Ilona Bicevska, a Latvian producer, left, and Yoko Morimoto, a Japanese photographer, held a photo exhibition, “Who Cares about Jefferson?,” for the community’s business revitalization. (RYOKO NAKAMURA/Rafu Shimpo)

By RYOKO NAKAMURA, Rafu Japanese Staff Writer

West of the 110 Harbor Freeway and south of the 10 Santa Monica Freeway, there is a 1.28-square-mile neighborhood called Jefferson Park. Ilona Bicevska, a Latvian producer, and Yoko Morimoto, a Japanese photographer, held a photo exhibition titled “Who Cares about Jefferson?” earlier this month for this small community’s business revitalization.

Until the 1960s, Jefferson Park was home to many Japanese American families. Although the demographics have drastically changed since then, this tiny South Los Angeles community has always attracted immigrants.

Fifteen Jefferson business owners from various backgrounds were featured in the exhibition. From Japanese to Guatemalan, they shared their dreams and hopes for the future, and the exhibition captures their personal stories as well as the unique history of the neighborhood they now call home.

Bicevska, who has 15 years of experience in film and music production in Latvia, participated in the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program at Arizona State University. She came to Los Angeles in June for a month through the program.

Virginia, a Mexican dance studio owner who came to Jefferson Park 20 years ago, stands in her dance studio on Jefferson Street. She provides 80 hours of dance lessons every month. (Photo courtesy of Yoko Morimoto)

When she first arrived at her apartment in Jefferson Park, she was stunned at the barred doors and windows on Jefferson Street, which looked worlds apart from her image of Los Angeles, based on famous parts of town like Hollywood and Beverly Hills.

Her roommate, Morimoto, who traveled to India and Jamaica as a photographer to photograph local children who strive for daily survival under adverse conditions, lent Bicevska a bicycle to explore Jefferson Park.

Bicevska noticed there were shops, a karate dojo, and a salsa studio on Jefferson Street. She realized a lively community existed behind the intimidating iron bars.

Although there seems to be no apparent common ground between a Latvian producer and a Japanese photographer, they found a mutual passion — having a positive effect on society through their works.

They decided to do a project together to promote local businesses on Jefferson Street, focusing on real people who work hard to make a living behind the barred doors.

As they literally knocked on each door and talked to the people in Jefferson Park, they learned true, touching immigrants’ stories.

“You don’t need Photoshop to edit the photos. Their eyes are already sparkling. They all somehow found an opportunity here. And they are building their businesses and proud of that,” said Bicevska. “What touched me the most was how strong the families are. They are devoted to their children, and they work tirelessly to give them better education.”

It reminded her of her country, Latvia, once a part of Soviet Union. Her family also sacrificed a lot to provide their children a better life.

Morimoto, who grew up in Kanagawa, was moved by the passionate residents in Jefferson Park. She also learned Japanese American personal histories through this project and was drawn into those immigrants’ stories.

“I am an immigrant myself. I understand how hard it is to live in a foreign country,” said Morimoto. “In the 1960s, there were a lot of Japanese people living in this neighborhood. Because Issei sacrificed so much to build the foundation of our society, we can live in the U.S. now. I’m very proud of being Japanese.”

The title of the photo exhibition, “Who Cares about Jefferson?,” is a reference to a remark made by one of  Bicevska’s friends when he heard about this project.

“That may be what most people think,” Bicevska explained, “But Jefferson Park is so powerful. The residents are doing the real everyday work in Los Angeles, which is far away from dreamy celebrity culture seen in show business, yet their work is so honest and crafted. They are so vibrant. They are the real people who we don’t see much in the media.”

The photo exhibition in Jefferson Park lasted only one day, but the photos are displayed at the 15 businesses on Jefferson Street as well as on the project’s website at

The next exhibition will be in Venice in September. For more information, visit the website.

Bicevska and Morimoto with Jefferson Park residents who participated in the project. (RYOKO NAKAMURA/Rafu Shimpo)

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