Omoide no Shotokyo
(Remembering Old Little Tokyo)

Background information

Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, 1996. 1030' x 8'. 120 Judge John Aiso to 125 N. Central Avenue
The 13 buildings comprising the Little Tokyo Historic District were placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1995 to recall "the historical development of the Japanese American Community and symbolize the hardships and obstacles that this ethnic group has successfully overcome in securing its place in American society." These memories are individualized and personalized by Sheila Levrant de Bretteville's transformation of the sidewalk bordering the district into a symbolic and textual record of experiences that shaped the community.

Her $95,000 art project was funded by the Community Redevelopment Agency as part of an $865,000 Little Tokyo Historic District Street Improvement Project that also reduced the width of the sidewalk by two feet and upgraded utilities. In 1990, the CRA invited ten artists to submit proposals that would "commemorate and describe the history of the development of the Little Tokyo Historic District." Eight artists submitted proposals, which were evaluated by a panel composed of artists and community representatives. The jury subsequently interviewed four of the artists and then requested de Bretteville, Sonya Ishii and Nobuho Nagasawa to further develop their proposals. In March, 1991, the jury awarded the commission to de Bretteville but encouraged her to meet with Ishii and Nagasawa and attempt to integrate their proposals into her plan. Drawings of various types of wrappings Ishii prepared for her proposed sidewalk installation were incorporated into de Bretteville's installation and one component of Nagasawa's proposal, "Toyo Miyatake's Camera", was permanently installed on the sidewalk outside the Japanese American National Museum.

De Bretteville divided the entire length of the sidewalk into two zones from the north side of the old Union Church on San Pedro Street to the north side of the Japanese American National Museum on Central Avenue. The first zone extends out from the building line, and consists of six 4" wide timelines, each representing a decade from the 1890s through the 1940s. Five honey colored bands containing brass inscriptions in front of entrances identify the building's uses, the business names, and the goods and services offered to the community. The sixth timeline is dark charcoal-black and inset with steel inscriptions recalling the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. The specific information in the six bands is placed in its social and political context by inscriptions between the doorways referring to events which affected the choices and lives of Japanese Americans.

The second zone marks the boundary of each building with alternating grey white and earth red sections. Recollections from three generations of Japanese Americans who lived or worked in Little Tokyo are inscribed in the white cement sections. De Bretteville obtained the quotations by conducting more than 50 interviews and by reviewing books and old newspapers. The red cement section contains drawings of wrappings or tsutsumi by Ishii (bamboo basket, wood crate, two-stack suitcase, detention packet, and cloth tied bundle (furoshiki)) and de Bretteville (trunk and envelope) that have served as containers for the community's private and public memories. De Bretteville also added an apple pie to the collection of drawings in response to the comment from one informant, who identified himself "as American as apple pie." The title of the work appears in Japanese kanji characters at both ends of the Historic District.

De Bretteville described her project as an attempt "to invent various ways for the contradictory multiple identities and complex generational different subjectivities to be represented. Thus the apple pie forces people to ask why it is there. It is the only image that could not be across the street in the Japanese created side of Little Tokyo and truly belongs in the Old Little Tokyo representation." From its inception, her project involved community input and became a vehicle by which de Bretteville carried on a dialogue with the community and the community carried on a dialogue with itself. Three main parts of de Bretteville's design were addressed by members of the Japanese American community. First, the community representatives on the Little Tokyo Public Art Task Force had differing opinions about the quotations, with views ranging from highly supportive of de Bretteville choosing recollections of the daily life on the street, to highly critical, with claims they lacked drama and were banal. There was also a question concerning how the Issei (second generation Japanese Americans) wrote "First Street" and "Remember Old Little Tokyo." Different suggestions reflected different attitudes on how the community saw itself and its relationship to the larger society. Finally, the kanji characters for "Memories", originally planned to be at the corner of Central and First, were moved to the corner of San Pedro and First after the Japanese American National Museum objected to their placement by the entrance of the museum at First and Central. They felt it suggested the museum was a Japanese museum, rather than an American one.

The text has been provided courtesy of Michael Several, Los Angeles, March 1998.

Back to Omoide no Shotokyo.