Open Forum Commentary: By Bill Watanabe.

Young residents of Little Tokyo show their support for a rec center.
VOX POPULI by Bill Watanabe

The battlelines for debate are drawn and are clear—does Little Tokyo need an Art Park (with no gym on it) or would Little Tokyo better be served by a smaller Art Park with a multi-court gymnasium on it?
The Public Hearing called by Councilmember Jan Perry which took place on June 20, 2002 at the Japan America The-ater turned out 500 enthusiastic supporters of the Little To-kyo gymnasium project and about 50-75 persons who were opposed also were there.

The reasons why Little Tokyo needs a gymnasium and not just an Art Park are pretty evident—there is simply nothing in Little Tokyo that would regularly draw young people and families to come here. As presented in the Public Hearing, a gymnasium would draw thousands of youth, families and visitors annually to come to the gym for basketball, volleyball, martial arts, tournaments and special events. It would provide a home for the Koreisha Chushoku Kai, the senior lunch program and for many other community programs. Many of these are folks who might otherwise never come to

J-Town and who would frequent the local stores, restaurants, muse-ums and the Go For Broke Veterans Monument. Many of these are Nikkei who are actively involved in sports, and want a facility they can use and support which helps maintain the cultural heritage of Little Tokyo.

The Art Park proposed by JANM and MOCA would prob-ably help beautify Little Tokyo and perhaps provide a nice space for lunch. However, the JACCC Plaza, beautifully designed by the world-famous artist Isamu Noguchi, usually sits empty most of the time except for the occasional walk-weary visitor or a few transients. As much as I support the JACCC and appreciate the plaza, it still, makes me wonder what the place would have been like if Isamu Noguchi had not, in 1973, eliminated the gym in favor of a larger plaza.

The model of the proposed Art Park concept came out very recently and is now on display at JANM. However, despite strong input by advocates to include the gym on the site, the model contains no gymnasium and essentially is replaced by a bus loading zone! The process for the Art Park design is terribly flawed; when members of the community pressured MOCA/JANM to expand the art Park Steering committee to include more community people and property stakeholders in the oversight process, they finally agreed in the sum-mer of 2000 to increase the number of Steering Committee members. NO MEETINGS OF THE ART PARK STEER-ING COMMITEE WAS EVER CALLED!! And yet, with-out any open discussion, the Art Park Masterplan and model was unveiled by MOCA/JANM! Nearly $300,000 in public City funds for this design process have been expended with-out any meetings or Public oversight for the past two years!

Regardless of this sham of a process the real point of contention is should the Art Park open space be 3.5 acres (with-out the gym) or should it be 2.5 acres but accommodating the gym? A 2.5 acre Art Park is still plenty big to create open spaces and parking and pretty trees. However, at this time, JANM/MOCA and the Veterans Monument group are unwill-ing to compromise thus creating an atmosphere of division and contention in the Japanese American community. Many are calling upon civic and community leaders to exhibit an attitude of cooperation and compromise, which the leadership of the gymnasium project is willing to. Perhaps Then, all the proposed projects on the block can move ahead in unity.

The voices of the hundreds at the Public Hearing, the peti-tion by handprints of 2,500 people, the endorsements of over 120 community groups are all loud and clear—Little Tokyo needs a gymnasium, not JUST an Art Park. How do you feel?

Bill Watanabe is the executive director of the Little Tokyo Service Center.
Article reprinted from the Rafu Shimpo newpaper.