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In Japantown, new condos meet old customs

By Donna Gillespie

While wandering through the haze of sizzling teriyaki burgers and listening to the pounding of Taiko drums at the Nihonmachi Street Fair last month, you might have been asked to sign a petition supporting the event, or seen people wearing stickers that said “Save Our Festivals.”

It was a response to a local developer and the head of a new condo association, who had threatened to shut down Japantown’s festivals.

“The streets and sidewalks are usually filthy, especially around that appalling mall,”  complained David Zisser, president of 1600 Webster’s homeowners’ association, in an email to the fair’s organizers. Zisser and John McInerney, who developed the condos, asked fair organizers to steam clean the sidewalk in front of their complex –– or else “this association will file a protest with the city when you seek a permit for next year’s street fair,” Zisser wrote.

The residents of 1600 Webster are subjected to “a series of look-alike fairs with the same purveyors of schlocky souvenirs, mediocre food stands and exhibitors who have absolutely no relationship to the community,” Zisser said.

Grace Horikiri, co-chair of this year’s Nihonmachi fair, told Zisser and McInerney that “due to budgetary constraints,” steam cleaning the sidewalk in front of their building was not possible. But she assured them fair workers would promptly sweep the street afterwards. “If the street is soiled,” she said, “we do go out there and physically scrub the area.”

McInerney’s response was blunt. “Grace: This is real simple. You want to put on an event; you take responsibility. In this instance, you make a mess, you clean it up,” he wrote. “If we have to clean up afterwards, we will not only oppose the event next year, we will look to small claims court to reimburse us for cleanup costs.” He concluded, “It is not a negotiation.”

 “Everyone’s more than willing to work this out,” said Paul Osaki, executive director of the Japanese Cultural and Community Center. “It’s their tone. They’re being rude. Of course we want the neighborhood to be safe and clean. They feel they have more concern about the cleanliness of
Japantown than we do.”

McInerney has complained about street fairs in the past, Osaki said. “First it was parking. Then noise. Now it’s cleanup issues,” he said. “They chose to move into this neighborhood. They should have been well aware these festivals were going on.” He added, “Why should we change our historic community for them? Some people inherently feel they can come into a neighborhood and their surroundings must conform to them.”

So Osaki helped launch a petition drive, invoking the specter of the internment of the Japanese community during World War II.

“Our Japantown community festivals are being threatened,” he wrote in a letter to the community. “We can never take things for granted.  First it was us, then our homes and businesses, our property. Next our festivals?” The petitioners collected 2,800 signatures during the two days of the fair and the support of a number of politicians. “This has got a lot of people concerned,” Osaki said. “This community knows all too well what can be lost.”

Zisser acknowledged after the festival that the streets were cleaned satisfactorily this year. He added, however, “I’m the one who cleaned the signs off the street lamps and the signs on strings. I just went out and did it.”

Both Zisser and McInerney say they don’t have a problem with Japantown fairs in general. “Paul (Osaki) and Grace (Horikiri) have lied to this community about what this is about,” Zisser said. “We have a good relationship with the Cherry Blossom Festival.”

But the Nihonmachi fair is another story, they say. “Last year there was food and grease on the sidewalk,” said McInerney. “The barbecue was spilling over. Then this letter comes out of the blue.”

Zisser agreed. “We were stunned they would plan an event and not clean up,” he said. “We’re subjected to three fairs in six months. They’re an imposition on businesses and neighbors. Why must the Cherry Blossom Festival have two weekends? And how do you differentiate these fairs from the Asian heritage fair?” 

In fact, the Redevelopment Agency’s owner participation agreement with the builders of 1600 Webster states that the streets fronting the complex will be blocked off  “not more than four days a year” for the Japantown fairs. Osaki said that was an error on the part of the Redevelopment Agency. “The Cherry Blossom Festival alone is four days long,” taking place in April over two weekends, Osaki said. “Who wrote this owner participation agreement? Why four days? The Nihonmachi Street Fair has been going on for 35 years.”

“I could care less if the fair has been around for 35 years,” Zisser said. “We believe in taking care of this neighborhood. We take care of our property. We pay a lot to the city in taxes. This building is full of workers who pull the cart and not ride the cart. We have a standard in this building.”

Located at the corner of Post Street, 1600 Webster is a four-story contemporary building housing 48 condominiums, plus retail space on the street level. The development was opposed by many in the Japanese community. In 2003, Japantown Bowl was razed to make room for the building, despite a community campaign to save the bowling alley. Then, in 2005, the Redevelopment Agency agreed to lease the prime space on the ground floor to Starbucks. After local businesses objected and the Japantown Task Force collected 4,000 signatures, the deal with Starbucks was called off.

“They speak of that horrible bowling alley as if it were a cultural icon,” Zisser said. And he doesn’t like the teriyaki burgers, either, which he tried at the fair. “It was a dried out thing,” he said. “Horrible.”

“We’re told we’re interlopers,” he said. “My grandparents lived here. [My grandfather] had a tailor shop on Bush. It was a heavily Jewish neighborhood then. Now a good number of the businesses are Korean, not Japanese. New people are always coming in.”