Wearing their oldest clothes, they arrived with buckets of paint, dozens of brushes and sushi snacks to restore a part of Little Tokyo history that has been treated shabbily for years.
About 60 volunteers, many of them students from UCLA and USC, spent the day painting the San Pedro Firm building, one of the last reminders of what Little Tokyo looked like just after World War I.
The city of Los Angeles owns the three-story building where 16 people live in low-income apartments. But the fate of the building has remained uncertain for years while the city decides which developer will build a $200-million expansion of the Los Angeles Civic Center. The expansion will encompass the building, which is located on a stretch of San Pedro Street listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In the meantime, the city has padlocked a dozen apartments as tenants left or died. The building had deteriorated until recently, when community leaders persuaded the city to restore hot water to apartments, fix the roof and paint.
Saturday's work was meant to supplement the city's efforts.
Community activists also see the building as a symbol of the need to stop destroying what little housing remains in Little Tokyo. Forty years ago, Little Tokyo was much bigger and thousands lived here. But as downtown development encroached upon it and entrepreneurs tore down residential hotels and homes, many Japanese left. Today roughly 700 people live here.
"It's part of a community effort to preserve housing and make it a more balanced community, not just a commercial, cultural center," said Bill Watanabe, executive director of the Little Tokyo Service Center.