A year ago, while at the Japanese-American National Museum in Little Tokyo in Downtown Los Angeles, I was struck by something I read in a placard within the museum regarding Japanese-American communities: “Our postwar communities are now often communities of spirit, not communities of place.” Having walked through the museum and taken in the exhibits highlighting the deeply rooted struggles experienced by Japanese immigrants in the United States—due to government policies of internment, forced assimilation, and deportation,—I thought more about what causes communities to become primarily bound in spirit instead of by physical location. Though, it is natural for communities to grow and move, in the case of Japanese-Americans during the 1940s, it was not one of intentional or autonomous movement. It was instead largely shaped by government policies that forced the movement of entire communities in an attempt to erase and/or assimilate these groups; but they survived in spirit, in a way that no policies could erase. My own family no longer lives in our homeland due to the ongoing conflict in the Kashmir region of India, so this idea and feeling of diaspora is not new to me.
I left the museum with a heavy heart thinking about how easy it has been for those with political and social capital to displace people again and again throughout history. I continued walking around the streets of the city and wandered into the Arts District to explore the stores and have a cup of coffee. At first, the up-scale and overtly trendy neighborhood and its mural-clad streets entranced me—who would not appreciate a latte and a slice of pie on a rainy afternoon? And then I walked into a boutique that was literally selling a rock covered in leather for over $200 and the irony of the entire experience struck me. This is a gentrified space—one that caused the original communities who inhabited to be pushed out.
The following week, police shot and killed a homeless black man who was living in Skid Row. I mapped it and the shooting happened walking distance from same place I sipped my latte and reflected on gentrification from a position of overwhelming privilege.
This juxtaposition of space—Skid Row and the Arts District—is anecdotal, but also a part of a much larger global story: one of diaspora, one of community, and one of building walls. Communities can be profoundly resilient at resisting the creation of these walls, but sometimes these walls become more than just physical. There are physical walls, geopolitical walls, but also walls we build within ourselves and internalize. These internalized walls are subliminal because they operate at the level of distorting the knowledge we accept to be true. However, in many ways, they are the most powerful as the internalized biases we form about other communities affect the most fundamental bonds we form with each other as human beings.
What I experienced in the Arts District of Los Angeles is not a new story. It is the story of countless walls—literal and metaphorical—across the world. Injustice can be obvious, as with the closeness of Skid Row and the Arts District; however, oftentimes it is less obvious and forces one to confront the basic knowledge structures that inform how one sees the world. I think it is only once one becomes comfortable uprooting what one believes to be true—in a critical, but informed manner—that these walls have the chance of being torn down and replaced with more cohesive cross-community relationships.