The disputed property at 800 Traction Ave. in Los Angeles’ Arts District. (JUNKO YOSHIDA/Rafu Shimpo)
The Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission will again hear testimony about the status of the 800 Traction Ave. building on Thursday, Dec. 7, from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. in Room 1010 at City Hall, 200 Spring St., Los Angeles.
At issue is the impending eviction of artists, some of whom have lived at the building for decades, by the new owner, DLJ Real Estate Capital Partners. Members of the Arts District and Little Tokyo communities have been resisting the evictions for the past four months.
According to the 800 Traction Ave. Support Committee, “They have contributed to the prosperity of the Arts District and the cultural life of Little Tokyo for years … The owners want to kick them out and turn a profit.
“DLJ applied for ‘cultural historic monument’ status for 800 Traction, once a famous coffee and spice factory, so they can get millions in tax breaks once the tenants are gone. It is one of the first artist-in-residence buildings remaining in today’s Arts District.
“On Oct. 5, the L.A. City Cultural Heritage Commission told DLJ to work with the community to gather the history of Japanese American artists/residents of the building in response to the community who protested DLJ’s omission [of that information in its initial application].
“DLJ must resubmit its application on Dec. 7 with any new information. However, DLJ has sent its position in advance.”
In a memo submitted to the Los Angeles Office of Historic Resources, Teresa Grimes and Emily Rinaldi of GPA Consulting, which was hired by DLJ, stated, “GPA did not find any information supporting the assertions that Japanese Americans were strongly associated with the Joannes Brothers Company, that Japanese American artists were strongly associated with 800 Traction Ave., or that 800 Traction Ave. was the first building Downtown to be adaptively rescued for artist-in-residence lofts.”
Grimes and Rinaldi said that GPA performed the following tasks:
• “Met with Dorothy Wong and David Monkawa on Oct. 25, 2017 to discuss the possible cultural significance of the property with regard to Japanese Americans. Ms. Wong responded with an email to GPA on Nov. 2, 2017 with suggested secondary sources on the life and work of Matsumi Kanemitsu and attached an article on Kanemitsu by Tom Nagano. Ms. Wong also noted in her letter that she was not able to obtain any information related to the Japanese American noted in her letter to the CHC dated Sept. 29, 2017 who supposedly worked for the Joannes Brother Company.”
•“Met with George and Bunny Rollins, the former owners of the property, on Oct. 31, 2017 to discuss the history of the building under their ownership.”
• “Reviewed existing information on the later history of the property, the history of the Arts District and whether the property was the first Downtown artist-in-residence loft building, as well as the property’s possible connection to Japanese-American history. GPA reviewed building permits, certificate of occupancies, oral histories, newspaper articles, websites, and other secondary source materials. Few primary and scholarly sources exist that document the development of the Arts District. The majority of information on the development of the Arts District is found in oral histories with artists who lived Downtown in the 1970s and early 1980s and from secondary sources, such as a master’s thesis, websites, and newspaper articles.”
• “Emailed or mailed letters to all the groups and individuals who submitted letters to the CHC by the Oct. 5, 2017 CHC meeting, soliciting information related to the property from interested parties. No responses were received with information or materials related to the property from any groups or individuals beside that from Ms. Wong as noted above.”
Among GPA’s findings:
• “GPA did not find Japanese Americans and Japanese American artists to be strongly associated with 800 Traction Ave. There were no Japanese American artists among the first tenants to move into the building in 1979. The first Japanese American artist to move into 800 Traction Ave. was Matsumi (Mike) Kanemitsu in 1986. He lived there until his death in 1992. He is the only known Japanese American artist to live and work in the building until Nancy Uyemura moved into the same unit as a full-time resident sometime between 1986 and 1992. Japanese American artist Jaimee Itagaki is the next known Japanese American artist to move into the building beginning sometime in the early 1990s. Of the nine units leased to tenants in the building, only three Japanese American artists are known to currently live in the building: Nancy Uyemura, Jaimee Itagaki, and Bruce Yonemoto, who moved into the building in 1999.”
• “Kanemitsu may or may not be considered an historic personage under Criteria 2 of the Cultural Heritage Ordinance. Even if he were considered an historic personage, his association with 800 Traction alone is not justification for this property’s designation as an HCM [Historic-Cultural Monument]. Kanemitsu (b. 1930–d. 1992) only lived in the building from 1986 to 1992, during the last six years of his life. His contributions to the cultural history of Los Angeles and the Japanese American community would be better reflected by a building more closely associated with his productive life.”
• “GPA did not find information indicating that 800 Traction Ave. was the first building in Downtown to be adaptively reused for artists’ lofts. The first building Downtown found in GPA’s research to be occupied by an artist and used as an artist live/work space prior to the 1981 Artist-in-Residence Ordinance (AIR) was 212 S. Los Angeles beginning in 1974. Other early examples of Downtown buildings with artist live/work spaces are listed in Table 1, including 607 E. 3rd St., where former owner of 800 Traction Ave. George Rollins lived beginning in 1975 prior to purchasing 800 Traction Avenue in November 1978.”
• “GPA did not find information indicating that 800 Traction Ave. was the first building Downtown to receive a Certificate of Occupancy under the 1981 AIR. The first building Downtown found in GPA’s research to receive a Certificate of Occupancy under the AIR was 3 1800 E. Industrial St. in 1984. 800 Traction Ave. received a Certificate of Occupancy under the AIR in 1987. Furthermore, the AIR did not set the trend for the relocation of artists to Downtown; rather, it legalized a trend that had developed organically due to the rapid increase in the availability of large spaces with low rents in the Downtown area in the 1970s and early 1980s.”
• “Artists began moving to the Arts District beginning in the mid-1970s, but by the mid-1990s, this movement had begun to taper off due to rising rents, a decline in Downtown investment, the rising homeless populations, and social unrest. The period best associated then with the movement of artists to the Arts District is the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s. This approximately 20-year period of development associated with the Arts District represents a very recent period in Los Angeles’ history. Buildings associated with periods in recent history are generally not evaluated and designated as HCMs because enough time has not passed in which to develop a historical perspective and to evaluate significance. There are few primary sources publicly available that document the development of the Arts District during this approximately 20-year period. There is also no scholarly research available in which to develop a historic context for the Arts District and in which to understand 800 Traction Avenue’s specific role in that context.”
• ‘The Arts District is also too narrow a topic on its own to be considered a historic context in which to evaluate and designate buildings. Buildings in this area during the period artists occupied buildings in the Arts District also continued to be occupied by industrial and commercial businesses. Therefore, buildings in this area during the mid-1970s to mid-1990s continue to be associated with industrial development in Los Angeles rather than exclusively with the Arts District. Additionally, the Arts District was not the only artist community in Los Angeles during this period. Artists lived throughout Downtown Los Angeles, including in the Downtown historic core and Little Tokyo, as well as continued to live and work in great numbers in other areas of Los Angeles, such as Venice and Hollywood.”
Supporters of the artists at 800 Traction Ave. hold placards detailing the history of Little Tokyo and the Arts District during the L.A. Cultural Heritage Commission meeting. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)
Taiji Miyagawa of the 800 Traction Support Committee responded, “We do not want ‘Historic-Cultural’ status and subsequent, massive Mills Act tax write-offs to be granted to DLJ Real Estate Capital Partners at the expense of erasing the history of Japanese American and other artists in the building. Their contributions to Little Tokyo and the advent of The Arts District itself have been significant and verifiable by both physical evidence and credible witness testimony …
“We do not feel that GPA did the research required to complete this task properly and they ignored requests and suggestions made by community representatives for how to do so. In their recently submitted 12-page memo, they identify historical facts, but sanitize them by failing to mention context or social cultural impact of work and activity originating at 800 Traction Ave. They did not even interview any of the longtime resident artists still living in the building. They did not contact Rafu Shimpo.
“They focus on refuting that 800 Traction Ave. was the first designated artist-in-residence building but fail to attest to its important role in creating the Arts District as ONE OF THE FIRST buildings to receive such designation. In my opinion, they are willfully trying to disassociate themselves from the historical fact that they are now the antagonists who are bringing the rich history of Japanese American and artists in the building to an end via evictions.”
The committee said in a statement, “Imagine that Miles Hamada never created any of his silk-screened community event posters and T-shirts over the past 40+ years. Imagine that Miles hadn’t taught the thousands of people Japanese folk dancing over the years. Imagine that none of Nancy Uyemura’s public artworks were created (e.g. Casa Heiwa entry, or paintings in the Little Tokyo Library and ‘art boxes’ of Little Tokyo walkways.
“Imagine Bruce Yonemoto never having installation exhibits at JANM or JACCC (or getting the JA story into high-end art galleries around the world), or that Jaimee Itagaki’s photography of prominent Asian and Asian American entertainers (Tamlyn Tomita, John Cho, Jackie Chan, Amy Hill, the band Hiroshima, etc.) never happened or her contributions for the historical record, such as Visual Communications’ publication ‘100 Years of Little Tokyo’ or various Nisei Week Festival publications …
“The late Matsumi ‘Mike’ Kanemitsu’s archives live at 800 Traction, surviving his tenure there in the ’80s. He was a teacher to an entire generation of students and his stature as an artist, a respected peer to the likes of Jackson Pollack and Willem de Kooning, continues to grow. He, along with famed Chicano printmaker Richard Duardo, are part of the legacy of three generations of printmaking that has happened out of the building. The artistic works produced mostly out of 800 Traction Ave. are inseparable from the history of the Japanese American community and the larger artistic community of not only Los Angeles, but internationally as well.”
Miyagawa added, “We do not think it is morally or ethically proper to arbitrarily characterize that the history of the building prior to 1980 is more significant than the human history of the building for the past 37 years. In fact, the documentation we have of this activity, including that of Japanese American artists, is far more broad and extensive than anything that GPA Consulting has come up with to defend their arguments to dismiss this history.
“Frankly, for them to state … ‘GPA did not find Japanese Americans and Japanese American artists to be strongly associated with 800 Traction Ave.’ is ludicrous. They also fail to mention the many Japanese American and Japanese artists who have lived there in the past and exhibited in shows held at Gallery IV, which was an exhibition space in the building on the fourth floor … They completely ignore Miles Hamada, possibly the most highly visible and prolific community artist of them all.”