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Clinging to a culture

Little Tokyo works to welcome a new wave of multicultural investors and residents while preserving its distinctive heritage.

October 28, 2007|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

For nearly a century, Frances Hashimoto's family lovingly crafted traditional Japanese pastries in Little Tokyo. For funerals and weddings, tea ceremonies and New Year's festivities, the little shop helped mark major community moments with soft rice cakes filled with sweet bean paste, baked chestnut buns, delicate sweets colored and shaped like spring blossoms or fall maple leaves.

But two months ago, Hashimoto remodeled her Little Tokyo store, Mikawaya. She placed her pastries in the back, giving more prominent space to Italian gelato and what has now become her signature product, mochi ice cream. She is introducing decidedly Western flavors into her sweets, including peanut butter, blueberry and orange.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, October 30, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Little Tokyo: An article in Sunday's California section about demographic changes taking place in Little Tokyo in downtown Los Angeles gave architect Ted Tokio Tanaka's last name as Tajima.

"The Japanese community has always known us for Japanese pastries," Hashimoto said. "But all of a sudden, the crowd in Little Tokyo was changing and we wanted to show we were changing, too."

As goes Mikawaya, so goes Little Tokyo. A new wave of multicultural investors, residents and visitors is transforming the area, the largest of three major Japantowns left in California.

New housing projects could bring in hundreds of new multicultural residents during the next few years. Mainstream retailers, including Robeks and Pinkberry, are entering the market.

Many of Little Tokyo's major properties have changed hands to non-Japanese owners -- including the controversial sale in August of the New Otani Hotel and Gardens to a Beverly Hills-based real estate firm.

Now the community's eyes are trained on the city's request for proposals to buy and develop its last large land parcel in the Little Tokyo area at 1st and Alameda streets, known as the Mangrove site. The competition, whose bid deadline is Friday, is seen as a major test of the area's future direction.

The rapid changes have touched off anxiety -- but also a collective effort to figure out ways to embrace the newcomers while preserving the ethnic culture and identity of Japanese America's historic heart.

"The whole demographic of Little Tokyo will change," said Chris Komai, spokesman for the Japanese American National Museum. "The question for us and Little Tokyo generally is how much influence will we have on this influx of new people? Will they come and just go to Quiznos and Starbucks? Or will they say they like Little Tokyo's culture and history and want it to stay that way?"

The tale of Little Tokyo's transformation isn't unique. It's an enduring story continually repeated in California's ethnic enclaves, places of layered histories and ever-shifting demographics.

In South Los Angeles, Latinos are transforming historic African American neighborhoods. What is Chinatown today was once Little Italy, and Vietnamese Chinese merchants there are supplanting the longtime Cantonese.

In largely Latino Boyle Heights, the Breed Street Shul and Otomisan Japanese restaurant are ethnic markers of a more diverse era. In the MacArthur Park area, no sooner have Central Americans organized to press for a historic ethnic designation when, they say, Koreans have begun to increase there.

But experts say that Japanese Americans have exerted more collective community energy than most to try to influence the inexorable neighborhood changes.

In 2001, for instance, the community successfully lobbied for state legislation to help preserve California's remaining Japantowns, in L.A., San Francisco and San Jose. More recently, they worked with Los Angeles city redevelopment officials to develop planning guidelines favoring a Japanese aesthetic in Little Tokyo projects.

Community leaders have forged close relations with Councilwoman Jan Perry, who said she intends to remain "vigilant" to keep Little Tokyo's cultural cohesion. During the past few years, Perry has worked with the community to redirect a proposed jail away from the area, find space for a community gym, limit bail bonds shops and develop plans for an art park, among other things.

"What's different about Japantowns is that there is a lot of political energy, activism and clout to support thinking about how and what you can do to save these communities," said Donna Graves, a preservationist expert who directs the state's Preserving California's Japantowns project and recently documented Richmond's diverse World War II workforce.

The efforts come none too soon, she said, since the state's Japantowns have plummeted from more than 40 to three.

At present, much of the community's attention is focused on the Mangrove development project. Earlier this month, the influential Little Tokyo Community Council, a group of about 100 area businesses, nonprofit agencies, religious institutions and residents, voted to support a Japanese American-led development team in the bidding process.

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