Gentrification and the White Spatial Imaginary: Notes from Little Tokyo in Lockdown

COVID-19 has created new challenges for community activism in Los Angeles. Jonathan Jae-an Crisman discusses gains and setbacks for Little Tokyo's anti-gentrification arts activists during the pandemic.
[Ed. note: this post is part of a dossier on “Lockdown Aesthetics and Gentrification.” For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

In cities around the world, the arts have a fraught relationship with urban change. In many places, like the neighborhood of Boyle Heights in Los Angeles, the arts are seen as an outside influence encroaching on the community’s sense of belonging. New blue chip galleries that have moved to the area from far flung global cities like New York and Paris are also seen as culprits for driving up housing prices and pushing longtime residents out of their homes. There is an implicit understanding of what Ian Moss has called the “Artist Colonization Process”: artists move in, generate cultural capital, and developers swoop in and capitalize on the appreciation of property values — pricing out those very same artists. While the reality of urban economics is more complicated, the potential for the arts to generate economic growth has been well established.

Yet at the same time, there are numerous places where the arts themselves are being used to fight gentrification. Much of my research focuses on the historic Japanese American neighborhood of Little Tokyo in Los Angeles — just across the LA River from Boyle Heights — and its long history of arts-based activism and community development. Today, under the auspices of a coalition called Sustainable Little Tokyo, community members are using the arts as a tool for community organizing and activism so that they can hold on to their place in the city.

How is it that two places, especially ones that are so close to one another and share such rich histories of immigrant urbanism and activism, would have such different attitudes toward the arts and gentrification today? In my chapter from Aesthetics of Gentrification, I argue that the particular aesthetics of the artistic practices used in either case has led to such dramatically different perspectives on the role of art in urban change. The commercial, blue chip galleries are more connected to a global circuit of modernist aesthetics based on solo studio practice artists who create object-based work meant for reception and appreciation by one viewer at a time. Even for artists who espouse politically progressive ideals, this aesthetics based in symbolic representation — celebrated by theorists such as Jacques Rancière — remains beholden to the “autonomous” space of the art world. In other words, as it creates urban space, it cannot escape what George Lipsitz called the “white spatial imaginary”: a spatial politics that despite its most aspirational symbolic qualities, is nevertheless one that is wedded to exclusivity and the exchange value of the work of art. What does it mean, for example, when even the most pointed critique of the art world — a banana duct-taped on a wall at an art festival (in an edition of three, no less) — sells for $120,000?

In Little Tokyo, on the other hand, the artistic practices used on the ground reflect what Grant Kester has described as an aesthetics based in the “noisy optimism of immediate action.” In fact, many of Little Tokyo’s practices do not look too dissimilar from the anti-gentrification activism found in Boyle Heights when considered through this lens. It is no coincidence that many of the activists in Boyle Heights are themselves artists. These individuals have a finely tuned sense for “cultural gentrification” — the spatial transformations that are not necessarily economic but symbolic in nature, making longtime residents feel as though they no longer belong.

But what has become of all of this “noisy optimism” during our pandemic times? The outlook is grim. Just before quarantine, Los Angeles was declared the least affordable city in the US, and then even as millions of people lost their jobs, housing prices continued to soar. Moreover, the collectivity that forms the central practice of the kind of anti-gentrification arts activism of Little Tokyo was hampered by an inability to engage in person. Activities continued in earnest through the now-ubiquitous world created through never-ending Zoom meetings, though this has had its own problems. A hallmark of arts-based activism is its ability to be life-giving in the face of the kind of political challenges that often lead conventional activists and organizers to easily burn out. Yet collectivity mediated through Zoom was draining precious mental health reserves.

The author at one of the Sustainable Little Tokyo Arts Action Committee meetings during lockdown. Image courtesy of the author.

Curiously, it was precisely during our daunting year-long marathon of lockdown when Sustainable Little Tokyo received extraordinary news: longtime community organizations Go For Broke National Education Center and Little Tokyo Service Center would receive an expanded long-term land lease on First Street North, one of the key city-owned parcels of land to develop critically needed institutional, cultural, and affordable housing spaces. This result was head spinning in how, according to community members, it felt like it occurred “overnight” with numerous meetings urgently held to come to consensus on important decisions. Yet, as I have theorized with Annette Kim on the transformation of spatial rights for street vendors in Los Angeles, such seemingly sudden changes may reach a tipping point based on apparent political expediency for leaders, yet they actually require a much longer period of organizing and activism that often goes less noticed. While the crisis of COVID-19 may have played a role in opening up a window of opportunity, the arts-based activism of Sustainable Little Tokyo had been laying the groundwork since 2013, and even long before that for numerous other organizations and actors in the community.

There were also two moments that stuck out in my mind where the kind of activism against cultural gentrification found in Boyle Heights made its way over to Little Tokyo. The first was when a brand called Mokuyobi opened up a space in Japanese Village Plaza at the center of the neighborhood. The shop made two grave errors, both demonstrations of the aesthetic regime that so infuriated community members in Boyle Heights and were now angering those in Little Tokyo. The white proprietors appropriated cultural symbols of Japanese heritage in their branding, from the name (a translation of the word “Thursday”) to what looks like Mount Fuji in its logo (though they insist that it is simply a generic mountain). They also moved into a space next door to a long-time Little Tokyo institution which recently had to vacate after being unable to sustain their business during the pandemic — a change that was interpreted by some as a slap in the face in the midst of a neighborhood that had long been struggling to rein in the forces of gentrification, recently made worse with lockdown.

Mokuyobi’s aesthetic and ethic regime, organized around exclusivity and exchange value rather than social and dialogical engagement, led to the community organization J-Town Action and Solidarity protesting the shop and demanding that they leave Little Tokyo. Befitting Little Tokyo’s long history of arts activism, this newly formed organization is not anti-art but rather explicitly made up of “culture workers dedicated to exploring, critiquing, and acting on the intersection of art, politics, and community care.” In another campaign, the group provides support to the unhoused residents of Little Tokyo who have been especially impacted by the pandemic, demonstrating a sensitivity to the creative potential at the intersection between spatial justice and cultural practice.

Members of J-Town Action and Solidarity on the streets of Little Tokyo. Image courtesy J-Town Action and Solidarity.

The second moment was one that unfolded digitally. David Schlosser, the co-owner and chef of the Michelin-rated Japanese restaurant Shibumi in Downtown Los Angeles, just a couple of blocks from Little Tokyo, posted a beautiful Instagram photo of his characteristic high-culture cuisine. Yet it was paired with a belittling photo description: “Sakura mochi, the most iconic dessert in Japan. Yet no Japanese restaurants are featuring it? So sad. Makes my life harder. It’s because these Japanese restaurants don’t understand, appreciate, or care about promoting what Japanese cuisine is all about.” Once again, an aesthetics associated with exclusivity and exchange value, one based in the visual symbolism of high-end dining, staked a claim over space and pushed others out, even if in this case it occurred virtually rather than physically — perhaps appropriate for our quarantined lives.

Schlosser’s comment demonstrated a grave misunderstanding of the global flows of culture found in immigrant urbanisms, instead treating even his own creation as merely the reproduction of some ideal “authentic” culture from a fictive imaginary of Japan. The century-long history of Japanese Americans was completely lost on Schlosser who, after sustaining withering online attacks, ultimately offered a weak apology, explaining that his “intense feelings overtook [his] words.”

For now, Little Tokyo continues to abide in spite of the staggering increases in unaffordability in Los Angeles. The aesthetics of gentrification within its boundaries have — mostly — been kept at bay. But this is only the case due to the engaged aesthetics that have been deeply embedded into its DNA, demonstrated most recently by the actions of J-Town Action and Solidarity. As lockdown in LA comes to an end, this arts activism will be urgently needed to continue to hold on to place — and this is especially true as the hard fought win of First Street North goes through the development process.

Community members in Little Tokyo have described the First Street North parcel’s development as “make or break” for the community, and while the pandemic has opened up a window of opportunity, a rapid “return to normal” could easily rush a delicate process. While everyone is looking forward to the joy of in-person activities, you would be hard pressed to find people who want to see the return of the worst of what had been normalized within Los Angeles: increasingly unaffordable housing, the disappearance of historic immigrant urbanisms, and the erosion of a sense of belonging for so many long-time residents. The pandemic has forced a needed re-evaluation of our values and assumptions about urban life, but it will be all too easy to snap back into a spatial imaginary dominated by exclusivity and exchange value — and an aesthetics of engagement is needed to prevent this from happening.

Correction: This article was updated to clarify that Mokuyobi does not claim that the mountain in their logo is Mount Fuji. Also, they moved into a vacant office space next to (rather than directly into) a recently shuttered long-time Little Tokyo shop.

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