L.A.’s last Japanese boarding house is safe, for now

Japanese immigrants have lived in the East Hollywood boarding house for nearly a century.

In the heyday of the house, about 30 men would leave the house each day to work as gardeners or labourers, and would return for communal meals where they could converse in their native language.

Now only seven remain, renting spartan rooms outfitted with a single bed and small desk while worrying about their future under new ownership in a gentrifying neighborhood, with Sqirl and other hipster haunts a few blocks away .

Nobuharu Hamakawa in the hallway of a renovated house

Nobuharu Hamakawa is a tenant in an East Hollywood that has served as a boarding house and employment agency for Japanese immigrants.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

This month, the Los Angeles City Council approved the home on N. Virgil Ave. 564 declared a historical-cultural monument, which would prevent, but not exclude, the possibility of demolition.

The owner is renovating the house, which is permissible under the new designation. He says he offered renters rooms in a neighboring building for the $400 to $500 a month they pay.

But the men – mostly older bachelors without children – are still afraid of having to move out. They would have a hard time finding the deal they have now as long-time rent control renters.

“I have nowhere else to go,” said Sho Yoneha, 83, a retired dishwasher and gardener who has lived in the house for three decades, as he had lunch with his roommates last year. “I’m filled with anxiety and frustration every day that I don’t have anything.”

The two-story clapboard house with peeling cream paint has a recessed porch and a rectangular facade that wouldn’t look out of place in an old western.

With 23 rooms and a handful of tenants, a lot is empty. It’s the last Japanese guesthouse still operating in the city, according to Lindsay Mulcahy, a member of the LA Tenants Union and a former consultant for Hollywood Heritage.

Four other former boarding houses still stand but are no longer occupied by Japanese immigrants, said Mulcahy, who advocates for tenants.

James Niimi is standing in a doorway in a dark building

James Niimi, who was born in Hawaii and came to the mainland in 1957, has lived in the boarding house since the early 1980s. He is one of the few tenants who speaks fluent English.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Developer Matt Mehdizadeh bought the boarding house on Virgil Avenue in February 2021. The home has been promoted as a “premium development opportunity for investors looking for strong rents in an area of ​​rapidly increasing demand”.

Mehdizadeh said he offered up to $20,000 to anyone willing to move out.

“I offered them what they wanted,” he said in a recent interview. “It was what the tenants wanted, that made sense.”

Mehdizadeh has removed most of the historic windows as part of a renovation that will allow him to rent each room for around $800 a month. This will create more affordable housing in a gentrifying neighborhood, he said.

He described his offer to provide the long-term tenants with rooms in a renovated outbuilding for the rent they are now paying as generous.

“No landlord in LA history has offered to move tenants … to a brand new apartment without increasing their rent, so I don’t know who’s good and who’s bad here,” he said.

Nobuharu Hamakawa in his room at the boarding house.

Nobuharu Hamakawa in his room at the boarding house.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

But tenants are skeptical about the offer.

“Matt never explains what the larger intention is,” said Hidetoshi Shibao, 77, who came to California in the early 1970s and worked as a gardener and tour bus driver. “What is his intention for this place?”

James Niimi, who has lived in the house since the early 1980s, finds it difficult to trust Mehdizadeh.

Born in Hawaii, Niimi is one of the few tenants who is fluent in English.

He came to the mainland in 1957 after graduating from high school and made a living doing odd jobs—selling magazine subscriptions, sending junk mail, cutting meat.

When Niimi moved in, he was paying $90 a month. Now, as the oldest tenant, his rent is about $400.

“It’s a safe place to live for the elderly,” said Niimi, 83, who is retired. Mehdizadeh “offered money to many people. I said to him, ‘You need to talk to my lawyer’… I don’t want to end up being the loser.”

The men didn’t come to California with much. All these decades later, they still don’t have much. Many are retired and live on social security.

Hideo Suetake came to the United States at the age of 26 with the intention of studying for a year and then going home. He ended up staying and cycling through various jobs including cooking at a sushi and tempura bar.

He eventually lost contact with his family in Japan. Now in his 70s, he works as a hotel clerk in Little Tokyo.

His first floor room contains everything he owns – drawers full of clothes, a fan, cups and mugs stacked on a small desk.

Hideo Suetake drinks soup

Hideo Suetake came to the United States at the age of 26 with the intention of studying for a year and then going home. Now in his 70s, he works as a hotel clerk in Little Tokyo.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

In the 1910s and 1920s, East Hollywood was a center of Japanese life.

Sukesaka and Tsuya Ozawa owned a farmstead and lived on Virgil. In 1924 they built the boarding house next to their house.

The Ozawas—mainly daughters-in-law Shizuka and Doris—cooked three meals a day for the whole house. They organized community parties and made the tenants, many of whom had no family in the US, feel at home, said Susan Ozawa, Sukesaka and Tsuya’s great-granddaughter.

The boarding house also served as an employment agency, since many Japanese could not find their own work due to discrimination.

During World War II, the Ozawas were among more than 100,000 people of Japanese descent who were forced into internment camps by the US government.

After two years at Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming, the Ozawas returned to Virgil Avenue. They had entrusted their possessions to a Presbyterian pastor who paid taxes for them. Unlike many Japanese Americans, they were able to rebuild their old lives.

In the post-war years, the boarding house was a place of reunification and an anchor point for the community.

It’s a “survival testament” to “working hard and taking care of each other,” Susan Ozawa said.

The Ozawas were active in the broader Japanese community, with Sukesaka Ozawa funding what is now known as the Hollywood Japanese Cultural Institute and supporting the Hollywood Judo Dojo program.

After the family sold the building in 1980, Japanese men continued to live there.

The later owners were Japanese Americans for a time. A member of the Ozawa family taught them how to cook Japanese dishes, Mulcahy said.

Nobuharu Hamakawa and Hideo Suetake wash dishes after eating

Nobuharu Hamakawa, front, and Hideo Suetake clean up after the meal at the inn.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Long gone are the days when the master of the house brought hot food to the table.

Most other Japanese have long since left East Hollywood. Even in Little Tokyo, Gardena, and Sawtelle, there are fewer immigrants whose native language is Japanese.

Every Saturday, Shibao goes to the Southern California Islamic Center for free pick-up of fresh produce, fish and meat, and canned goods.

The roommates often eat together. They share a few shared bathrooms, as well as a kitchen with metal shelves stocked with soy sauce, cane sugar, canned ground pork, chicken noodle soup, and copies of the Japan Times.

Hidetoshi Shibao, one of the current tenants in a building in East Hollywood.

Hidetoshi Shibao, 77, came to California in the early 1970s and worked as a gardener and tour bus driver. He is skeptical that the owner’s official will move the tenants to a building next door for the same rent.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

This winter the tenants were left without heating. They kept warm with blankets and jackets brought by the LA Tenants Union. Last month the stove broke and parishioners brought food for them.

Mehdizadeh said he fixed the heater soon after being notified of the problem and plans to replace the stove.

Meanwhile, the application for historical-cultural designation made its way through the city authorities with the help of community organizations that found volunteer lawyers and ran storytelling events.

The City Council’s approval of the naming on June 10 allows city officials to delay demolition for up to a year while they look for ways to preserve the building — which amounts to a temporary pardon.

Despite the grueling and precarious lives they have led, the men say this country has treated them well.

“Some people scold America, but it’s actually a good country,” said Yoneha, who came to the United States on a whim from Okinawa 50 years ago. “When it comes to community service, America is #1.”

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-06-27/japanese-boardinghouse-elderly-tenants L.A.’s last Japanese boarding house is safe, for now

Alley Einstein

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