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Sidewalk Art Puts Little Tokyo's History on Display

August 09, 1996|LARRY GORDON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Brass plaques in the 1st Street sidewalk of Little Tokyo now bear images of Japanese American life: Suitcases for trips to America and to World War II internment camps. The wooden bucket used to pickle delicacies. The fancy envelope for celebratory gifts. An apple pie.

Apple pie? What's that doing in the new 1,000-foot-long art project aimed at memorializing the historic block and encouraging its revival? What's the connection to pavement markers that explain the buildings' past and quote neighborhood residents?

The answer says a lot about the complicated ethnic culture in Los Angeles, according to artist Sheila Levrant de Bretteville. During her research, one Japanese American man told de Bretteville that he always felt as American as apple pie. So that quintessential American symbol is now embedded in the colorful concrete walkway which was formally dedicated Thursday.

"I just wanted to give a taste, literally, of how a Japanese American is American and Japanese. I tried to get both in there," said de Bretteville, a Yale University professor who is a daughter of Polish immigrants. "We are all combinations of things."

Some polishing and concrete work remains to be done on the $865,000 Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency project entitled "Omoide no Shotokyo, Remembering Old Little Tokyo." But the unveiling went ahead to herald Saturday night's start of the 56th annual Nisei Festival in the area.

The new art, sidewalk, street lights and utilities are supposed to reinforce last year's designation of the 1st Street block between Central Avenue and San Pedro Street as the nation's 2,147th National Historic Landmark.

In front of the doorways of all the block's buildings are descriptions of their past. For example, 325 1st St. displays its evolution from a pool hall to a music store to a church. The building at 341 1st St. had lives as a bathhouse and a barbershop.

Facts and major moments in Japanese American history are also recorded. De Bretteville decided to put happier moments in brass, such as "1890--First Japanese immigrant opens American-style restaurant." For the painful records of discrimination she used stainless steel, which she describes as a colder and harder material. So, in steel are items like this: "1942--L.A. County and city fire civil servants of Japanese extraction."

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