The Current State of Little Tokyo Cultural Preservation
transcript of statements made by Chris Aihara, Consultant, Japanese American Cultural and Community Center
Little Tokyo Community Council Planning and Cultural Preservation Committee Chair

Thank you very much. I know that many of you are very familiar faces, and I know that we have gone through many processes and meetings together, so I don't want to speak at length, especially after Bill has given a definitive overview of what we are trying to accomplish through these efforts of cultural preservation.

In preparing for speaking today, I really realized that although it sometimes seems like we are in constant meetings and conferences, and discussing, and it almost seems like we've continued to trod very familiar ground, I think that there has been a lot of significant progress that we should all feel very proud of as a community. I realize that we started a lot of this activity in 2000, and in a short time, in a very short time I think, in five years, we have really seen this progression of activities in Little Tokyo, and I think statewide, in this effort to preserve Japantowns.

Besides the progress that we have made, I think the other thing that I'd like to mention that I think is very important is the process in which we have move forward. In the Little Tokyo Community Council, which started in [2005], to me, in my tenure in Little Tokyo, I have never known of a body like this, where we come together regularly and we are all the stakeholders of the community—and it is the business community and it's the residents and it's the nonprofits.

Even though this makes for sometimes a very drawn out process I think the process has been so important. And what it really does is, it has empowered so many of us to feel invested in this community. And I really believe that because of our organization, now we find the Community Council has become a very successful body where we see the City elected officials and the City departments and people with projects coming to us—to see this as the community body where they can have communication and there can be discussion and there can be recommendations.

I think we are all commended to be a part of this effort that has created the Little Tokyo Community Council. And especially when you consider our community sometimes seems a lot of small groups and fiefdoms and where we have barriers, even maybe by generation and by language, the success of the Community Council is to our credit.

As I said, in these last five years, we have established the Little Tokyo Community Council. We have had lots and lots of discussion, but what did come out of it was a vision, and we needed to have a vision before we could do a whole lot of other things. We articulated a vision in many meetings, but as Bill mentioned, we now believe it is important to preserve the cultural identity and character of Little Tokyo; that we want to attract newcomers of various cultures, ages and interests; that we want to promote and sustain a growing, changing and active community; and we want to foster social relationships and a sense of community.

Those are very general things and now that we have this basis of what we would like to see, we have now the very large of task of trying to implement that and to move forward. Simultaneously, Bill mentioned that there was Prop 40 and Senate Bill 307. I also want to say that what has happening in Little Tokyo is part of a statewide effort. You're going to hear more about that when we have our speakers talk about the Japantowns project.

In San Jose and in Los Angeles, they are in their own way undergoing a lot of what we have been doing here in Little Tokyo. They too also, we worked together on Senate Bill 307 to bring the attention to the State elected officials as well as to the people in the State overall, that there is a need.

What we are doing here in Little Tokyo impacts us and impacts Japantowns, but we are going to be a model, if we do this well or don't do this well, for other communities to follow. I know, for example already, that in the Filipino American community there has been effort to preserve Manilatowns and I think this is very much related to what they see has been happening here in Little Tokyo. This is very important work that we are trying to accomplish not just for the sake of Little Tokyo and our own community, but for communities throughout the state.

[Bill mentioned] SB307—from that, Gerry Takano is here. He was the Los Angeles person who drove the definition that we came up with—a definition of cultural preservation. From this definition of cultural preservation, a very important result was, now this gave us the foundation to develop planning and design guidelines. Last December, in [2005], we convened a meeting here at Centenary where we started to really talk about specifics: gateways, what is the spine of little Tokyo, how do we see ourselves in the context of all that is happening in the rest of First Street. We also talked about landscaping and building, and started to vision, in more tangible ways, as to how we were going to see this future of Little Tokyo.

From that meeting, there was a committee established and supported in great part by the Community Redevelopment Agency and their staff. And there has been a committee that has been working on planning and design guidelines. There is a draft. We are looking at some finalization of these planning guidelines by November. We have already shared many of those things with professionals in the area who are working on other projects or who have expertise. What we will find in those planning and design guidelines is that we are going to start to address very specific things about development in Little Tokyo. We are going to be making recommendations on heights of buildings and the way buildings face and landscaping and orientation of buildings and are they conducive to gathering places for the community, about signage; about keeping consistent with what we determine to be the cultural identity of our community.

After these guidelines are concluded they are going to be reviewed by the Community Council, reviewed by LT CDAC, then they are going to be taken forward to CRA for approval and then to the City Council. We have a lot of work yet to accomplish, but at the same time we're all getting smarter about how to do these things. We're learning how to understand the political process and to call on City resources. So I think that this sense of empowerment is making me feel very powerful. That is, I think it's making us as a community a lot more sophisticated. I feel very confident that we are going to be able to realize and have some impact on this community for its future.

That is one of the major projects or thrusts of the Planning and Cultural Preservation Committee, which is part of the Little Tokyo Community Council. As Bill mentioned, we are also involved in many Prop 40 projects that we are trying to implement, so we are taking some initiative to actually bring forward some changes.

Also we have been asked to and are participating in several key developments in the area, namely, Mangrove, which is the very large parcel between the Nishi temple and the Museum. We have had discussions with the Related Company, which we respect very much that opportunity to talk about the public spaces on what is called Block 8. The community advocated very strongly for parking, so there's going to be a parking lot on First and Aiso, and there will be a public space on top of that. We have had very lengthy discussion with the City Bureau of Engineering as to the planning of that space.

I think that this is a very long-term process. I feel very grateful to all of you and all of us who are digging in and staying committed, and I thank you all for coming here again today.