Unlike many Japanese American youth, I never learned how to play basketball. I never took karate or judo. I never played any team sports like softball or soccer, like my sister and brother did. As a young girl, I was too shy for such sports. While I did take a little bit of gymnastics, ballet and tap dancing (shuffle ball chain), I was pretty uncoordinated. I grew up in the suburbs and I had never even heard of J.A. basketball until I was well into my 20s. But I did go into Little Tokyo with my family once a month to have dinner at Far East Cafe, and sometimes we would pick up my grandma from Koyasan Buddhist Temple.
When I first heard about building a gym in Little Tokyo, I thought it was such a great idea for the community. Events like the Chibi-K, Children's Day and Nisei Week brings kids to Little Tokyo, but only a few concentrated events each year. It seemed like a perfect way to bring young people and their parents to Little Tokyo on a regular basis. I imagined kids eating at restaurants like the Union Center Cafe after the game, stopping to buy manjuu or a snowcone from Fugetsudo and maybe even seeing a play at East West Players. It's what people talk about when they talk about revitalization and providing an economic base.
Recently, I've been following the progress of the Little Tokyo Gym Project, especially after learning a little more about all that the community has gone through in order to make the gym project happen. It seems like we're finally getting close to getting this project off the ground.
A few weeks ago, I attended a meeting of the Little Tokyo Community Development Advisory Commission (LTCDAC) with a friend. Architects from the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) unveiled plans and drawings for the proposed Central Avenue Arts Park. The park would be bounded by First Street, Central, Judge John Aiso and Temple, in front of MOCA (the same location where the gym was previously supposed to be located). We were surprised to learn that the park is targeted for completion by mid-2000.
At first glance, a park doesn't sound like a half bad idea. Some of the plans include a public programming space, the Veteran's Memorial, and a Japanese garden. But how badly do we need another Japanese garden in Little Tokyo? Where in the park can children play, and who is this park really for? In the meeting, several quality-of-life issues were raised such as parking, security, trash, excessive noise and lights (San Pedro Firm Building residents would have the park in their backyard).
As the meeting went on, I wondered why more people don't seem to know about this park and how it all came about. It seemed that the park idea has gone quietly forward, without asking for input or suggestions from the community -- including the residents and the local mom and pop shops who do business in Little Tokyo.
It kind of reminds me of the several times in recent history that Little Tokyo residents were treated as second-class citizens. In 1941, J.A.s were rounded up out of their lives and put into camp. In the 50s, Little Tokyo was chopped up to build Parker Center. Again in the 70s, Issei and Nisei residents were evicted from their hotels when the Sun and Alan Hotels were destroyed in the name of redevelopment. Today, a park is being planned without even asking the community what they think.
So, who is Little Tokyo for? Shouldn't it be for the people who live and work in Little Tokyo? Because the people who breathe, live, shop and have businesses in Little Tokyo have a stake in the community. And what about the kids? I look forward to the day when my kids get the chance to play basketball in Little Tokyo. Because young people can carry the legacy of Little Tokyo into the next millennium.
Jenni Emiko Kuida is co-author of the original "101 Ways to Tell You're Japanese American" and a member of NCRR/Seigi, formerly known as the Social Justice Committee.