For most of the 20th century, the hotels, boarding houses, and apartment blocks along the single block of Weller Street housed hundreds of Little Tokyo’s down and out. During the interwar years, the Salvation Army maintained its primary hotel for poor industrial workers at 127 Weller Street, visible on the left of the top photograph. After waves of Japanese families began returning to Los Angeles from interment camps after the war, many of the old buildings served as homes for those needing temporary lodging, and eventually, for those with nowhere else to go.
Since then, urban renewal and redevelopment have all but destroyed any testament to that history. All that has been preserved of old Weller Street is a single 3-story building at the intersection with First Street. Most buildings on the east (right) side of the street were destroyed in 1965 during the construction of the 16-story Kajima Building, the neighborhood’s first commercial skyscraper. The handful that remain, with their upper stories removed, bear little semblance to their former selves.
The 1970s became a contentious time in Little Tokyo as the neighborhood became one of the Community Redevelopment Agency’s target areas, greatly accelerating the pace and scale of its transformation. With the assistance of the CRA, the East West Development Corporation (headquartered in the Kajima Building, no less) sought to fully rebuild the triangular lot bounded by Weller, Los Angeles, and Second Streets. After a portion of the block was demolished in 1974 for the construction of a 21-story luxury hotel (now the Kyoto Grand), its groundbreaking was picketed by demonstrators protesting the destruction of the area’s increasingly scarce housing. When eviction notices were sent to an additional 124 Weller Street households two years later, an activist group named the Little Tokyo People’s Rights Organization waged an 11-month protest against the CRA and City Council, culminating in a 3-week sit-in in one building slated for demolition.
Ultimately, the west side of Weller Street was fully demolished in 1977, replaced by an 88,000 square foot shopping center named Weller Court, opened in 1980. The development also closed most of the street to car traffic, largely removing it from downtown’s grid. In 1987, Weller Street was officially renamed as Astronaut Ellison S. Onizuka Street in honor of the Japanese-American astronaut who perished in the Challenger explosion. Since 1990, the Onizuka Street plaza has featured a 25-foot replica of the space shuttle in his memory.
1. “18-story Kajima Building planned for Little Tokyo.” Los Angeles Times. 7 Nov. 1965. L20.
2. “Council backs renewal agency.” Los Angeles Times. 1 Mar. 1977. OC1.
3. “Dedication scheduled for Kajima Building.” Los Angeles Times. 12 Nov. 1967. I6.
4. “For greater service.” Los Angeles Times. 18 May 1924. A1.
5. “Groups in Little Tokyo demand evictions delay.” Los Angeles Times. 5 Aug. 1976. E6.
6. Hebert, Ray. “Little Tokyo makes new survival bid with building plan.” Los Angeles Times. 26 Jan. 1970. SG1.
7. Hebert, Ray. “Little Tokyo renewal starts as work on new hotel begins.” Los Angeles Times. 30 Sep. 1974. C1.
8. Hebert, Ray. “Three evicted; razing begins in Little Tokyo.” Los Angeles Times. 7 Jul. 1977. C3.
9. “Otani Hotel topped out in Little Tokyo.” Los Angeles Times. 6 Feb. 1977. I2.
10. Rosen, Naomi Minagi. “Living in Little Tokyo, then and now.” Los Angeles Times. 22 Apr. 1984. F6.
11. Ryon, Ruth. “Something is cooking in Little Tokyo.” Los Angeles Times. 13 Jul. 1980. K2.
12. “Shuttle replica will be unveiled today.” Los Angeles Times. 19 Oct. 1990. 2.
13. “Street named for astronaut Onizuka.” Los Angeles Times. 8 Feb. 1987. 7.
Original photo: Frasher, Burton. “‘Little Tokyo’ Showing City Hall Los Angeles, Calif – B8356.” 1937. The Frasher Foto Postcard Collection. Calisphere. Pomona Public Library. http://content.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/kt8h4nc7hg/?order=1.