By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Shimpo
A packed hearing of the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission on Dec. 7 at City Hall had mixed results for the resident artists of 800 Traction Ave. and their supporters.
With the artists facing eviction, the 800 Traction Ave. Support Committee has opposed an application by the new owner, DLJ Real Estate Capital Partners, for cultural-historic monument status, arguing that it will give the owner millions in tax breaks once the tenants are gone.
At issue at the meeting was a report done for DLJ by GPA Consulting, which, critics said, ignored contributions of Japanese American and other artists associated with the building to the development of the Arts District.
The five commissioners unanimously approved DLJ’s application but amended its findings to state that the century-old building “is identified with the development of the Arts District and [the] Artist-in-Residence [Ordinance], including Japanese Americans and other ethnic groups, in Los Angeles.”
The status of the site will next be taken up by the city’s Planning and Land Use Commission and then by the City Council.
The hearing started with a presentation by Teresa Grimes of GPA on the history of the building, which was originally known as the Joannes Brothers Company Building and was most recently owned by the Rollins brothers, who purchased it in the late 1970s. She said that no evidence was found that Japanese Americans worked for the company and that “we did not find any information indicating that 800 Traction was the first building Downtown to be adapted to be used as artists’ lofts. Artists began living, working Downtown long before the Artist-in-Residence Ordinance was established in 1981. The Arts District was named in 1994.”
She added, “To the best of my knowledge, the commission has rarely recommended designation of properties for their association with events that began in the 1980s.”
Regarding the residency of Japanese American artists in the building, which continues to this day, Grimes said, “Using telephone records provided by the former owners to identify any of the early residents of the building … we concluded that individuals from a variety of ethnic backgrounds have lived and worked in the building … Simply because members of a certain professional class or ethnic group lived and worked in the building in this case, I don’t think that you can ascribe significance to one group in particular.”
GPA acknowledged that renowned artist Matsumi “Mike” Kanemitsu (1930-1992) lived and worked in the building, and that he could be regarded as a “historic personage” under the guidelines for monument status. But based on his oral history, obituary articles and other sources, the report concluded that he only lived in the building for the last six years of his life, and his association with 800 Traction alone was not justification for historic designation.
Noting that “many people here feel very passionately about the building,” Grimes stressed that GPA had to take an “academic” approach to its research and that the application would be amended if any new information came to light.
Timan Khoubian, vice president of DLJ, spoke briefly, saying, “We’ve had constructive dialogue with many of the tenants as to what we can do [to ease their situation] and we look forward to continuing those conversations.”
Rebuttal from Community
The 800 Traction Ave. Support Committee came with a video about artists associated with Little Tokyo and the Arts District, and several witnesses.
Dorothy Wong, a historical preservationist, stated, “Two months ago the commission made a decision to delay this application … for me to work with GPA Consulting to incorporate the Japanese American experience and artists’ experience associated with this building. Well, it didn’t happen, because … GPA Consulting was preparing their renewed application and we only had one meeting with them, a few emails, and then they submitted the renewed application on Dec. 6 without our knowledge or review, which is fundamentally against historic preservation practices.”
Wong, who did her own research with some colleagues, added, “It seems like GPA was very reluctant to interact with the community. There was no fieldwork done, though opportunities were provided for them to speak to noted scholars in the field. And also their methodology, as I have a documented very thoroughly to the commission, is not the best and I feel that this application … should be rejected … It’s incomplete and inaccurate.”
Miles Hamada, a silkscreen artist who lives in the building, spoke on behalf of other tenants, including multimedia artist Bruce Yonemoto, who was unable to attend: “We understand this meeting is not to discuss issues of providing housing for present tenants; it is to discuss if the building has cultural significance and should receive recognition as cultural-historic monument. We are appalled that the revised application does not include the rich cultural history of Japanese Americans … One cannot speak accurately about the history of 800 Traction without speaking about the role of Japanese American artists in shaping and influencing Los Angeles’ community and culture …
“We are not asking that the 800 Traction building be a community center for the Japanese American community. We have that … [But] we do need a place for creatives to work and live and continue in the spirit of the previous owner. The history should be recognized and not forgotten.”
Taiji Miyagawa, head of the support committee, said that Japanese Americans are not new to having their culture suppressed, having been uprooted and incarcerated during World War II. “The city of Los Angeles has not been an innocent bystander to the displacement of our community. In 1952, about an entire block of Little Tokyo was taken away by the LAPD to build the Parker Center. During the ’70s and ’80s … the city colluded with Japanese and local corporations to eliminate over 80 percent of low-income housing here.
“Today, ironically on Dec. 7, 2017, we wonder, will this be another day of infamy? … Will we be victims of the whitewashing of history? … The city moves forward to give millions in tax breaks to DLJ … for ending artistic production and one of the last remaining artist-in-residence lofts in the Arts District. We ask whose words carry more weight here today, the testimony of people who have created Los Angeles history with their own pair of hands or those with no connection to this process, paid to create a fiction for DLJ, who is led by one of the most corrupt banks in the world, Credit Suisse …
“Buildings do not create history but the artist tenants of 800 Traction Ave. do. These people have been essential to maintaining Little Tokyo as a viable cultural center for nearly 40 years. It is they who helped create the Arts District, not the developers or architects … We will continue to fight against the whitewashing of our cultures. Members of this commission may choose to stand on the wrong side of history today, but if you do, you will not be able to hide the truth … You will ultimately be held accountable.”
Nancy Uyemura, an artist tenant, talked about Kanemitsu, who was once honored by the City Council for his contributions to the city. “He did come from New York, but he gave a lot to California, to the West Coast, to the international scene as well.”
She added that Kanemitsu influenced other major artists, including Yayoi Kusama, who currently has an exhibition at The Broad. “She went to his studio in New York to look him up to see if he could help her sort of get settled in New York.”
Artist and critic Tom Nagano described Kanemitsu, who exhibited everywhere from Washington, D.C. to Japan, as “the cultural bridge between New York’s 1950s art scene and the Los Angeles 1960s art scene. He was an active participant in both areas, both regions.”
Sound artist Alan Nakagawa, who attended Otis Art Institute, recalled being invited on multiple occasions to 800 Traction, where he met Kanemitsu and Uyemura as well as up-and-coming artists like Gajin Fujita, who now has works in LACMA’s permanent collection. “Art history is dominated by white males, so it made a difference to have a community of professional artists who are also Asian and Asian American. Thirty-five years later, I’m still a practicing artist.”
Kathy Masaoka of the Little Tokyo Service Center said, “We are aware of the concerns being raised by the residents of the building and are concerned that the new owners will be rewarded with tax write-offs while their tenants are facing eviction without compensation. Further, we really feel it is important that we value the current and past tenants’ contributions toward developing the Arts District and Little Tokyo.”
Noting that this year marks the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, which authorized the wartime camps, Masaoka said that accepting the application would “add insult to injury.”
David Monkawa, a member of the support committee, also criticized GPA’s research. “If GPA did their job even minimally and gone down to Rafu Shimpo, the only Japanese American daily, a block away from 800 Traction, or contacted the UCLA Asian American Studies Center, they may have found … the social, political and cultural environment in the Little Tokyo community, including the Arts District, from 1980 to 2001 formed the basis from which sprang a circle of Japanese and Japanese American artists who experimented in various media and expressed what Asian American and Japanese American images and sensibility was.”
Praising Uyemura as “the driving spirit behind nine years of Gallery 4’s existence” at 800 Traction, Monkawa said, “All of these artists … were bound by the common experience of the camps, ordeal of immigration of their families, a search for identity, reaction to racism in America, and during that period, no other comparable groups of artists held shows nationwide … If you pass this [application], we’re going to continue to speak out loud about our history and we’ll see you at the PLUM Commission and we’ll see you at City Hall.”
Other speakers included artist Marc Oberhofer, a 26-year resident of 800 Traction; husband-and-wife filmmakers Stephen Seemeyer and Pamela Wilson, producers of a documentary called “Tales of the American,” which is about the Arts District’s American Hotel; Jonathan Gerald, secretary of Los Angeles Downtown Arts District Space; Peter Garnica, who described Hispanic artists’ contributions to 800 Traction; Annie Shaw of Chinatown Community for Equitable Development; Coco Kim of the Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement; and art student Andrea Aguilar, who was asked to leave after going over her allotted time but was cheered by the audience.
Commission President Richard Barron told the audience, “This is the Cultural Heritage Commission. We don’t deal with affordable housing, as much as we might like to. We are here to look at preserving structures and other elements of the urban fabric that are important to the history of Los Angeles, and I personally feel that the Arts District is an important aspect of the city of Los Angeles’ cultural development. I’ve experienced it first-hand and I feel your pain when the Arts District is being threatened by development.
“But I think whether we declare this a monument or not … the same result is going to happen. I think that having it declared actually may benefit the building [rather] than be a detriment to it. I’m more than willing, if my fellow commissioners agree, to create language within the application that speaks to the importance of this building in terms of a key component in the Arts District and those artists associated with the building. I think that would be an important addition to this application. I think that location is worthy, I think that building is worthy of being approved as being a monument.
“There are a lot of things here that we don’t have a say on. We’re here strictly to deal with historic buildings and element issues within the confines of the city of Los Angeles. And I hope you understand that. Emotionally, I’m very sympathetic to your cause to all of you that are here today.”
Barron also suggested that the arts advocates discuss the matter with Councilmember Jose Huizar, whose district includes the Arts District and Little Tokyo.
Commission Vice President Gail Kennard and Commissioners Pilar Buelna and Barry Milofsky expressed similar sentiments and agreed to the amended language.
Commissioner Diane Kanner joined the other four in approving the application. As the 800 Traction group filed out of the room, someone shouted, “On to City Hall!”
Photos by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo