While looking for something totally different, I happened upon a tribute to the recently deceased executive director of Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo Service Center, Dean Matsubayashi. What attracted me to the article was the title, “Welcome to Little Tokyo, Please Take Off Your Shoes.”
I wanted to know what that was all about. My intuition about the intent of slogan was pretty much on the money. Apparently when she was a student, Christina Heatherton, coined the phrase which was seen as a something of a counterpoint to bumper stickers declaring “Welcome to California, Now Go Home.”
The author of the tribute article, Josh Ishimatsu said the “Welcome to Little Tokyo” slogan embodied the goals the Little Tokyo Service Center had in
…being true to the underlying values of anti-gentrification and anti-displacement. In a piece that Dean and I wrote about LTSC’s role in the larger Sustainable Little Tokyo project, we said:
For LTSC, the challenge was to frame a vision of anti-displacement work that did not reify NIMBYism… How do we honor the past, prevent erasure, AND welcome the new in respectful ways… And, most of all, how can we do all this in ways that are equitable, sustainable, and empowering?
The slogan “Welcome to Little Tokyo; please take off your shoes” expresses the ethos that newcomers are welcome, but need to acknowledge and respect that they are entering a place with a pre-existing identity and normative culture. In this spirit, the Sustainable Little Tokyo planning process not only includes the participation of longstanding community stakeholders but also involves new residents who appreciate the role that the neighborhood has played (and continues to play) as a cultural hub and in supporting the community’s most vulnerable residents.
I feel like that last paragraph above not only embodies the approach people should have when entering a new neighborhood, but also one arts and culture organizations should embrace when approaching a new demographic/geographic area they previously haven’t served or feel they have under served.
I have written about this recently in relation to the concept of “arts deserts” and groups that don’t see themselves as hard to reach or having low arts engagement. The basic idea being that people who are deeply invested in the cultural traditions and practices of their community won’t necessarily welcome people coming in with a pitying attitude and offering to lift them up to respectability.
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