Iconic LA Japanese Rice Cracker Factory To Be Replaced By Affordable Housing
On the edge of Little Tokyo and Skid Row sits a factory that used to stamp out tiny Umeya rice crackers, a brand staple in many Japanese American households over the last century.
Crisp and striking an ineffable balance of salty and sweet, Umeya’s senbei crackers were such a delightful part of Kelly Takasu’s childhood that today she likes to wear a pendant designed to look like sakura-shaped version of the treats.
When the Umeya Rice Cake Co. shut down the factory in 2017, it felt like the end of an era to many in Los Angeles’ Japanese American community.
But the Crocker Street property will see a rebirth in the coming weeks, when the factory is demolished to make way for the construction of 175 affordable housing units for people living below the median income.
The nonprofit Little Tokyo Service Center is building the project and setting aside half of the apartments as permanent supportive housing for those struggling with chronic homelessness.
“It’s really exciting to see something that’s part of our history and culture remain part of our community and serve a greater community,” said Takasu, a board member with the Little Tokyo Service Center who attended a Tuesday groundbreaking ceremony. “It’s not just in remembrance of Japanese Americans, but part of the future.”
From factory to ‘The Umeya’
Projected to cost more than $100 million, “The Umeya” will become one of the largest affordable housing complexes in the Skid Row area. Scheduled to open the spring of 2025, the seven-story building will house more than 350 residents in apartments ranging from studios to two-bedroom units.
Building the new development between Skid Row and Little Tokyo will allow for more collaboration between organizers from both neighborhoods, said Skid Row community organizer Ron Crockett.
“Definitely, it's a bridge,” said Crockett who is known as "Coach Ron" because he teaches literacy in the neighborhood. “But a bridge doesn't have no value if it's not utilized.”
To that end, the new building has been designed to include 13,000 square feet of commercial and community space on the ground floor and a 4,000 square foot courtyard. It will also feature a mural made by Skid Row artist Crushow Herring and other community members.
A growing housing portfolio
The Little Tokyo Service Center may be better known to the public for providing senior services, supporting neighborhood businesses and operating the Terasaki Budokan, a sports and community center.
But since the 1990s, it’s also been one of the most steady nonprofit producers of badly-needed affordable housing in L.A. Its portfolio now includes more than 1,000 units spread across two dozen buildings.
The nonprofit is "small but mighty," laughed Debbie Chen, its director of real estate development.
The group has built its own properties and collaborated on projects with other community organizations in Asian hubs throughout the city, such as the Thai Community Development Center, the Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance and the Pilipino Workers Center.
“It’s our mission to uplift other low-income communities of color, particularly low-income AAPI communities of color," Chen said.
With severe homelessness and housing scarcity showing no abatement, more service-oriented nonprofits are expressing growing interest in building apartments, said Alan Greenlee, executive director of the Southern California Association of Nonprofit Housing.
“Their constituents are saying that housing affordability is an issue and ‘we need some help with that,’” Greenlee said. “So we find groups are increasingly looking to figure out ways to provide housing affordable to the communities that they serve.”
One example is the Search to Involve Pilipino Americans, which is focused on programming for youth and small business and mental health services. In November, it opened a new affordable and permanent supportive housing complex in Historic Filipinotown.
‘Very related’ missions
Over in Little Tokyo, plans for the Umeya project were set in motion five years ago, when the Hamano, the family that owns the rice cracker company, announced plans to close down operations.
In 2019, the Little Tokyo Service Center acquired the Umeya property for more than $8 million. The project will be financed through a patchwork of public and private sources, the largest funder being the California Department of Housing & Community Development.
The slow-moving permitting process was further delayed by the pandemic, but leaders at the Little Tokyo nonprofit have credited Mayor Karen Bass with expediting approvals since she took office in December.
At Tuesday's groundbreaking for the Umeya, Deputy Mayor of Housing Jenna Hornstock announced the project is among 350 developments in the pipeline with 7,500 affordable housing units among them.
A trio of Taiko drummers performed as state and city officials posed with ceremonial shovels in front of the factory. Among those watching the proceedings was Rex Hamano, Umeya's third-generation president. He described the experience as a bit surreal.
"I guess it will become more real when the building goes up," Hamano said.
Umeya was incorporated in the 1920s by his grandfather Yasuo, who saw his rice crackers take off at Japanese American groceries, fishing villages and farm camps, according to a family history on the company website, Another top-seller was fortune cookies, served at Chinese restaurants run by Japanese immigrants.
Then World War II broke out and the Hamanos were forced to shut down their original factory on Weller Court as they, along with more than 125,000 other Japanese Americans and immigrants, were incarcerated by the U.S. government.
The family was held at Rohwer Japanese American Relocation Center in Arkansas for a couple years before they were allowed to move to Denver. There, they produced snacks to meet the high demand coming from the camps.
But Los Angeles beckoned after the war, and in 1950, the family decided to move the business back.
Amid lingering anti-Japanese discrimination, the family made sure to provide opportunities to immigrants who needed them, Hamano said.
“We really wanted to give back to the community, as well as give dignity to individuals where it was difficult after World War II and the internment camps,” he said.
Those principles guiding the family business made the decision to have the property converted into affordable housing an easy one, Hamano said.
"From an initial glimpse [the snack business and affordable housing] look like they're not related," Hamano said. "But in a missional sense, I think they're very related.”
While there will be no physical trace of the Umeya factory after the complex is completed, the company’s legacy will live on not only in the building's name but in a permanent exhibit.
That's a relief to Lisa Hasegawa, regional vice president with NeighborWorks America, which provides funding to the Little Tokyo Service Center.
"If [the factory] was going to be replaced by luxury condos or another office building, I don't know if they would have really taken care of the legacy of the company," Hasegawa said.
Hasegawa has cherished childhood memories of buying Umeya snacks from a Japanese food truck that traversed the San Fernando Valley, stopping in Pacoima where her grandparents lived.
She's sad to lose the Umeya building, but "it's beautiful ... to see that it's going to be the home to hundreds of families," she said.
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