The Rip Post




Big Trouble in Little Tokyo
(July 23, 2003)

        Look, I don't know about you, but when I think of Buddhism, the first thing I think of is jail. Nothing evokes thoughts of incarceration and punishment more than a religion that espouses humility, civility, and understanding.
        Chocolate, incidentally, fills me with anguish. Flowers  flood my soul with despair. I plug my ears when I hear songbirds.
        Okay, not really, but this would perhaps be the case if I were a member of the L.A. City Council. These must be particularly perverse public servants, badly in need of therapy, Paxil, or possibly a nice course in origami.
        What else can you say about people who would stick an $80 million, 500-bed jail right next to the grandest and oldest Buddhist temple in downtown? What's more, right next to the temple's Day Care Center? Does the Council feel that Buddhism isn't enough; that Japanese-American kiddies need the specter of prison to inspire them to a life of goodness?


        Yes, folks, Los Angeles---the city that brought you the Great Beige Cathedral and the Silver Stunt (a.k.a. Disney Hall)---wants to plunk a gray blockbuster prison on First Street in Little Tokyo. Right smack between the handsome new Japanese American National Museum and the beatific Hompa Hongwanji Temple, which turns 100 in 2005. Right smack in the middle of the loveliest, cleanest, happiest part of downtown: Little Tokyo.
        Right smack in the face of the Japanese-American community.
        It's all part of a new $200-$300 million police HQ complex that will also include such lyrical things as a bomb squad facility.    
        Hey, why not? After all, there is a rich L.A. civic tradition of taking advantage of Japanese-Americans, especially on behalf of law enforcement expansion. Consider: when the Civic Center built eastward in 1948, a piece of Little Tokyo was "acquired" (read: filched) in order to build---you guessed it---a new police HQ! Right, the city razed two blocks of rich L.A. history and elbowed aside 1000 Japanese-Americans (who had just relocated after a few years relocating in WWII "relocation" camps) in order to build. . .Parker Center.
        Without so much as an arigato.
        And there is also the rich L.A. tradition of specifically taking advantage of the Hompa Hongwanji Temple. In the early '50s, the city grabbed most of the north block of First Street for city and county expansion. Guess which building was among the condemned? Yes, the original temple, which was heroically saved by its members, who later built the grand new structure in a largely abandoned outskirts near the First Street bridge---you know, far removed from downtown, where no one would ever disturb it again (heh, heh.)
        Yes, even the temple has been um, relocated.
        And then, of course, there is the proud history of exclusion laws, which forbade Asian-Americans (and all minorities) from owning property except in certain parts of town where white folk didn't want to live.
         And then, of course, there is the proud history of rounding up all the Japanese-American families of southern California---who were about as alien as apple pie---and shuffling them off to wooden shacks in various middles-of-nowhere during WWII. Stealing their land and homes in the process. Well, sure, some of them, or their sons and daughters, prodded Reagan to drop a few grand as "compensation" decades later. Oh, that made it all better.
        Yes, a great big jail is just what the L.A. Japanese-American community needs---a nice, large reminder of. . .incarceration!
        Maybe the Southern California Gas Company should open a headquarters next to the Museum of Tolerance. How about a bedsheet factory next door to the First A.M.E. church?
        All of this just sadly underscores an old axiom of mine: government can almost always be counted on to do exactly the wrong thing at all times.
        The huge vacant lot at First and Alameda--- including a parking area vital to the temple's annual 150 funerals, 30 weddings, 1,200 memorial services, innumerable community/youth events and several cultural festivals---was originally earmarked for a mixed-use development of housing, hotel, offices, and retail. When plans fell through, the city snapped it up for $43 million.
       The prison/law enforcement project was revealed just three months ago, and a City Council vote will come in the next couple of weeks. Meanwhile, Councilwoman Jan Perry, whose district includes Little Tokyo, will host a day-long workshop July 26 to get community input.
        Community input? Baka! Jan, listen: Little Tokyo wants this thing like Ketchup on sushi. Aren't you paying attention? The temple gathered thousands of signatures on petitions opposing the jail, and Little Tokyo Community Council, which includes just about every single business there---from the Rafu Shimpo newspaper to the Miyako Hotel---wrote a letter to the mayor (who rode in last year's Nisei Week parade) expressing "strong opposition."
        What's more, Hompa Hongwanji Rinban (cardinal) George Matsubayashi recently told Downtown News how much he dreads existing beside a parade of fire engines, helicopters, police sirens, and released (or escaped) prisoners. A member of his congregation, not incidentally, was stabbed in the heart with an ice pick by a prisoner cut loose from Parker Center.
        Jan, have you and your fellow Councilmen/ women forgotten that Little Tokyo is not a quaint tourist stop? Not just a place where you can ride in its Nisei Week parade every year? That it is a thriving community? That it is a major part of Los Angeles history? That thousands of elderly citizens reside there, along with a healthy sized artist contingent? Has the City Council forgotten the Japan American Cultural and Community Center? The Japan America Theater, the museum? The East-West Players Playhouse, the senior housing complexes, myriad restaurants, malls, foot traffic, restored and revitalized main drag on First Street. . .The acute paranoia about losing business because of crackheads spilling over from Skid Row?
        You know what Buddhism's description of hell is? Jail!
        Either will do for anyone who votes in favor of this project.
        I'm not one to play the race card; I generally abhor it. But I have to wonder about a city that would even consider putting something so grim and utilitarian in a place as vivacious and family-oriented (and revenue-generating) as Little Tokyo. I have to wonder if there was some notion that these nice, acquiescent, smiling Asiatic folk with their peaceful little temples wouldn't make a fuss over a great big penal complex in their midst. I have to wonder about stereotype here.
        Doubt it? Then ask yourself this question: do you think a jail or police headquarters would stand a chance of being built next to the new, rich-white-man-backed Great Beige Cathedral?

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