Big, Bold Steps The San Pedro Firm Building: The Legacy of Judy Nishimoto Ota
this article, which tells some of the story of struggle of Little Tokyo LA, through the activities of one of its activists, Judy Nishimoto Ota, is reprinted with the permission of the author, Kathy Masaoka
“Sisters” (Excerpt from Eulogy, March 12, 2002)
We shared a great childhood in Boyle Heights.
Ballet lessons at the West Coast Tap and Ballet Studio.
Summers at Santa Monica or Long Beach with our dad
And French vanilla ice cream at Curry’s afterwards.
Coming home on the streetcar with our mom after shopping downtown.
Piano lessons with Mrs. Kono and the dreaded recitals at Tenrikyo Hall.
Performing skits for Adolf, our German neighbor who played the accordion.
Watching our mother give Mrs. Blosat permanents while Judy made fun of her accent.
She would call Judy “fresh.”
Judy was “fresh.” She took big, bold steps, sometimes falling but sometimes succeeding. The San Pedro Firm Building was one of those big, bold steps that succeeded.
Little Tokyo People’s Rights Organization: Seeds of Activism
Judy’s interest in community and in affordable housing began in the late 60’s as a member of the Asian American Social Workers and increased in the 1970’s as a member of the Little Tokyo People’s Rights Organization (LTPRO). She had been a social worker in East Los Angeles but felt there was another way to improve the lives of people. Wanting to challenge the system, Judy entered UCLA Law School under the affirmative action program, joining the less than 10 Asians in her class. As part of the redevelopment plan for Little Tokyo, the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) ordered the eviction of the residents of the Sun, Beacon, Narasaki and Matsushima Hotels, the tenants of the Sun Building and the small businesses in the Weller Street trangle to make way for the New Otani Hotel. Because of her Spanish language skills, Judy worked with the Latino families in the Sun Hotel. LTPRO was able to force the CRA to move up the timetable on the construction of the Tokyo Towers and Miyako Gardens. They pressured the CRA to open up the Old Union Church and Old Nishi for community and cultural groups, to provide rent-subsidies in Japanese Village Plaza for the small businesses and to relocation benefits for those displaced by future redevelopment, such as the Tomoye and New York Hotel residents.
When the tenants of the Alan Hotel and Annex and the Masago Hotel, along with the small businesses on Second Street, faced eviction in 1985, there was no LTPRO to respond. Many of the young people had moved on with their lives. There was only the Little Tokyo Service Center and a few who remembered the struggle of the 70’s. Judy was one of those people who did not forget and stepped forward. She had honed her legal skills working for the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles in the Housing Unit. Together with Fred Nakamura, another attorney from Legal Aid, she used these skills to help obtain a settlement for the tenants and the businesses before the buildings were demolished in 1986. A parking lot marks the spot today.
Saving the San Pedro Firm Building: Grassroots Campaign
If Mayor Bradley, the CRA, Councilman Gilbert Lindsay had had their way, the San Pedro Firm Building too would be an empty space, a walkway into the Civic Center expansion. Never mind that it housed people and businesses like Flora’s Barbershop, Toyo Miyatake, and a dentist and a beauty salon. Never mind the fact that hundreds of Issei, Nisei and even Sansei had learned to sew from Mrs. Chiyo Fujii of the Pacific Sewing School in the Firm Building and that 28 residents, 15 offices and four commercial storefronts had once called it home. Although it was included in the list of Historic Buildings, the city did not include it among the 13 sites, protected from future development. Only Old Union Church (set to house the East West Players) Old Nishi (slated to be the Japanese American National Museum), the Temporary Contemporary and some businesses along First were protected. In fact, the City of Los Angeles, the Firm Building’s owner and landlord since 1972, had such low regard for the building that it had let it deteriorate to an almost unlivable state. They did not expect the community to fight for this building.
Judy’s anger at the loss of affordable housing throughout the city and her desire to create more housing in Little Tokyo led her to join the Housing Advocates of the Little Tokyo Service Center. This committee included Dean Toji, Naomi Hirahara, Sandy Abe, Kathy Masaoka, Otis Ginoza, Garret Leech and others. They, along with the tenants, began a campaign to Save the San Pedro Firm Building (Firm Building). What followed was a five-year campaign of lobbying the Mayor and City Council, petition signing and community support that changed Judy’s career and the future of housing in Little Tokyo.
To make the Firm Building more livable, the San Pedro Firm Building Tenants Association, the LTSC Housing Committee and the Little Tokyo Tenants Association (residents of hotels in Little Tokyo and former residents of the Alan Hotel) sponsored a “Painting Day.” Supervised by skilled construction people from the Japanese American Contractors, who had plastered and prepped the walls, about 100 students, tenants and community people came out to paint the Firm Building on June 13, 1988. A determined group of UCLA students had mobilized student groups from different campuses. It was an amazing show of community support with funding provided by the Pacific Southwest District of the Japanese American Citizens League and manju from Fugetsudo.
Tenants, represented by Mr.and Mrs. Shimada and Mrs. Kazuko Nomura, along with committee members, visited City Council members who were sympathetic to housing issues and found Michael Woo and Hal Bernson supportive of the campaign. Although Lindsay cared very little about housing and even laughed at the community’s efforts, his aide Bob Gaye was extremely supportive. Persistence by the tenants and the community, last minute negotiations and an opportune moment in the City Council meeting led to a resolution that saved the San Pedro Firm Building in February 1987. Bob Gaye had slipped the resolution to Lindsay who, awoke from his slumber, came over to the supporters in the audience, spotted an attractive young woman among them, and then presented the motion. Judy played a pivotal role in the final version of the resolution that preserved low-income housing for the life of the San Pedro Firm Building.
As the tenants and community organized, they learned about other groups who were taking over buildings and renovating them. The idea that a community group or that tenants could own their own building had never occurred to anyone. It was an idea worth exploring. Instead of leaving the renovation to a developer, the decision was made to ask the city to sell the building to the LTSC and the Los Angeles Community Design Center who had experience in development. Judy left her job as an attorney and became the Housing Program Director for the LTSC. The LTSC and the LA Community Design Center became co-owners in December 1989 and began the $4 million renovation of the Firm Building in November 1990.
Little Tokyo Service Center Community Development Corporation: Coming Full Circle
Relocated during the renovation, Ms. Yoshiko Takai returned to the San Pedro Firm Building for the Grand Opening on October 7, 1991. When she saw her new apartment.she screamed with joy. Takai had come to the Firm Building in the 50’s when she had immigrated to the United States as a young woman and had learned to sew at the Pacific Sewing School in the building. She had never lived anywhere else, even taking cold showers for a year because there was no hot water. Takai, along with 41 others, now lives in the historic San Pedro Firm Building. More living units were created from the spaces once used as offices.
With a vision of more affordable housing and continued economic development, Judy advocated for a new direction in the work of the LTSC. A new direction called for a new organization called the Little Tokyo Service Center Community Development Corporation. It set up its first office on the bottom floor of the new Firm Building with about 3 staff member and Judy as the first Staff Director. When she left to return to legal work, she continued as the President of the LTSC CDC Board in 1993. Under her leadership, the Union Center for the Arts and Casa Heiwa were started. More importantly, she was willing to take that big, bold step and not afraid to fall. Even though she is not here today, Judy’s vision for Little Tokyo and memory of its history has been the basis for building more housing, retaining historic buildings and taking big, bold steps.
“She was strong, stubborn, ornery, forthright, committed, passionate and not always easy to get along with – and these are also the qualities that made her such a great advocate for those who needed help, and why she meant so much to those who knew and loved her.” – Bill Watanabe, Executive Director of the LTSC