At long last, Little Tokyo to get its gym

Times Staff Writer

If you build it, they will come.

The L.A. City Council's approval Tuesday of a long-awaited gymnasium in Little Tokyo has stoked those widespread hopes that the project will bring the scattered Japanese American community back to its historic heart, which is being rapidly transformed by a multicultural wave of new residents and businesses.

After 14 years of struggle, the council unanimously approved a memorandum of understanding to allow the Little Tokyo Service Center to build a four-court recreational center atop a city-owned parking facility slated for construction on Los Angeles Street near 2nd Street. The 35,000-square-foot center is expected to cost $15 million and take three to five years to complete.

To Japanese American community backers, the gym represents far more than a sports facility: It is a linchpin in their efforts to preserve Little Tokyo's cultural identity and economic vitality because it is seen as the most effective way to attract their youth back to the area.

That's because Japanese American basketball leagues, which were mainly established in the 1930s, are thriving today as a cultural phenomenon involving more than 10,000 youths and adults participating in year-round leagues and tournaments. The community also plays host to volleyball leagues with an estimated 3,000 players.

As Japanese American families have scattered and dispersed to the suburbs, the sports leagues are the primary way they continue to connect with one another and form what often become lifelong friendships.

"Basketball is more than a sport, it's a way of life in the Japanese American community," said Wesley Tanaka, a 58-year-old Torrance resident whose wife and daughter play in the leagues. "The gym is a huge deal. It will help revive Little Tokyo."

Tanaka himself is a case in point. As a child, he said, he used to visit Little Tokyo at least twice a month to visit his grandparents, who lived in the neighborhood. The family would dine on almond duck at Far East Cafe, buy Japanese pastries at Fugetsudo, enjoy the community's annual summer festival known as Nisei Week.

Today, however, Tanaka said he and his family almost never go to Little Tokyo. His grandparents are gone. His Torrance community has plenty of Japanese restaurants and shops. Why schlep all the way downtown?

"There is no longer a draw," he said.

But a gym, Tanaka said, will change that -- and in the process help boost the area's businesses with thousands of new visitors.

Bill Watanabe, the service center's executive director, said the gym could be used by 70,000 people a year for basketball, volleyball and martial arts and bring in millions of dollars in revenue. He said the broader community could also use the gym, possibly including Los Angeles police officers for their own basketball leagues.

Japanese American leaders first began promoting the idea of a Little Tokyo gym in the 1970s, according to Chris Komai of the Japanese American National Museum. His uncle, Akira Komai, started the Nisei Athletic Union in 1947 in large part because Japanese Americans were shunned by city leagues and rejected when trying to rent gyms for their games after World War II, he said.

The big breakthrough came in the 1970s, when the Japanese American Optimist Club persuaded the Los Angeles school district to rent its gyms for community ball, Komai said. Today the club's basketball league for girls is thriving, with 130 teams and 1,300 participants from second grade through high school, more than double the number a decade ago.

Leland Lau, the club's basketball commissioner, said the Little Tokyo gym would be a godsend because gym space is increasingly difficult to acquire as schools expand their own basketball and volleyball programs.

Landing the site, however, took Watanabe and gym supporters 14 years, surveys of nearly 20 other locations and unsuccessful offers on four of them. Watanabe began pursuing the project in 1994 after participants in a community conference and focus groups on Little Tokyo's future agreed that a gym was the best way to attract Japanese American youths back to the area.

That goal is even more crucial today, community leaders say, because a new wave of multicultural residents and businesses -- including frozen yogurt shops, office supply stores and national chain restaurants such as Johnny Rockets and Subway -- are reshaping the neighborhood.

The changes are welcomed for bringing diversity and new life to the area, but they also fan concern about how to preserve Little Tokyo's historic cultural identity.

Despite consensus on the need for a gym, however, disagreements broke out over its location. In one of the most contentious splits, the community's national museum, war veterans and theater group opposed a plan favored by the Little Tokyo Service Center to place the facility near Temple and San Pedro streets.

It was City Councilwoman Jan Perry who broke the deadlock after she was elected in 2001 by proposing the current site. On Tuesday, after the council unanimously approved the plan, Perry burst out: "Finally! My God!"

Watanabe said the pact gives him the green light to begin raising money for the project. Despite the weak economy, he said, the community cannot afford not to support the gym.

"If people never come to Little Tokyo, we'll lose a whole generation of people who have no connection to their history and heritage," Watanabe said. "The rec center is our best shot at changing that."


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