To live downtown

New condos, such as the Little Tokyo Lofts on San Pedro Street, are drawing a diverse population to the neighborhood. (Alexander Gallardo / LAT / July 25, 2006)

Little Tokyo, considered by many outsiders only a destination for food and festivals, is also becoming a hot place to call home. The downtown housing boom has brought upscale condos, which are attracting affluent professionals, artists and seniors. The newcomers reflect the region's diversity, but the neighborhood's importance to the Japanese community shouldn't be underestimated.

Beginnings

Japanese immigrants began moving into the area, which was once a citrus grove, in the 1880s. They established restaurants, grocery stores, businesses and churches that welcomed those who spoke Japanese. By the start of World War II, the population had swelled to 30,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans in and around Little Tokyo, which occupied three square miles.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the U.S. declaration of war against Japan, President Roosevelt authorized the forced relocation of anyone of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast to internment camps. As the homes and businesses of Little Tokyo emptied, African Americans moved in — jazz great Charlie Parker once lived there — and the area became known as Bronzeville.

When the war ended, Japanese Americans returned. But many soon discovered suburbia and left the area. That exodus, coupled with 1960s community redevelopment, reduced Little Tokyo to its present-day four square blocks bounded by Los Angeles, Temple, Alameda and 3rd streets.



What it's about

Primarily a cultural and commercial district, Little Tokyo boasts restaurants, markets and shops that specialize in Japanese foods and products, but the neighborhood draws tourists and shoppers from all over.



For the last few years, Little Tokyo has been home to about 1,000 people, mostly Japanese American senior citizens. But the demographics are beginning to change and the population is swelling as the new condos lure whites, Latinos and a large number of Koreans to the buildings.

"Up until two years ago, most of the residents were senior and low income. Almost every new resident coming in now … can afford high-end rentals and high-end condos," said Bill Watanabe, director of the Little Tokyo Service Center.



Seven condo and apartment projects under development are expected to more than double the current population of about 1,500 in two years, he said.



Good news, bad news

Hovig Hovaguimian, a chef who owns a catering business, bought and moved into a two-bedroom, two-bathroom loft in the Savoy in April.

"I have been living in California for 30 years," said the former Glendale resident. "For the first time, I leave my home and walk to lunch or dinner."

John Kim and his wife, Annie, own a home near Fullerton, but they decided to buy a three-bedroom, two-bath condo in the Savoy because of its location on the corner of 1st and Alameda streets.

"I run a garment manufacturing business. It's very close to my business. I drive, but it's less than a mile away," Kim said. He also likes the shopping. "There is a market in very close walking distance, a lot of shops and restaurants."

One of the biggest concerns of business owners and residents is nearby skid row, with its crime problems and concentration of homeless people.

Some low-performing public schools also discourage many families who could afford the new housing, said Jim Perabo, an agent with Condosource, a boutique real estate brokerage firm that specializes in L.A. condos and lofts. He says the quality is being addressed, and three schools are under construction.

"When an urban area is revitalized, typically the first people to move in are younger singles and professionals. The families follow," Perabo said.



Insiders' view