By KATHY NISHIMOTO MASAOKA and YASUKO SAKAMOTO KOWALCHUK
On Sunday, March 26, a program to remember the legacy of Judy Nishimoto Ota, a trailblazer at the Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC), will be held at Terasaki Budokan from 2 to 5 p.m.
Ota, who passed away in 2002, helped shape the organization into the esteemed affordable housing developer it is today. She began her career as a tenants’ rights attorney for Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA) but left legal work to join LTSC to direct its first affordable housing project, the 42-unit San Pedro Firm Building in Little Tokyo, in 1990.
She became the first director of LTSC’s housing arm, expanding LTSC’s scope from social services to include economic development, and later the first chair of the LTSC Community Development Corporation’s Board of Directors in 1993.
Erich Nakano, LTSC executive director, first met Ota in 1991 at an internship fair while he was at UCLA’s School of Urban Planning. “Because I had been involved in earlier activism in Little Tokyo from the 1970s to fight displacement of low-income residents, there was an immediate connection,” he recalled. “I signed up as an intern and have been at LTSC ever since!
“Judy was a force of nature, always driving, pushing forward, looking for ways to fight for affordable housing, to secure justice for residents, to dive into opportunities to build housing and bring back seniors and other residents who had been displaced. I miss her energy and determination. She left a legacy which will live on in the community development side of LTSC’s mission.”
Strong Sense of Justice
Born in Chicago to Chizu Kadota and Dick Nishimoto, Ota’s strong connection to family was shaped by living in a four-story flat on Halsted Street with all the Kadota clan while growing up in multicultural Boyle Heights nurtured her passion for working people of all backgrounds.
Ota had a very strong sense of principles and justice, attending Maryknoll School in Little Tokyo and Immaculate Heart High School in Los Feliz. So it was not surprising that she became a social worker with the Los Angeles Department of Public Social Services after graduating from UC Berkeley and joined the Asian American Social Workers, one of the many organizations that formed during the burgeoning Asian American movement of the late ’60s.
She soon realized that she could do more with legal skills and was fortunate to be part of a group of minority students admitted to UCLA Law School under the affirmative action program. She put her legal skills to work defending the rights of tenants as part of the LAFLA, which also provided free legal services to community groups, like LTSC.
Ota was called upon by other community groups for legal support, like the tenants living at Wabash and Fickett in Boyle Heights who were fighting evictions, and she later worked with the businesses and residents of the Alan Hotel, who were organizing to fight the demolition of the block by a Japanese company. Though not able to stop the evictions, Ota and fellow attorney Fred Nakamura were able to force the new owners to pay relocation benefits.
The free event will include food, salsa dancing and storytelling by friends and family who will talk about Ota’s childhood in Boyle Heights and her outspokenness that often got her into trouble with the nuns at Maryknoll but served her well at Immaculate Heart High School and later at UC Berkeley.
Marion Fay, a lifelong friend from their days with the Asian Law Collective, will share thoughts about Ota’s indelible personality and indomitable spirit.
Dean Toji worked with her both in the Little Tokyo People’s Rights Organization (LTPRO), where her Spanish skills were especially useful in speaking with the families in the Sun Hotel on Weller Street, as well as on the Housing Committee of LTSC. He saw Ota as a person who believed that “we can do big things.”
Chancee Martorell, executive director of Thai Community Development Center, treasures her time working under Ota at the LTSC, where she learned the value of being “confrontational and a disruptor of the status quo.”
San Pedro Firm Building
The program will feature a video by Yasue Katsuragi about the San Pedro Firm Building as seen through the eyes of Ms. Takai, who had lived in the building since the 1950s and saw its transformation from a city-owned building with slum-like conditions (no hot water and crumbling plaster) to a totally renovated building with full kitchens. Ota’s motivation was always the welfare of the residents and she oversaw the renovation, including the relocation of the residents over the two-year process.
Former LTSC Executive Director Bill Watanabe describes working with Ota in this way: “Have you ever imagined being a cowboy riding on the back of a wild bull? I haven’t either but it sort of describes the experience of trying to supervise someone like Judy, who had great intelligence and immense passion for the cause of making housing more affordable for those in need. After we finished our first housing project, Judy was already working on a new, much larger affordable housing project in Little Tokyo which eventually became Casa Heiwa.
“LTSC had become a major player in developing affordable housing, and it was Judy’s drive and vision that pushed us forward, like a bull that cannot be contained or tamed. I think Judy would be pleased with the work LTSC has accomplished thus far, especially since she helped to lay the foundation for that work.”
Watanabe will also talk about the city’s plans for the block, including Historic First Street, and how Ota and LTSC took the bold step of renovating the building without any prior development experience.
Naomi Hirahara, writer and former Rafu Shimpo English editor, remembers Ota as the “little engine that could and the glue that held it together.” She will share her recollections of the residents’ and community’s involvement in saving the San Pedro Firm Building.
Over two weekends, 100 students from the Nikkei Student Unions and community members worked alongside contractors from the Pacific Asian Consortium on Employment (PACE) to patch broken plaster and paint, making the building more liveable until the full makeover could take place.
LTSC staff and younger activists will share the lessons that can be learned from the history of the first affordable housing project in the community and its lasting impact on Little Tokyo.
The program will end with salsa dancing, one of Ota’s many loves, and a tour of the San Pedro Firm Building.
For more information, email email@example.com. To RSVP, go to https://give.ltsc.org/event/judy-nishimoto-ota-memorial-a-changemaker-celebration/e462840.