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Democracy Downtown

A snazzy new landmark hopes to get us all talking

November 27, 2005|VICTORIA NAMKUNG

We can thank the Japanese American National Museum for the latest gem in downtown's revitalization. The $10.5-million, 33,600-square-foot National Center for the Preservation of Democracy opened last month in Little Tokyo to foster education and dialogue on civil rights and democratic values. Located in a former Buddhist temple adjacent to the museum and designed by local architect Brenda Levin, the nonprofit center features a sleek glass-and-metal exterior and a new 200-seat lecture hall and theater. We got educated with Irene Hirano, a native Angeleno who is president of the museum and center.

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How did the Japanese American National Museum create the center?

The museum was provided with a federal appropriation. The University of Colorado Press recently published a book called "Common Ground: The Japanese American National Museum and the Culture of Collaborations," which chronicles our work with diverse institutions in partnership projects. The history of Japanese Americans is a lesson in the abridgment of civil liberties yet [also in] the strength of American democracy, which allowed for a mistake to be acknowledged by the government.

The new center occupies Little Tokyo's old Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple. Is there symbolism in that choice?

The former temple was built in 1925 and served as a community gathering place as well as a religious entity. When Executive Order 9066 required Japanese Americans to leave their homes [during World War II], many had to report to the temple building to be boarded on buses and later transferred to internment camps. The temple housed the belongings of some of these families. After World War II, some families lived in the temple building until they found housing. In 1987, the building was given to the museum.

The center takes the experiences of Japanese Americans during World War II as a jumping-off point for multicultural discussion. How does the Japanese experience parallel that of other groups?

The current display, "Fighting for Democracy" in the National Center's Hirasaki Hall, chronicles seven individuals of different ethnicities who were denied equal rights before World War II, yet their service during World War II led to the desegregation of the Army following the war. The passing of Rosa Parks and former Congressman Ed Roybal demonstrates how ordinary individuals give voice to democracy every day.

What is distinct about L.A. as a project location?

I believe that in Los Angeles we find more willingness to collaborate and work together across ethnic and racial lines. The National Museum has developed projects with the Chinese American Museum, Plaza de la Raza, Self-Help Graphics & Art, Watts Towers Arts Center and many other diverse organizations. We also have visible community leaders of diverse backgrounds who are committed to collaboration and partnership.

Why is now an opportune time for a center like this one?

Every day we see challenges to democracy and freedom because of the lack of interest in people to become involved and engage in civic and community affairs. The low voter turnout, the cynicism by most Americans that they can't make a difference, and the need for a new generation to be inspired to do public service is vitally important to a strong democracy.

What's the key to intergroup cooperation?

There has to be greater appreciation of our commonalities and differences. It takes a long time to build trust and working relationships. The National Museum did a project on Boyle Heights and brought together many different organizations and people to chronicle a community that was once home for Jewish Americans, Russians, Japanese Americans, Hispanics and others. In finding the common ground, there was a great sense of pride.

The center joins other new buildings that planners hope will be the core of a "new downtown." What would such a downtown be like?

Areas like Little Tokyo, Chinatown, Olvera Street, the artists' district, the Historic Core need to retain their character and history along with the new buildings that are being built. There is an opportunity to build a downtown reflective of the rich, diverse history of Los Angeles.

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National Center for the Preservation of Democracy, 111 N. Central Ave., Los Angeles; (213) 830-1880 or www.ncdemocracy.org

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