In mid-May, demolition began on the Umeya Rice Cake Factory, known for making sweet Japanese rice crackers in California's Little Tokyo. The family-owned business has been a mainstay in Los Angeles – interrupted when President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which placed Japanese families like the Hamano family in internment camps during World War II. The Hamanos restarted the factory in a new location in the 1950s but the business closed for good in 2017.
However, the site, long a home to immigrant workers, will soon serve as a literal home for members of the Little Tokyo and Skid Row communities. When it's complete, Umeya, to be developed and run by Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC), will offer 175 units of affordable homes. Half of that will be permanent, supportive housing for people coming out of homelessness. Partners from both Little Tokyo and Skid Row have been involved in the planning.
It was the Hamano family who first approached LTSC, located a few blocks from the factory, about transforming the site into an affordable living community, says Debbie Chen, LTSC's director of Real Estate. "They had closed down and they knew we were a local nonprofit that did affordable housing. Throughout the generations, the Hamano family liked to hire immigrants and families down on their luck. They loved to hire folks from the area, and they knew LTSC served the same folks. They wanted to see us turn it into affordable housing."
That aligned with LTSC's goal of preserving the neighborhood and supporting and nurturing the people in it. "Housing is one of the biggest needs," says Chen, who recently attended NeighborWorks America's real estate convening in San Francisco, California, where staff from network organizations discussed the issues and urgency in their field. "If you can do something for the individuals right in your back yard, why wouldn't you?" Homeless encampments are not uncommon in Little Tokyo; Skid Row has one of the country's largest homeless populations.
"We are truly excited to see the fruits of LTSC advancing their proud mission toward community revitalization and cultural preservation for generations to come," Rex Hamano, Umeya's president, said in a news release. "Given Umeya's history and the community who supported us for nearly 100 years, the two are forever inseparable."
Some of Umeya's signage and an exhibit about the factory will become a part of the new development, which will cost an estimated $100 million. The development will also include commercial and community space, and a courtyard area for residents.
"Creating the vision for this project has meant an ongoing and intensive conversation with the communities of Little Tokyo and Skid Row," Chen says. Community members have also been a part of a committee to decide on art displays and murals that can be incorporated into the development. "Everything we're doing, from housing to continuing the legacy of Umeya, to the ground floor space for community facilities and neighborhood cafes and markets – it's all geared toward comprehensive community development."
Comprehensive community development, embedded in NeighborWorks America's philosophy and strategic plan, is defined as development that seeks to create places of opportunity for all. It is community-driven, data-driven and equity-driven, seeking out the voices of the residents themselves throughout planning and implementation.
"This is a beautiful example of a project that honors and celebrates the people and history of a place, while also meeting a critical community need of providing more affordable housing," says Elizabeth Druback Celaya, director of Community Initiatives at NeighborWorks America. "LTSC and their partners show how layered strategies, strategic partnerships and community voice – three tenets of comprehensive community development – align to nourish the roots of a community even as it grows and changes to meet new needs."
Kelly Takasu, LTSC board member, remembers always having Umeya senbei (rice crackers) in the house. "We used to purchase them at our local Japanese grocery store, Central Fish, in Fresno and when we'd travel to Little Tokyo," she says. "My favorite was the sakura senbei, which was crunchy with the perfect balance of salty, sweet and savory. As an adult, I would buy it for myself or send it as gifts to friends who didn't have access to their favorite senbei on the east coast."
She even bought a necklace from the Japanese American National Museum that used the sakura senbei mold to make a pendant – a memory of "this part of our Japanese American history." She hasn't found anything close to the same flavor of senbei since the factory closed, she says. But she's still looking.
While sad about the closing, "when I heard that the Hamano family was interested in working with Little Tokyo Service Center to transform the factory into something greater for the community, I was excited about the possibilities," she says. "I am very hopeful that this investment will bring together the Skid Row and Little Tokyo communities and help us address the need for more affordable housing in Los Angeles.The Umeya development is expected to open in 2025. LTSC will hold a lottery for the affordable apartment homes and will likely see thousands enter. LA County's coordinated entry system will make the assignments for supportive housing.
"We want to make this a space that belongs to people in both of these neighborhoods," Chen says. "They'll go here and see themselves reflected in the community."