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Family Thanked for East L.A. Plans

The Mukais have finished the first phase in their Civic Center project.

October 11, 2003|Jose Cardenas | Times Staff Writer

Perhaps the Mukai family best exemplified the spirit of perseverance that officials lauded Friday as they unveiled the first phase of the East Los Angeles Civic Center project.

The Mukai family developed the Civic Center Plaza on land at 3rd Street and Mednik Avenue that they have owned, at least partially, since the 1920s.

Friday, elected officials praised the family for its dedication to the neighborhood and for bringing to unincorporated East L.A. its first shopping center in 20 years.

"All we know is that we believed in the community," said Ron Mukai, 33, whose grandfather, Thomas, was the first of the family to own a store in the neighborhood when he immigrated from Japan.

The shopping center marked a sort of business and community rebirth for East Los Angeles, elected officials and community members said.

The $8-million shopping center the Mukais built with $1.7 million in aid from the county is merely the first finished phase in the long-awaited Civic Center expansion project.

When finished within two years, the full Civic Center project at 3rd Street and Fetterly Avenue will include $25 million worth of construction and other improvements to county offices, Belvedere Park and a library.

The Civic Center project, spearheaded by Supervisor Gloria Molina's office and the county's Community Development Commission, started in 1999.

Officials and residents wanted to create a vibrant business environment and sense of community around the aging county offices near Belvedere Park.

Instead of a community most noted for its crime, they envisioned a community center where the park could be used for recreation while the shopping center would be full of patrons from the government offices.

County officials began working with the Mukai family to help them develop their land as part of the overall project.

If anyone knows about persevering in East Los Angeles, it's the Mukais.

Thomas Mukai arrived in East L.A. from Japan in the 1920s. Through the decades Thomas and his children -- including Ron's father, Tomo Mukai, 69 -- operated a series of businesses, including an auto repair shop and a hot dog stand.

Even after they were taken away from their homes and detained in a Wyoming internment camp for Japanese Americans during World War II, they returned to the neighborhood when they were released.

On Friday, Ron Mukai -- managing member of Mukai Maravilla LLC, which developed the plaza -- spoke about the difficulty of luring national chain stores to the plaza because of what he said are false perceptions of crime and poverty in the community.

"We had to overcome this myth," he said, "that we are all running around in East L.A. shooting each other, that we don't have any money to spend."

Still, citing positive demographics to potential tenants, he lured coveted national businesses, such as the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf.

Public officials also have planned a light-rail line along with the Civic Center project as part of the broader revitalization.

State Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) compared the East L.A. revitalization to similar successes in neighborhoods in other large cities.

"East Los Angeles at times has been compared to Harlem," she said. "This is the renaissance of East Los Angeles."

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