Leslie Morishita grew up in Los Angeles. She moved to Seattle to pursue a graduate degree in architecture at the University of Washington. It was there that she first encountered InterIm CDA. She started as a volunteer and is now the real estate development director for the organization.
Interim real-estate director in it for the love of the neighborhood
Interview conducted by Bruce Rutledge,
Leslie Morishita calls the amount of development planned for the Chinatown-International District over the next few years “mind boggling.” As the real estate development director for InterimCDA, she is in charge of finding, buying and developing real estate in the district to provide affordable housing for its denizens. In early November, Interim celebrated the opening of Hirabayashi Place at the western edge of Japantown on Main Street. The building has 96 apartments available for low-income renters, 15 units for people who are homeless or at risk of being so and a day-care center. But Morishita has no time to rest on her laurels. Hotel and condo projects are popping up all over the neighborhood, threatening to displace older low-income residents and change the C-ID forever.
Morishita got involved with the district as an architecture grad student at the University of Washington. She volunteered to help at the Danny Woo Garden. “I built the toolshed up there, and I just got sucked in,” she says. “I never left!” Today, her love for the C-ID is palpable, and so are the challenges she faces to keep long-time residents from being displaced. North American Post sat down with her for a chat recently. Excerpts follow.
NAP: Did you grow up here?
Morishita: No. I’m from L.A. I worked my way up the coast. I came to Seattle to go to graduate school at the University of Washington in architecture. I had a cultural anthropology background and I was very interested in culture and place and how people live in a place. I was also interested in travel and I liked learning about different cultures, so I thought, OK, I’m going to do cultural anthropology and architecture and work in development in other countries. And then, in graduate school – I don’t know if you’re familiar with architecture education, but in most schools, I think it’s typical that basically it’s very Western, European oriented. The history of architecture is the history of European architecture (laughs).
In those days, it was very, very white – the curriculum, the professors, the whole thing. A group of us organized this brown bag series and invited community groups to come in and talk. And one of the groups was Interim! Uncle Bob (Santos, Interim’s founder) gave a slide show about the Danny Woo Garden. I had never heard of Interim. It was such a cool story, and I wondered if I could do anything with them. So I asked them. They said, we need a tool shed. Do you want to build a toolshed? (laughs). I built the toolshed up there, and I just got sucked in. I never left.
NAP: For a cultural anthropologist, it must be a fascinating place, a neighborhood built on redlining.
Morishita: Yes. Redlining and racial restrictive covenants. This was the place where API (Asian-Pacific Islanders) and African American people could live. This place and the Central District.
NAP: I read somewhere that 94% of those who live in the C-ID are renters.
Morishita: Something around there. It’s much, much, much higher than the city as a whole.
NAP: And Interim has said to the city that its Mandatory Housing Affordability policy, which mandates that 7% of new housing be affordable, doesn’t go far enough, right?
Morishita: Yeah, that’s where we started. Then as we got deeper into the policy negotiations with city council and actually sent people out to talk to business owners and residents in the neighborhood to see what people’s understanding was of the MHA and to see what their concerns were, we shifted and decided that displacement is the big issue, that’s the big concern, and we realized that the MHA is not the end-all anti-displacement policy.
NAP: The city has said it will protect the historic core of the C-ID.
Morishita: Yes, the historic core is not impacted by the upzones of MHA, but we still see displacement risk happening in the historic core because of the rapidly increasing property values. Therefore rents for both businesses and renters are going up. There are historic buildings in the historic core that will not be upzoned but are vulnerable to being sold. And that just happened recently with one building that was an SRO (single-resident occupancy) building. Residents had been in there for decades, elders, extremely low income paying incredibly low rent, like $200, for really bad housing but this was their home and their neighborhood, and they didn’t want to leave. The building was sold. Everybody was moved out. Interim’s housing people worked with many of the residents just to find them decent housing somewhere in the city. And that’s in the historic core. It’s not like just because it didn’t get upzoned that it’s safe.
The parking lot next to Panama Hotel, we really wanted it. We didn’t get it. The speculative developer pressures and the competition is so intense. We found out recently it went to Hotel Concepts, and they are planning a high-rise hotel right there. So just thinking about all the changes that are coming down is kind of mind-boggling. Little Saigon doesn’t have the historic fabric that the west neighborhood has. The building stock there is not in good condition and it doesn’t have a distinct character. They have a really important history. There should be a history of Little Saigon written. Interim was active in getting the neighborhood designated as Little Saigon. But it doesn’t have the same recognition. There is not a huge amount of capacity for organizing, business owners, it’s not that they don’t care; they’re just busy running their businesses. They’re mostly renters operating on the edge.
NAP: I see Interim as the voice, the megaphone for these groups.
Morishita: That’s what we want to be. Our roots are in community organizing. We exist to make sure this neighborhood continues to exist for the people who established it and rely on it. Now with Uncle Bob gone, at Interim we talk about it a lot. You’ll see in our conference room there is a big, giant photo of Uncle Bob and it says, “Uncle Bob is watching.” That’s what we feel like. We feel like this is on our shoulders. To protect Uncle Bob’s legacy and to continue speaking out and protecting the neighborhood and organizing. Community organizing, activism, that was the heart of it for Uncle Bob. We had that big push over the summer with the anti-displacement work around the MHA stuff. It galvanized a lot of people, and we built a pretty good coalition. There is so much love for this community! (laughs) People are passionate.
One of the keys for us is what we call giving community control, getting properties under community control. And getting it to be community based housing as a key to anti-displacement. We were able to purchase this past summer one property in Little Saigon. We want to work with the Little Saigon folks to both organize around anti-displacement and to see how people want to be involved, what they want to see at that property so that it is meaningful for Little Saigon.
NAP: And there’s a role for direct action, the sort that Uncle Bob often led?
Morishita: That’s exactly right. Just Monday, we were like, we’ve gotta huddle and we’ve gotta get with Cynthia (Brothers) and the C-ID coalition (also known as Humbows, not Hotels) and strategize together because in the past, Interim didn’t have a written policy, but our approach was that we didn’t oppose single projects unless it was something like McDonald’s that had bigger implications. McDonald’s, big box retail, but not a developer doing a project that wasn’t necessarily community oriented. We were more about policy and big picture. Now there’s this critical mass of single projects that are all over, and we have to do something.
We say we’re about anti-displacement and we’re here for the neighborhood, so we can’t just sit here and be quiet through this. We’re always thinking, what would Uncle Bob do. Because there is definitely a role for direct action to get attention and to scare people basically (laughs) into doing good for the neighborhood. That’s what you gotta do. We want to make sure we are being strategic. And we don’t want to alienate people. Say there’s a big developer who might be open to doing something for the community in their building. We also want people to work with us. We want to meet with people in the community who have similar concerns about anti-displacement and be coordinated and strategic and build up power and the community base at the same time.
We have a community organizer full time now. We realize we have to bring it all back. And we have a full-time policy analyst who started December 1. We’re recognizing that we need to organize and be talking on the ground to the neighborhoood. Because it’s crazy!
NAP: I’d like to ask about your family life. Were your grandparents imprisoned during World War II?
Morishita: Yes, Parents and grandparents. We gre wup in Central and Southern California. My mother and her family were at Jerome in Arkansas. In the swamps there. My father was in Gila River in Arizona on an Indian reservation.
NAP: Did they talk about it much?
Morishita: They talked about “camp,” but I was like, oh, camp! Fun. You know? My mother talked about going to camp at the Santa Anita racetrack because they were housed in the horse stalls. I loved horses as a kid, so I pictured it as going away to horse camp.
They didn’t talk about it a lot until I had kids. I have twin daughters who are now at the University of Washington. They are sophomores there. At some point, I realized as little kids, they just assume everybody loves them and the world is there for you. It kind of hit me. What am I going to do? You know? I had this moment, holding these two babies, trying to console them, and I thought, Oh my god. I decided that these kids have to know who they are, they have to know their history. I want them to feel entitled to everything they are entitled to in this country and as humans in the world. I want them to be proud of who they are, to know what their grandparents and their family went through, and to be proud of it because they should be. It was kind of this knee-jerk reaction to that history of racism and oppression. I raised them in this very intentional, anti-racist way.
And when they were going to go to school, I thought, I don’t want them to learn about the incarceration from somebody else. I got them a book. And we sat down when they were four. Flowers for Mariko. I called my parents and asked them to read this with them and talk to them about it. And they were like, Why? They are so young. But they did. They read the book. When my kids started school, they were very, very excited to learn about it. They were bragging about it. Our grandparents were incarcerated and they didn’t do anything! (laughs) When my kids were in first grade, my mother was going to be here. I talked to the teacher. He was a very awesome anti-racist teacher, and he said, can we invite your mother to come in and talk about it with the kids? When I asked her, she just broke down crying. And ever since then, both of my kids have done all these projects, and I’ve learned a lot through them interviewing grandma and grandpa, doing family history projects. My father passed away recently, but it’s been a really, really, really good process.
Especially now! At Hirabayashi Place, there’s a historic exhibit that we partnered with the Wing Luke to do. We had this brochure and recently we figured out we have to rewrite everything because it used to say, we did this whole effort and the community came together around this hopeful idea that this will contribute to the possibility that something like this will never happen again. But it’s happening again.
Later, Morishita tours the Hirabayashi Place with me, showing off the Roger Shimomura mural and an origami portrait of Gordon Hirabayashi, the civil rights hero, made by her daughters. She points out the address, 442 Main Street, picked to honor the 442nd, and we linger at the historic exhibit, its brochure holder empty, waiting for new brochures with new text that better reflect today’s realities. And then she says goodbye and goes back to work, looking to fight another day for her beloved C-ID.
InterIm Community Development Association (InterIm CDA) is a non-profit community development corporation. In 1969, Bob Santos and other community activists and business leaders came together to establish the organization to save and revitalize C-ID after the I-5 viaduct construction. In the late 1970s, the organization led protests of the Kingdome construction. Reacting to increased displacement risks with the Kingdome construction, InterIm leaders began developing affordable housing in the district. Today, InterIm advocates for the C-ID’s low income residents and small business owners, develop s and operates affordable housing , and provides a host of direct services for low-income neighborhood residents, immigrants, refugees and other marginalized communities.