Vandals removed the portrait of Rev. Howard Toriumi. The plaque was dedicated in 2012 to Toriumi, who led Union Church from 1961 to 1979. (ELLEN ENDO/Rafu Shimpo)

By ELLEN ENDO, Rafu Shimpo

Vandalism to a plaque paying tribute to the late Rev. Howard Toriumi has saddened many who remember the minister’s decades of service and his leadership during Little Tokyo’s transformative redevelopment years.

It is believed that the theft of the etched image of Rev. Toriumi occurred sometime last month.

The plaque is located in Toriumi Plaza on the corner of Judge John Aiso Street and First Street, near the Aiso Street Garage and the California Japantown Landmark, and across the street from the original Union Church building, which is now Union Center for the Arts.

“It is such a shame that people somehow cannot see the utter senselessness of such acts of vandalism,” commented Bill Watanabe of the Little Tokyo Historical Society (LTHS), who was among those who helped establish the original Toriumi tribute in 2012.

Toriumi served as senior pastor of Union Church of Los Angeles from 1961 to 1979, when he became a key figure in “saving Little Tokyo from the wrecking ball.”

According to a City Council motion introduced in March 2010 by then-Councilmember Jan Perry and seconded by Councilmember Jose Huizar, Toriumi “(created) a unified voice for the Little Tokyo community during the turbulent years of downtown redevelopment in the 1960s and ’70s.”

Toriumi was among the first to realize that not only his church but the entire Little Tokyo community would be affected by the city’s plan to expand the Civic Center. As noted in the motion, “These plans originated from federal legislation created in 1949 and 1954 that targeted ‘blighted’ areas for urban renewal. These urban renewal programs took a heavy toll on other Japanese American communities, razing large parts of the Japantowns in Sacramento and San Francisco.”

In the early 1950s, a large of section of Little Tokyo had been taken over through eminent domain in the name of Civic Center expansion to make way for the Police Department’s Parker Center and other structures. By the 1960s, city planners were even proposing the construction of a freeway through the heart of Little Tokyo.

In response, on May 20, 1963, Toriumi organized a noon meeting at the former Daruma Café on San Pedro Street, giving rise to the Little Tokyo Redevelopment Association (LTRA), an entity that developed into the influential Little Tokyo Community Development Advisory Committee (LTCDAC).

Steps are under way, led by the LTHS, to restore the stolen image, which had become as a symbol of one man’s perseverance and an entire community’s determination to survive. It is estimated that repairs could cost $1,000 or more.

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