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Plan for Gym Splits Groups in Little Tokyo

Dispute: Japanese American veterans and others want green space to set off museums.

June 22, 2002|K. CONNIE KANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Despite broad community support for a proposed gymnasium in Little Tokyo, backers are facing stiff opposition from an alliance of powerful arts groups and a Japanese American veterans organization.

During a heated public forum Thursday night in Little Tokyo, about 500 supporters of the Little Tokyo Recreation Center, many of them youngsters, urged city officials to approve the gym on the city-owned land known as First Street North.

But representatives of the Japanese American National Museum, East West Players and veterans of the 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team said they wanted to see the site used as an "art park"--green space to set off the existing and planned museums in the vicinity.

The session, called by City Councilwoman Jan Perry, whose district includes Little Tokyo, gave a rare glimpse into a division in the Japanese American community, this one in effect pitting grandchildren against grandfathers and old friends against one another.

"It's heart-wrenching," said Tony Ricasa, principal assistant to Democratic Assemblyman Gilbert Cedillo, whose district includes Little Tokyo. "They shouldn't be pitted up against each other. All of them can benefit" from the project.

Cedillo supports the gym at First Street North, which also houses the Museum of Contemporary Art's Geffen Contemporary, the Japanese American National Museum, the Go for Broke Monument to Japanese American veterans of World War II, and the Union Center for the Arts. It is also the site of the future city Children's Museum.

Ricasa said the gym would expose youngsters to culture and art in the museums and at the veterans monument.

But Ted Ohira, who served in the 442nd, one of the most decorated units in U.S. military history, argued that putting the gym there would betray supporters of the Go for Broke Monument.

"We veterans have always been assured by the city before we built the monument that the place is going to be a park and a Japanese garden to show the people our story--to tell our story," he said.

Bill Watanabe, executive director of the Little Tokyo Service Center, whose organization eight years ago led the campaign to build the gym, said there is enough land to accommodate the center and open green space. He said the project would also be an economic boon to Little Tokyo businesses and institutions, including those opposing it.

Dan Mayeda, board president of the East West Players, said noise from the gym would disrupt the "nation's premier Asian American theater." He told gym supporters to put themselves for a moment in his shoes.

"Suppose you invested millions of dollars to create a gymnasium, and then a theater wants to come right next to you and said, "Oh, by the way, no basketball on weekends because that's when we have performances and need you to be quiet. Your reaction would be, 'We were here first. Your use is incompatible with ours, so you have to go somewhere else.' That's our situation."

Jeff Heller, project manager for the Children's Museum, who was introduced as a speaker opposing the gym, surprised many by supporting the center.

"I may lose my job, but frankly, I think it is a great plan, said Heller, who said he had seen the plan for the first time Thursday evening. "I was supposed to come here to make it [the gym] smaller, but after seeing the presentation ... maybe we should make ours [the Children's Museum] smaller," he said.

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