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Crenshaw: Littler Tokyo : Although their children are grown and gone, older Japanese-Americans still evince pride, loyalty in their changing community.

October 03, 1993|SCOTT SHIBUYA BROWN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They arrived in the awkward time after World War II, the trauma of the internment camps still a fresh wound for many, and gradually began settling into single-family homes in the all-white neighborhoods west of Arlington Boulevard and north of what is now Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

In doing so, they not only helped dismantle the ethnic barriers that demarcated Los Angeles' housing market, they built from scratch one of the city's largest Japanese-American communities.

Forty years later, that once-thriving community is dwindling away quietly. Except for an occasional faded sign advertising a bygone business, little remains to commemorate the Japanese-American community that at its peak boasted commerce and a culture to rival those found in the better-known enclaves of Boyle Heights, Gardena and Sawtelle.

The hardy contingent of older Niseis (immigrants' second-generation descendants) who live, tend their homes and retain their communal bonds in Crenshaw do so in neighborhoods that have long been predominantly black and increasingly Latino.

And the landmarks that do remain--the Seinan Senior Citizens Center, the L.A. Southwest Japanese Credit Union--are notable today because of their uniqueness to the area.

"It was huge in its day," said Suzanne Totsubo Toji, 45, who remembers the Japanese groceries, bakeries and fabric stores that once dominated Jefferson Boulevard, and the Japanese-American businesses that filled the Crenshaw Square Shopping Plaza. "It was \o7 the \f7 place to move to."

Despite their thinning ranks, the Japanese-Americans in Crenshaw are not dormant, nor is their significance lost on local historians. Unlike their sons and daughters who moved away, the older Japanese-Americans in Crenshaw evince a stubborn pride and loyalty to their community, which grew out of prewar neighborhoods surrounding USC, where many of the first-generation immigrants worked as gardeners. And despite problems such as the area's rising crime, Crenshaw's remaining residents have a surprising, unflinching openness to the changes their community has undergone and little desire to leave.

"I wouldn't think of moving out," said Mabel Ota, now in her 70s, who moved to Crenshaw in 1954 and then saw both of her white neighbors leave within the year. "Every week, a Realtor calls me up and asks me if I want to sell my house. I always tell them, 'No, I'm happy here.' "

Much of the comfort older Japanese-Americans feel in the area, and toward their neighbors who are not Asian-Americans, derives from a shared sense of discrimination. The Rev. Mas Kodani of the Senshin Buddhist Church near USC recalls that when the city's Japanese-Americans were about to be interned, one of the few organizations that offered help was a black Baptist church. Similarly, after the war, when most shopkeepers refused to sell goods to Japanese-Americans, the only market that would sell food to the Buddhist church was a black-owned grocery. Kodani said that almost half a century later, some of the older church members are still trying to locate the store owner to thank him.

"You'd be surprised how many Japanese-Americans grew up very closely with African-Americans," said Yuji Ichioka, a UCLA associate professor of history, who cites the role both communities played in integrating the Westside after 1950, when the Supreme Court outlawed racial housing covenants that prevented owners from selling to "non-Caucasians." "The old-timers on my block are either African-Americans or Japanese-Americans," Ichioka said.

Even in the wake of last year's riots, during which some Asian-Americans were subject to attack, many of Crenshaw's Japanese-Americans expressed sympathy for the causes underlying the disturbance and decried what they viewed as unfair stereotyping of the black community's role in the riots.

"When you consider all the areas in which blacks are living, to try and lump them together and say, 'That's the community that had the gangs and the rioting,' that's not true," said Yo Takagaki, a real estate agent who moved to the area in the early 1950s and who was one of the developers of Crenshaw Square. "There's more blacks moving out of L.A. than anyone else. If (Japanese-Americans) are afraid, blacks are too."

Suzanne Toji remembers her childhood as a time of living in a Japanese-oriented community while participating in the typical all-American rites of youth. On Saturdays, she attended the Dai-Ichi Gakuen Japanese Language School--which was nearly mandatory for Toji and her friends so that their generation would not forget the ancestral tongue--but weekend nights were devoted to seeing movies at the Baldwin Theater and hanging out at the Holiday Bowl bowling alley. Most of all, Toji said, diversity and harmony characterized her youth.

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