What they did
The Little Tokyo Community Council has a demonstrated history of protecting the best interests of the Little Tokyo community in Los Angeles, California. Now, they are responding to the economic hardships of the COVID-19 pandemic with a creative solution: buying meals from local restaurants once a week and distributing them to people in need.
The COVID-19 pandemic has hit Los Angeles particularly hard. The city continues to battle the virus and has one of the highest numbers of cases in the nation. In January, Los Angeles County became the first county to hit 1 million cases since it began recording them one year ago.
In March 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic, University of Southern California researchers began tracking the pandemic’s impact on the local economy and found that Angelenos suffered more devastating economic losses than national averages. Part of the disparity was attributed to the fact that many residents were already struggling to make ends meet before the pandemic, with the estimated percent chance of running out of money in LA at 26% versus the national average of 16%.
With small businesses and senior citizens especially at risk from the economic and public health risks of COVID-19, community response in Little Tokyo has risen to the occasion to protect its senior population and 400 small businesses. A Los Angeles cultural foundation with 137 years of history, Little Tokyo is a community that is characterized by these small businesses, many of which have been operating for over thirty years. The Little Tokyo Community Council, a non-profit coalition of community members that advocate on behalf of the community, has been operating to support the neighborhood for 22 years now.
Kristin Fukushima, Managing Director of the Little Tokyo Community Council said that the council has a unique platform within the community. “We have a coalition space that can uphold Little Tokyo’s best interests,” she said. “When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we were able to use this to address top concerns and use existing infrastructure to respond.”
One of the council’s creative solutions, called Community Feeding Community, solved two issues with one initiative: raising funds to purchase meals directly from local restaurants once a week and then distributing them to people in need.
Since its inception, Community Feeding Community has provided over $195,000 to 84 Little Tokyo restaurants by buying their meals. Meal distribution to the community happens every Saturday and community members can reserve a pickup time online to receive a free meal. The program ran for five months before taking a brief hiatus. It was able to relaunch last November and will run through January 2021.
The Little Tokyo Community Council has done significant work to protect the best interests of small businesses and residents in Little Tokyo, in addition to promoting its rich culture and history.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the council had successfully lobbied against the city’s decision to expand an above-ground regional connector that would have cut directly through the neighborhood. The planned transit project will now be an underground metro and is set to finish development in 2022, allowing the council some time to plan how to best mitigate any potential, harmful side effects such as gentrification.
The council’s ongoing campaigns include collaborations with other community organizations to support small businesses and promote an events calendar, using the #GoLittleTokyo social media presence, as well as address construction impacts from the metro regional connector.
The council’s ability to unite smaller organizations on one local platform has also allowed the community to look to the future with a long-term project called Sustainable Little Tokyo that combines the efforts of the community council, the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center, and the Little Tokyo Service Center. Community-driven efforts stemming from Sustainable Little Tokyo include affordable senior housing and neighborhood-wide water and energy systems that would benefit both the environment and small businesses.
Above all, the initiative merges the local economy, environment, and arts and culture as a means to build a sustainable future for Little Tokyo that is led by the community and represents the soul and character of the neighborhood.
“Our goal is for Little Tokyo to remain a community and a home,” Fukushima explained. “We are anti-displacement and want to develop community control and center histories and experiences. We’re 138 years old…[in regard] to the future, we still want to be here.”
In addition to Community Feeding Community, Little Tokyo Community Council’s COVID-19 response also includes a relief fund that is aiming to raise $500,000 for small businesses. Of the neighborhood’s 400 small businesses, 50 are legacy businesses, which are deemed anchors in community identity and heritage. Funds have already begun to be distributed and the choice of recipients has stayed true to the DNA of Little Tokyo — in the first round of distributed grants, 24 of the 25 small business recipients averaged 39 years of operation. A support campaign titled #LoveLT also provides resources such as a small business directory, contribution opportunities for donations and volunteer work, and COVID-19 information in English and Japanese.
As individuals come to pick up their Saturday meal, restaurants have written small handwritten notes of encouragement on to-go boxes. “Stay strong!” some read, while others say, “Stay safe and well.” In the midst of crisis, Little Tokyo serves as a testament to the strength and resilience of community and the message of hope that derives from it, especially during the toughest of times.
Kristin Fukushima, interview with Anna Luo, Jan 6, 2021, plus follow up emails
Jonathan Levin and Christopher Palmeri, “Los Angeles Is Now Worst-Hit U.S. Metro Area for Covid-19 Cases”, Bloomberg, Dec 17, 2020, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articlesm/2020-12-17/los-angeles-is-now-worst-hit-u-s-etro-area-for-covid-19-cases, accessed Jan 10, 2021
Kyla Thomas, “Pandemic Hit L.A. Economy Harder Than National Trends Suggest”, The Evidence Base, Jun 19, 2020, https://healthpolicy.usc.edu/evidence-base/pandemic-hit-l-a-economy-harder-than-national-trends-suggest/, accessed Jan 19, 2021
Go Little Tokyo, “About”, https://www.golittletokyo.com/about-go-little-tokyo/, accessed Jan 10, 2021