worth saving. The historic district earned National Historic Landmark status in 1995.
LTSC then set its sights on the Far East Building, a beloved property that was also “red-tagged” following the Northridge earthquake. This three-story, 1896 Beaux Arts/Moderne style was home to a Chinese restaurant that had for 60 years served a diverse mix of Japanese immigrants, sports figures, Hollywood stars, local politicians, and even gangsters. Its location next door to the oldest Buddhist Temple in Little Tokyo ensured the café’s status as the premier secular gathering place for weddings, funerals, and other special events. Most significantly, families that suffered the devastating effects of internment during World War II found a safe harbor in the Far East Café. The Chinese American owners welcomed back old friends and customers, providing meals and housing on credit for those unable to pay.
Following a $4.2 million rehabilitation that utilized a $75,000 federal Save America’s Treasures grant as well as federal historic and low income housing tax credits, the Far East Building has a new lease on life. Its 16 residential units provide safe, permanent housing to low income individuals, including eight formerly homeless residents—four of whom are disabled. The building also houses a computer center that offers low-cost computer training and job skills to the community. It even features a new restaurant that takes its name from the building’s iconic Chop Suey neon sign and revives the building’s status as the district’s premier gathering place.
These three projects, along with a major new construction project, the Japanese American National Museum, have transformed Little Tokyo’s “Main Street” and made it a vibrant place to live, eat, learn, and play. Yet this transformation has not compromised Little Tokyo’s unique story, told through its historic buildings and the lives of its existing residents. For that, the Little Tokyo Service Center deserves much of the credit.
Save America's Treasures, Preserve America, and the other programs cut or underfunded by the proposed federal budget do more than preserve our country's rich heritage – they put Americans to work. Learn more about the National Trust's campaign to restore this critical funding.
Erica Stewart is the outreach coordinator for the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s community revitalization department.