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Community organizer discusses life as a senior in Little Tokyo

The following post was written by intern Maggie Su as part of a series of profiles of API members of the community.

Yasue Clark, a community organizer at Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC), works with low-income seniors who live in affordable housing units in Little Tokyo. She has worked at LTSC for the past seven years, advocating for seniors who are ill-equipped to raise their own voice.

About 800 seniors live in Little Tokyo, according to Clark. Most are monolingual, speaking either Japanese or Korean.

“Because they’re monolingual and also [because] they’re low-income, their voice hardly ever gets heard,” Clark said. “Most of them are invisible.”

Clark, a Tokyo native, does not speak Korean, so she primarily works with the Japanese-speaking seniors. Nevertheless, she does her best to organize activities for the seniors, planning crafts, workshops and field trips. She hopes to take them to the Downtown Women’s Center soon in an attempt to address misconceptions they may have about the homeless.

Compared to Tokyo, Los Angeles is much less pedestrian oriented; far fewer people walk on LA streets. Clark believes insufficient public transportation is a major contributing factor to LA’s excess of cars, which, in turn, makes the city less hospitable to pedestrians.

“Most of the time it feels like cars have the right of way, not pedestrians,” Clark said.

Furthermore, many sidewalks are poorly maintained, with exposed tree roots that pose a tripping hazard and nonfunctional street lights that make residents feel unsafe after dark.

Little Tokyo, though, is a more pedestrian-friendly neighborhood than most in LA. Both a grocery store and a medical center with doctors’ offices, a pharmacy and a blood testing lab are within walking distance for senior residents.

The medical center was the focal point of a 17 year-long battle with City Hall. Residents of Little Tokyo Towers, an affordable housing community located directly across the street from the center, often jaywalked — the most direct route — circumventing the roundabout route they would have had to take if they crossed the street at the closest traffic light. After a lengthy process of petitioning the city for an additional traffic light, one was finally installed in March of this year, allowing residents safer, more direct access to the medical center.

The traffic light installation was a major victory for the community that affirmed residents’ long-term efforts to start petitions and organize at City Hall, Clark said.

LTSC also partners with other organizations such as the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, where seniors can take a free ukulele class. If they complete the 12-week program, they receive a their own ukulele. The class, with almost 40 participants, is quite popular, according to Clark.

Due to the fact that Little Tokyo, with 137 years of history, is one of the three remaining Japantowns throughout California — there were 10 before World War Two — there is a lot of pressure to sustain the neighborhood. By reaching out to members of the next generation or to Japanese transplants such as herself, Clark and others hope to maintain Little Tokyo as a central gathering space for Japanese Americans throughout LA.

Clark’s personal challenge is to connect the seniors to their community, helping them overcome the language barrier and fostering in them a sense of ownership of the neighborhood.

“They have a sense of community, but I don’t know if they have a sense of ownership,” Clark said.

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