Japanese Calligrapher and hip hop dancer Kuniharu “Kuni” Yoshida was selected as one of Little Tokyo Service Center’s (LTSC) inaugural +LAB Artists in Residence in 2018, co-hosted by JACCC and Sustainable Little Tokyo.
Kuni created a series of calligraphy workshops for Little Tokyo senior residents to combat social isolation and strengthen their sense of belonging to the neighborhood. His residency culminated in a senior calligraphy exhibition and short film Calligraphy of the Heart, a calligraphy performance on First Street North, and an award-winning documentary short film, First Street North—exploring the history and fight for the historic block. Since his residency, Kuni has continued to deepen his engagement by continuing his senior workshops as a yearlong Shodo for Little Tokyo program with JACCC, and as a commissioned artist for Windows of Little Tokyo and LTSC’s Terasaki Budokan. He also is now a permanent Little Tokyo resident, a representative on the neighborhood council, and the community’s go-to calligrapher!
“We imagined this Artist in Residence program as a way to use culture to reclaim our block and strengthen our community roots.”
Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo is one of three remaining historic Japantowns in the entire nation and is the cultural home to not only Japanese Americans but the many communities of color who have always intersected there. Little Tokyo’s most iconic block, First Street North, has been and continues to be front and center to the neighborhood’s struggle for self-determination.
Little Tokyo blossomed in 1884 despite racist residential redlining and covenants. Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, Japanese Americans living in Little Tokyo were forcibly incarcerated. During WWII, Little Tokyo became known as Bronzeville, a home for Black migrants and a hub for jazz and culture. In the 1950s, the City of Los Angeles used eminent domain to displace significant portions of Little Tokyo, including many of the remaining Black residents. This trend continued through the 1970s with the Little Tokyo Redevelopment Project Area. Today, the entire First Street North block behind the Little Tokyo Historic District is owned by the City. Yet despite this history of displacement and institutionalized racism, Little Tokyo has a long history of activism and advocacy that continues to this day.
Well before today’s “creative placemaking” movement was coined, Little Tokyo’s fight to sustain itself as a Japanese American neighborhood included expression of its culture through the arts.
Specific to the First Street North block, Omoide no Sho-Tokyo (Memories of Little Tokyo) is a timeline art installation (1996) by Sheila Levrant de Bretteville and Sonya Ishii along the First Street north block; and Union Center for the Arts was developed by the Little Tokyo Service Center in 1998 into community art space that houses East West Players, Visual Communications, and LA Artcore.
Today’s First Street North campaign grew out of Sustainable Little Tokyo, a 2013 community-wide initiative and vision for the remaining publicly-owned land in Little Tokyo. As the neighborhood continues its decades-long fight for control of these properties, arts and culture remains at the center of its strategies. Examples include the Artist Residency mentioned above, and 341 FSN, a temporary community pop-up space housed in a commercial storefront owned by LTSC. The space was offered to different community organizations to house performances, exhibits, workshops, small businesses, meetings, and other community-desired activations. Its location on First Street allowed the community to support local artists, showcase what they want to see on this block, and strengthen a collective sense of ownership of this space.
“For me, working with our committee members (particularly Taiji) and learning alongside my peers and elders gave a sense of belonging and connectedness to my heritage – and our responsibility to continue its legacy – that I understand now more than ever before. As someone who has always been fairly disconnected from the Japanese American community, being a part of this project felt like an important first step into efforts to reclaim our cultural identity and physical creative space..”
Advocate for community control of the First Street North block
Refine and advocate for the Sustainable Little Tokyo Community Vision
Support artists and culture-bearers as community leaders
Engage and empower community members who are often excluded from planning processes, such as low-income residents, seniors, and business owners
Build community and awareness through engaging arts and cultural program
Strengthen and cultivate partnerships with community organizations and groupsLessons
Artists must be part of the project development and process from the beginning—as opposed to commissioning an artist to implement a project that was created without them. Meaningful collaboration and co-creation requires time, immersion in the community, and trust in creative and unexpected processes and outcomes.
Partnerships and long working relationships are key. Artists in LTSC +LAB’s Artist Residency were cohosted by longtime cultural organizations, the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center, the Japanese American National Museum, Visual Communications, and Sustainable Little Tokyo. The artists were also required to immerse themselves in the neighborhood by living on First Street North in the Daimaru Hotel for three months. They shared space and time with long-term residents and a collective workspace where they hosted community engagements.
Learn from failure and missteps. LTSC +LAB’s #myFSN Placemats were artworks about First Street North and its campaign on disposable placemats for local restaurants. Because of a rushed timeline and difficulty organizing with business owners, the project was developed without partnership with the restaurants. Ultimately, restaurants owners were not comfortable with the bold messaging and did not use the placemats. LTSC learned the importance of meaningful community engagement and collaboration at the front-end of project development.
Create space for experimentation and play—both physically and in process. LTSC offered the 341 FSN storefront free of charge as a flexible cultural space for an entire year. The artists and community partners were given full control of the space, programming, and uses. Many of the programs incubated in this space continue to this day and demonstrated the powerful impact of cultural spaces in community development.