The Little Tokyo Recreation Center: A Choice as Simple as Building Community or Watching a Continuing Decline
By Ryan Masaaki Yokota
Little Tokyo isn't what it used to be, even for a Yonsei like myself. But then again, chances are that if you've paid any attention to this place, you already know this. You probably already know about the small shops that continue to close like flowers in a chill and about the way the boundaries of Little Tokyo have shrunken like an old man past his prime.
But maybe you didn't know that some of this was preventable, and that a large part of the shadow that dropped over Little Tokyo was caused in the redevelopment struggles of the seventies and eighties, when local planners in all their wisdom decided to focus the development of the area on tourists from Japan instead of on the needs of the local Japanese American community. In the heady days of the pre-bubble bursting Japan this was the conventional wisdom, consistent with the "floating world" philosophy of those boom times. In hindsight, however, we can see very clearly the legacy that this shortsighted vision left: A gutted out Little Tokyo with a smaller residential base, a lot of empty businesses, and, in short, a lot less "community."
Today, the situation hasn't changed much and local planners are faced with a similar choice in the ongoing debate over whether or not to build the Little Tokyo Recreation Center. And as much now as it was then, the choice is between those who would argue that Little Tokyo should be oriented towards the latest trend (i.e. Downtown arts development) or should focus its long-term well being on its base constituency, namely those Japanese Americans who live, work, and shop in the area, and especially those younger Japanese Americans who are most likely to continue to patronize the area in the future.
I am one of those younger Japanese Americans who still considers Little Tokyo to be a vibrant part of his life and family history and even moved into Echo Park partly because it was so conveniently close to Little Tokyo. For me, Little Tokyo is still an integral part of all aspects of my life. I used to study Aikido at the Aikido Center of Los Angeles, and later studied Shorinryu Karate at Centenary Methodist Church. I used to intern at both the Rafu Shimpo and Visual Communications. I eat at places like Suehiro and Kouraku all the time. I buy groceries at the supermarket formerly known as Yaohan. I sing karaoke (though not that well) with friends at Oiwake and Yagura Ichiban. I go to Tuesday Nights at the Union Center Café, or go to the Japan America Theater to take in the arts. When there is a funeral to attend, I get the traditional Japanese cards at Rafu Bussan. And sometimes, when the wind blows just right, I daydream about how I am walking on the same streets that my great-grandfather used to walk, many years ago.
For me the decision on whether or not to build a Little Tokyo Recreation Center that would attract younger Japanese Americans is a no-brainer and a long time in coming. Young Japanese Americans need and want a place that speaks to them and reflects their sense of who they are. They need places to play basketball, have martial arts tournaments, take computer classes, and put on art festivals. They want a place where they can meet other young people and connect with their elders. Most of all, young people want an opportunity to have a space where they can realize their potential and feel a sense of connection to a history that is living and breathing and still in progress, not a history that is stuck in a museum collecting dust.
Little Tokyo has been declining for many years, though many recent efforts such as the Casa Heiwa development and Union Center for the Arts have done well to breathe new life into the area. For someone like me who appreciates both the history of the area, and its still-alive-and-kicking present, the Little Tokyo Recreation Center at First Street North represents a vision and dream of the future. We hope that you too have a dream of the future where Japanese Americans, both young and old, have a place in Little Tokyo. Please support this dream. Support the Little Tokyo Recreation Center.
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