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An Artist’s View of a Changing Neighborhood

Nancy Uyemura poses in front of her residence in Downtown L.A.’s Arts District, adjacent to Little Tokyo. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

By MATTHEW ORMSETH, Rafu Contributor

When Nancy Uyemura looks out the window of her Arts District loft onto the street below, she sees nothing but change. The small galleries, bars and cafés of 30 years ago have been replaced by bistros that hawk artisanal sausage and black truffle ice cream. There are dogs now, parents pushing strollers, vans of college kids on craft beer tours. And Lamborghinis.

“I have to be very careful when I come out of our parking area, because if I’m not careful I’ll hit a bicycle or a Lamborghini,” she said. “And that’s shocking to me, because we used to have to worry about hitting a homeless person.”

When Uyemura moved into her loft in the ’80s, the Arts District was home to a small community of artists drawn to the area by the promise of cheap rent and ample space. A 1981 city ordinance allowed artists to convert the area’s warehouses and depots — remnants of its industrial past — into lofts and galleries.

Uyemura has lived in the same building for over 30 years, an old warehouse that held spices and tea for Ben-Hur Products and later desks for the Angeles Desk Company. The building was designed by John Parkinson, who also designed City Hall, Union Station and the Coliseum.

The industrial landscape was “desolate,” she remembered, but crime stayed surprisingly low.

“The bad guys didn’t come down here because there really wasn’t anything to take,” she said.

Still, the neighborhood’s character was gritty, the makeshift housing Spartan. When Uyemura moved into the old warehouse with fellow artist Matsumi Kanemitsu, the two had to install the plumbing themselves.

“There wasn’t a lot of creature comfort,” she said.

But the lack of amenities kept the rent low, and if you were willing to put up with the neighborhood’s grit, you could afford to live there.

In time, it wasn’t just the cheap rent that drew artists to the area, she said. A true artistic community emerged in the neighborhood, supported by groups like the Los Angeles River Artists and Business Association (LARABA) and Friends of Little Tokyo Arts (FOLTA), which helped young artists showcase their work. There were small cafés where artists could meet and talk, and there was Al’s Bar, a local dive where bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sonic Youth and Nirvana took the stage in their pre-stardom days.

Eventually, the Arts District began drawing artists away from pricier New York and Chicago, Uyemura said.

And then the gentrification began.

It started slowly, she remembered. A few upscale restaurants cropped up, then a sushi bar with furniture designed by Frank Gehry.

But it wasn’t until 10 years ago that it really took off, she said.

“Money came in” — big financial players “who saw that there were still vacant buildings and empty lots down here, and that it was prime to blossom.”

Massive developments like the $150 million One Santa Fe apartment complex shot up; new galleries opened, including an outpost of Swiss art house Hauser Wirth in an old flour mill. A wealthier crowd moved in, and a line of posh bistros sprang up to cater to their tastes.

With this influx of wealthy tenants came an exodus of old-timers.

Many of Uyemura’s old neighbors have been priced out; they’ve moved to San Bernardino, the mountains, the desert, she said. “You have to have a lot of money to live down here.”

Her own building was put up for sale two years ago.

If it’s sold, the current owners have insisted tenants be given a few months to figure out a new living situation. But Uyemura wonders if there’d ever be enough time to find a place like the one she has now.

“Where would I go?” she said. “The rents in L.A. are astronomical. Where can I find this space for not a lot of money?”

Her loft’s proximity to Little Tokyo has allowed her to stay connected to her heritage, and she’s worked on several public artworks for the Japanese American community.

“I’ve got one foot in Little Tokyo — the JA community — and one foot in the Arts District,” she said.

She designed the entryway to the Casa Heiwa public housing project and painted two murals in the Little Tokyo Library. She’s currently working on a memorial to Sue Kunitomi Embrey, an activist and long-time organizer of the Manzanar pilgrimage, in the Japanese Village Plaza.

“[Embrey] is important to the community on a social-political level,” said Uyemura, who wants to create “something beautiful, something memorable” for a woman she greatly admired. But she feels “stuck” on the project, she said, given the uncertainty of today’s politics and the uncertainty of her own living situation.

“Because she’s a woman, because she’s Japanese American, because of the political climate right now, it’s taken on a deeper importance to me. And maybe that’s why I’m getting afraid,” she said.

For the past two years, she’s lived in limbo, wondering if her landlords found a buyer, watching her friends trickle out of the neighborhood one by one.

In the 30 years she’s lived in her building, she’s always felt at home. “I know all my neighbors — upstairs, downstairs, next door,” she said. “We’ve become our little community. We look out for each other.”

She always believed there was something special about the community she found when she first came to the Arts District — the galleries, the cafés, the vast, vacant warehouses that beckoned to young artists willing to live without plumbing, without heat or AC, if it meant they could live among other artists. It’s difficult for her to accept it all could be swept away so easily.

“Maybe what I believed all those years is not going to fly right now. Or maybe it was a very narrow way of looking at things,” she said. “Maybe my universe was too small.”

She called the area’s evolution “an aging process,” a process she sees everywhere — in the Arts District, in Los Angeles, in her own life.  “You have to sit back and take a breath and say, ‘Okay — what is this? How do I fit into this new flow?’”

Uyemura estimates she has a year or two left in the building, but she knows it’s only a matter of time before it’s sold. Tech and music heavyweights are moving in, and Warner Music announced in October it would move its headquarters from Burbank to an old automobile plant on Santa Fe.

Nostalgia beckons, but she tries to resist its call. “You have to be open to change, and not hang on to the old stuff,” she said. “Because otherwise it just hurts your heart.”

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