by RIP RENSE
Big Trouble in
(July 23, 2003)
Look, I don't know
about you, but when I think of Buddhism, the first thing I think of is jail. Nothing
evokes thoughts of incarceration and punishment more than a religion that espouses
civility, and understanding.
Chocolate, incidentally, fills me with
anguish. Flowers flood my soul with despair. I plug my ears when I hear songbirds.
Okay, not really, but this would
perhaps be the case if I were a member of the L.A. City Council. These must
be particularly perverse public servants, badly in need of therapy, Paxil, or possibly a nice course in origami.
What else can you say about
people who would stick an $80 million, 500-bed jail right next to the grandest and oldest
Buddhist temple in downtown? What's more, right next to the temple's Day Care Center? Does the
Council feel that Buddhism isn't enough; that Japanese-American kiddies need the specter
of prison to inspire them to a life of goodness?
Yes, folks, Los
Angeles---the city that brought you the Great Beige Cathedral and the Silver Stunt (a.k.a. Disney Hall)---wants to plunk a gray blockbuster prison on First Street in
Little Tokyo. Right smack between the handsome new Japanese American National Museum and
the beatific Hompa Hongwanji Temple, which turns 100 in 2005. Right smack in the middle of
the loveliest, cleanest, happiest part of downtown: Little Tokyo.
Right smack in the face of the Japanese-American community.
It's all part of a new $200-$300 million police
HQ complex that will also include such lyrical things as a bomb squad facility.
Hey, why not? After all, there
is a rich L.A. civic tradition of taking advantage of Japanese-Americans, especially on
behalf of law enforcement expansion. Consider: when the Civic Center built eastward in 1948, a piece of Little
Tokyo was "acquired" (read: filched) in order to build---you guessed it---a new
police HQ! Right, the city razed two blocks of rich L.A. history and elbowed aside 1000
Japanese-Americans (who had just relocated after a few years relocating in WWII
"relocation" camps) in order to build. . .Parker Center.
Without so much as an arigato.
And there is also the rich L.A. tradition of
specifically taking advantage of the Hompa Hongwanji Temple. In the early '50s, the city grabbed most
of the north block of First Street for city and county expansion. Guess which building was
among the condemned? Yes, the original temple, which was heroically saved by its members,
who later built the grand new structure in a largely abandoned outskirts near the First
Street bridge---you know, far removed from downtown, where no one would ever
disturb it again (heh, heh.)
Yes, even the temple has been um, relocated.
then, of course, there is the
proud history of exclusion laws, which forbade Asian-Americans (and all
minorities) from owning property except in certain parts of town where white
folk didn't want to live.
And then, of course,
there is the proud history of rounding up all the Japanese-American families
of southern California---who were about as alien as apple pie---and
shuffling them off to wooden shacks in various middles-of-nowhere during
WWII. Stealing their land and homes in the process. Well, sure, some of
them, or their sons and daughters, prodded Reagan to drop a few grand as
"compensation" decades later. Oh, that made it all better.
Yes, a great big jail is just
what the L.A. Japanese-American community needs---a nice, large reminder of. .
Maybe the Southern California Gas Company
should open a headquarters next to the Museum of Tolerance. How about a bedsheet factory
next door to the First A.M.E. church?
All of this just sadly underscores an old
axiom of mine: government can almost always be counted on to do exactly the wrong
thing at all times.
The huge vacant lot at First and Alameda---
including a parking area vital to the temple's annual 150 funerals, 30 weddings, 1,200
memorial services, innumerable community/youth events and several cultural festivals---was
originally earmarked for a mixed-use development of housing, hotel, offices, and retail.
When plans fell through, the city snapped it up for $43 million.
The prison/law enforcement project
was revealed just three months ago, and a City Council vote will come in the next couple
of weeks. Meanwhile, Councilwoman Jan Perry, whose district includes Little Tokyo, will
host a day-long workshop July 26 to get community input.
Community input? Baka! Jan, listen:
Little Tokyo wants this thing like Ketchup on sushi. Aren't you paying attention? The
temple gathered thousands of signatures on petitions opposing the jail, and Little Tokyo
Community Council, which includes just about every single business there---from the Rafu
Shimpo newspaper to the Miyako Hotel---wrote a letter to the mayor (who rode in last
year's Nisei Week parade) expressing "strong opposition."
What's more, Hompa Hongwanji Rinban (cardinal)
George Matsubayashi recently told Downtown News how much he dreads existing
beside a parade of fire engines, helicopters, police sirens, and released
(or escaped) prisoners. A member of his congregation, not incidentally, was stabbed in the heart with
an ice pick by a prisoner cut loose from Parker Center.
Jan, have you and your fellow
Councilmen/ women forgotten that Little Tokyo is not a quaint tourist stop? Not just a
place where you can ride in its Nisei Week parade every year? That it is a thriving
community? That it is a major part of Los Angeles history? That thousands of elderly
citizens reside there, along with a healthy sized artist contingent? Has the City Council
forgotten the Japan American Cultural and Community Center? The Japan America Theater, the
museum? The East-West Players Playhouse, the senior housing complexes, myriad restaurants,
malls, foot traffic, restored and revitalized main drag on First Street. . .The acute
paranoia about losing business because of crackheads spilling over from Skid
You know what Buddhism's description of hell
Either will do for anyone who votes in favor of
I'm not one to play the race
card; I generally abhor it. But I have to wonder about a city that would even consider
putting something so grim and utilitarian in a place as vivacious and family-oriented (and
revenue-generating) as Little Tokyo. I have to wonder if there was some notion that these nice,
acquiescent, smiling Asiatic folk with their peaceful little temples
wouldn't make a fuss over a great big penal complex in their midst. I have to wonder about
Doubt it? Then ask yourself this question: do
you think a jail or police headquarters would stand a chance of being built next to the
new, rich-white-man-backed Great Beige Cathedral?
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