Landmarking Arts District lofts ignores Japanese American history, artists say

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Sound artist Alan Nakagawa graduated from Otis College of Art and Design in 1984, but a large part of his education came from outside of school. At 800 Traction Avenue, he spent hours huddled around Matsumi “Mike” Kanemitsu’s dining room table, listening to him talk. Kanemitsu, a painter and printmaker who taught at Otis and Chouinard Art Institute (now CalArts), exhibited all over the country in the 1970s and ’80s. Visits to Kanemitsu’s home studio showed Nakagawa it was possible to succeed as a working Japanese American artist.

“It helped my friends and I, because I was like, ‘Well there’s a history here even though it’s not talked about at school,” says Nakagawa, who now serves as an artist-in-residence for the city’s Great Streets program.

One of the first buildings in Downtown Los Angeles to be converted into artist’s lofts, the property at 800 Traction Avenue has for decades served as an incubator for Japanese American artists, including Kanemitsu and brothers and video artists Bruce and Norman Yonemoto.

The Arts District building is now is on its way to becoming a city landmark, but tenants and artists say that history is being overlooked.

First known as the Joannes Brothers Company Building, the five-story Beaux Arts-style factory was designed by architect John B. Parkinson and named for the grocery wholesaler that built it in 1917. It served as a manufacturing and distribution plant for Ben-Hur coffee and spices through the 1950s, when it was sold to Angeles Desk Company.

It began attracting artist tenants in 1979, and three years later, 11 units on the building’s top four floors were officially converted into artists’ lofts under the city’s 1981 Artist-in-Residence ordinance.

Applications for landmark status are often filed by preservationists to try to thwart redevelopment or demolition by a new property owner, but this case is different.

The application was commissioned by investment firm DLJ Real Estate Capital Partners in May, around the same time it purchased the property and issued eviction notices to tenants.

Seven tenants have stayed to fight the evictions while negotiating with the new owners for relocation assistance. The tenants, who include photographer Jaimee Itagaki, silkscreen artist Miles Hamada, and painter and sculptor Nancy Uyemura, declined to comment on the negotiations.)

“We are pleased that yet another historic building in Los Angeles will be preserved,” DLJ Real Estate Capital Partners said in an emailed statement. “We have also come to mutually agreed upon relocation arrangements with our seven remaining tenants.”

Activists at a landmark hearing for 800 Traction Avenue.
Jennifer Swann

Activists initially opposed the historic-cultural monument application, because they said it “white-washed” over the contributions of Japanese American artists, according to housing rights activist Taiji Miyagawa.

Miyagawa says he suspects the building’s new owner submitted the application not to recognize the history of artists in the building but to reap tax breaks for renovating the building under California’s Mills Act.

Artists and activists reversed their stance, recognizing that a landmark designation could boost the legacy of the building that helped shape the careers of so many Japanese American artists.

The campaign to preserve 800 Traction Avenue’s legacy has gained the support of artists in Boyle Heights and Highland Park, says Miyagawa. He says prominent Chicano artists, including the printmaker Richard Duardo and sculptor Daniel Joseph Martinez, once lived there too.

“Because it’s an artist’s residence, it’s really struck a nerve in terms of the relationship between people’s communities, art, and culture, and this whole notion of gentrification,” says Miyagawa. “It’s not just one set of people being moved out based upon class. It’s also people being moved out along with their distinct art and culture being erased.”

They want to preserve the building’s history—but they’re strongly opposed with developers about how to do so.

Last week, Nakagawa and more than a dozen others filed into City Hall with signs that read “Don’t evict our history, too” and “Our history is not for sale.” During the planning and land use management hearing, the group urged Los Angeles City Councilmember José Huizar to amend the language in the application to more fully recognize the contributions of Japanese American artists like Kanemitsu.

“It was so insulting to me,” says Kathy Masaoka, an activist with the non-profit Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress. “We have to fight so hard for Little Tokyo to be recognized and acknowledged.”

Masaoka and other activists object to the application’s claim that the property was only historically significant from 1917 to 1959, the period in which it served as a manufacturing and distribution plant for Ben-Hur coffee and spices. (Neither GPA Consulting nor Clarett West, the respective firms that prepared and submitted the application, responded to request comment.)

“It does not appear that Japanese Americans and Japanese American artists were strongly associated with the subject property or the Joannes Brothers Company,” the application says. “While Matsumi Kanemitsu is a Japanese artist who may be considered an historic personage, he does not appear to have been associated with the subject property during his productive period.”

GPA Consulting’s findings came in response to preservationist activists like Dorothy Fue Wong, who wrote to the city in November with concerns that the Japanese American artists who lived and worked at 800 Traction Avenue weren’t being represented in the nomination.

She also refutes the claim that Kanemitsu wasn’t a significant artist while residing at 800 Traction Avenue. “The last decade of Kanemitsu’s life (8 years) was his most productive like other noted artists,” she wrote. “He achieved both a high level in his art and also a sophisticated network of seminal artists on the east coast, Los Angeles, and Japan that he mentored.”

Wong urged GPA Consulting to study the impact of artists like Kanemitsu and printmaker Aiko Baden on the art community in Los Angeles. She recommended that the application be rejected, claiming it had not been peer-reviewed, and suggested the Little Tokyo Historical Society collaborate with the artists in the Arts District create to create an entirely new one.

In the three months since, activists have come to support the nomination under one condition: that councilmember Huizar amend it to include language that more fully acknowledges that contributions of Japanese American artists to the building’s history.

“I think the biggest thing that we’re here for today—and we appreciate in the amended language—is that the history of the Japanese Americans and the artists is being respected and honored,” says Miyagawa. “For the public record, this may serve as a foundation for further education about the actual history of the city and that area where 800 Traction is located, where historically [it was] part of Little Tokyo.”

Since the founding of the non-profit Little Tokyo Community Council in 1999, the community has thwarted a city proposal to build a jail near the Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple and convinced Metro to build its Regional Connectorunderground so it doesn’t disrupt local businesses.

“A lot of that [activism] has been informed by [the fact that] when people first moved here, they could only rely on each other as a community. The government was not looking out for then, they were not accepted by everyone in the city of Los Angeles,” says Kristin Fukushima, managing director of Little Tokyo Community Council. “Then of course with the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, that really disrupted the entire community, folks lost everything.”

Huizar says he feels a special connection to the neighborhood because his mother used to work at a food processing plant not far from 800 Traction Avenue, and he appeared to be sympathetic to activists’ concerns.

“Make no mistake, the history of Little Tokyo must be acknowledged,” he said. “I consider myself a preservationist, but I also like to think and say that it’s not only about the bricks and mortar of the architecture. It’s also about the events and people that have made history what it is.”

Little Tokyo, he suggested, had already suffered injustice enough, first when it was pushed from the center of Downtown by eminent domain with the expansion of the Civic Center, and later, when “many people came back from concentration camps and they no longer had a place to stay after we had taken their property.”

He pledged to ask planning staffers to consider amending the language in the building’s application to include a more comprehensive acknowledgement of Little Tokyo, and said he was also looking into the possibility of creating affordable housing specifically for artists.

The committee ultimately endorsed the landmark application,, and it could go to the full City Council for final approval as soon as next week, according to Ken Bernstein, a principal city planner with the city planning department.

Artists and activists saw the meeting as “a victory against the whitewashing,” says Miyagawa, despite the looming inevitability of eviction.

Itagaki, a photographer who has lived at 800 Traction Avenue since 1997, back when it was still “grungy” and industrial, says she doesn’t know yet where she’ll be able to afford to live next. It’s not just the building’s high ceilings and ample space for photo shoots that she says she’ll miss—it’s the residential community of Japanese American artists, or “good cooks and good partiers.”

For now, she is working on forming an activist art committee that can live on outside of 800 Traction. She aims to document the building and its residents before they disappear.

“It was vast amounts of space and it was pretty much a dinosaur situation,” she says. “You just don’t think about it until something happens.”

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