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Preserving the Character of Little Tokyo

In the wake of rapid gentrification, an organization in Los Angeles is leveraging the arts to celebrate a community's rich heritage and keep social equity a priority.
January 30, 2017, 11am PST | Keli_NHI
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The corner of 1st Street and Central Avenue in Los Angeles' Little Tokyo neighborhood.

In an epic poem about “place and people and art in four parts,” traci kato-kiriyama, a multi-disciplinary artist and community organizer with deep roots in the Little Tokyo community, pays tribute to artists of Japanese descent who were imprisoned in American concentration camps during World War II. Their art was “created to survive the insanity of injustice, to thrive past the stench of forced silence,” writes kato-kiriyama, who is also a co-founder of Tuesday Night Project, which presents the longest running Asian-American open mic series in the country. Art was a lifeline not just for the individual artists, but for an entire community of people forcibly removed from their homes and neighborhoods and targeted for belonging to an ethnicity that was suddenly labeled as an “enemy.” Making art was a way to confront and resist the discrimination Japanese-Americans endured at the hands of their own government, a reassurance of humanity.  “Art—the lightning between the synapses, the conversation between hearts, the amplification of our history, why any good argument begins with [an] anecdote—this is the necessity of art, to help us draw from a different well when the ones we’ve always used have run dry,” kato-kiriyama writes.

Her reflection on the role of art comes at a critical time for the neighborhood. Throughout its 130-year history, Little Tokyo has pushed back against discrimination, the impact of wartime internment, and economic devastation. Today, it is one of only three Japantowns left in the United States. 

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Published on Monday, January 30, 2017 in Shelterforce/Rooflines
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