Little Tokyo’s Future

LTSC’s +LAB Artists in Residence

By Kenji Liu, +LAB Artist in Residence Project Manager

On a hot June afternoon, I parked downhill from El Pino, a tall, historic pine tree on the border of Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles. The week before, Little Tokyo Service Center’s +LAB Artists-in-Residence (AIR) project had welcomed five new artists to Little Tokyo’s historic Daimaru Hotel, and trees were on my mind.

I accompanied the new cohort on walking tours around Little Tokyo, including visits to two centenarian trees: Sonny, the grapefruit tree, and the Aoyama fig tree. These historic trees have seen many cycles of neighborhood development, displacement, incarceration, gentrification, and resistance.

Two of the new artists, Amy Sanchez Arteaga and Misael Diaz, asked if I knew of El Pino. It has its own marker on Google Maps and a Wikipedia entry, which notes its role in the 1993 film Blood In Blood Out, about three relatives in a working-class Chicano family during the 1970-80s. El Pino is on the former property of a Japanese American resident, a reminder of our communities’ historical and ongoing intersections.

Advocates march for Little Tokyo’s future and its historic First Street North. Photo credit: Scott Oshima

With three remaining city-owned parcels in Little Tokyo up for redevelopment, LTSC’s +LAB project, which includes the AIR, is an inspiring experiment combining arts/cultural work and traditional community development, with the goal of community control and self-determination. This year’s artists are tasked with addressing a specific theme through their creative projects—“Ending Cycles Of Displacement”—in keeping with LTSC’s mission of positive change for people and places.

An enormous part of the work for the artists has been to listen—to community members, activists, historians, and the land. Scott Oshima, lead community organizer for the Japanese American Community and Cultural Center, led an afternoon where he asked the artists to sit somewhere on the First Street North block and just listen. So this was the first thing I did with Sonny, the Aoyama, and El Pino.

At each tree, I let sounds wash over and through me—street noises, construction, background hums, conversations, and traffic, but also bird calls and rustling leaves. And as I thought about the history of Little Tokyo and Boyle Heights, I could hear ghosts, the many layers of a place.

I began to imagine a triangulation, guided and overseen by these trees. The Japanese character for forest (mori) consists of three trees in triangle formation. Maybe this is our regional forest, a protected area. We can learn from how these trees have survived, and ask them for help. In return, we can offer them our strength and vision for the future. Mutual protection.

Little Tokyo and Boyle Heights are both facing intense gentrification, and Little Tokyo in particular is dealing with the impacts of market-rate housing development, long-term Metro construction, Civic Center redevelopment, and more. In response, the five +LAB Artists-in-Residence have developed creative community projects designed to listen, engage, and envision the future of Little Tokyo. This is the perfect time for you to participate and contribute!

To check out our summer arts series, Presencing Pasts/Imagining Futures, click here.