Interview with Misty Iwatsu: Executive Director of North Figueroa Association

Misty Iwatsu at Antigua Bread on Figueroa Street

Boulevard Voices is a series of interviews conducted by Occidental College students, assisted by the Keck Grant, for Professor Jan Lin's Los Angeles Field Research course. Each interview highlights an individual who has made an impact in their communities in Northeast L.A.

Subject: Misty Iwatsu
Organization: North Figueroa Association
Boulevard: Figueroa Street

Misty Iwatsu has served as the executive director for the past eleven years of the North Figueroa Association, Highland Park's Business Improvement District founded in 2001. On a grey Monday morning I sat down with Misty at Antigua Bread, a charming Highland Park cafe on Figueroa Boulevard. The coffeehouse, which was a local bridal shop up until nearly five years ago, serves as the morning stop for a wide assortment of residents -- couples, peers, business officials. With Latin tunes radiating from overhead and morning conversations throughout the cafe serving as the soundtrack to our interview, Misty and I discuss the state of Figueroa Boulevard in the midst of Los Angeles' current efforts of Boulevard Revitalization.

Could you describe your vocational work as executive director of the North Figueroa Association? Who you do work with?

I run the Business Improvement District on Figueroa between [Avenue] Fifty and the library, on Piedmont. I work for all the property owners. We do maintenance, security, marketing promotion, and we do the farmers market. We also do the Harvest Festival, and we hang Christmas lights. So I run all those programs, oversee everything, and report to the board of directors.

And you work with other organizations as well?

Well I work with the property owners, mainly. I do work with the Los Angeles Police Department and the City Council Office. Also the City Clerk's Office, and the Department of Public Works. And there's about 45 Business Improvement Districts in the L.A. area. We usually meet once a month -- all the executive directors.

How did you initially enter your role as executive director of this BID?

My husband was actually interested in it. I got interested the more I started going to the meetings and hearing how the money was going to be spent. But they didn't really know how to get it all started, and I knew I had the skills to be able to do that. And so I started working with them. At the very beginning, I started to work for them for free, just to help get them organized. Then they hired me on permanently.

You said you already had the skills, so what were you involved with before?

I'd been in retail management for a lot of years. In Northern California, where I grew up, I used to work for the Disney stores and Civic Center. I'd done a lot of marketing, a lot of promotions and a lot of hiring, a lot of firing. (laughs)

The Farmer's Market. When did that begin?

Around 2006.

Is it primarily food?

We have farmers, we have hot prepared food, and we have arts and crafts. Our arts and crafts, they have to be handmade. Anything that's mass-produced we won't allow to be sold here.

Has the market been expanding since it's origin?

Well we used to be in a parking lot back here. Then we moved to the streets. That was a great move. But it really depends. When the weather's hot, people don't want to come. When it's raining, they do not come.

Are the vendors pretty consistent?

Yes, we have pretty consistent vendors. And once they're here, they have repeat customers. Our customers at the Farmer's Market, they may walk by you a few weeks before they will actually try you. They want to know that you're going to be there and they want to know that you're going to stay. They're just not going to spend their money with you if you're just going to be there one week and not the next. They're loyal.

Do the customers seem to be neighborhood and community members? Does it ever seem touristy?

I do have a lot of tourists come. I think they think we're the Hollywood Farmer's Market. (laughs). Oh, and we do a lot of filming. There's a lot of people calling me, location scouts, scouting the Farmer's Market.

What kinds of businesses are here on Figueroa?

There's some food. There's some retail. Do you ever go to the Highland Theater? It's two or three dollars on Tuesdays. You can see first-run movies for two or three bucks. Let's see, we have banks. We have a lot of check cashing places and nail places. And Susie's Deals is up the street, where people go and get clothing. Fallas Paredes, that's like five dollar clothing.

Fashion 21, is that part of this district? I recently learned that it was the originator of Forever 21.

They started Forever 21 here. They just opened a corporate office in Lincoln Heights. And they're expanding. I don't know how many stores they have now. But they're all over.

Is there an art scene here?

Yeah, we have a lot of artists. And a lot of galleries. Where Chicken Boy is, that's Future Studio. That's an art gallery.

So in this area, are there any businesses or restaurants that you frequent a lot or that you enjoy?

Here [Antigua]. Las Cazuelas, next door. Las Cazuelas is a Salvadoran restaurant. Down the street, El Pescador, is a great restaurant.

Do you see lack of certain kinds of businesses?

We don't have a book store. I think we need more restaurants. There are a couple of bars, but probably more nightlife would be nice. We also need more shops geared toward kids. There's nothing specifically toward eighteen and under. Except, well there's a gaming store here, where you can go and purchase hours and play any video game your heart desires. But yes, there's a lot of kids. I wish there were more things for them to do here, like an arts studio, or an arts and crafts store. Maybe something like Michael's.

How is the maintenance and sanitation in this area [Figueroa]?

We do our own street maintenance, so when the city comes and does it, it supplemental to what we do.

Do you notice a homeless population in this area?

Yes, there is a homeless population. But when we have all the lights, all the security patrolling, and maintenance, and cleaning the streets, they're usually not dwelling here.
And our officers have cards for LAHSA (Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority) and Chrysalis (Chrysalis is a community organization for employment-training and employment placement of homeless individuals). Our workers -- our maintenance workers -- are from Chrysalis. So we try to employ homeless, or at least guide them. Our officers have packets. If they're interested in service, they have a listing of services that they can give them.

This summer I worked at a nonprofit in Downtown Los Angeles. As a community activist organization centered on the homeless population, one of the forces they were fighting is the BID (Business Improvement District) of the downtown area, seeing it as one of the primary forces of gentrification down there. Have you experienced any opposition from community groups or community members?

As far as gentrification occurring in the area, it's slow. It's not -- wow! -- all of sudden. And we don't have encampments like they do in skid row, where it's entrenched. Usually the people just move along, and they probably go to where it's darker, like Monte Vista or maybe York.

So if you were to experience any opposition, how would you respond to that?

Well it depends on what the issue is. And whether or not it becomes such a problem that our maintenance workers just can't take care of that. If it's... what could it be... illegal vending. Illegal vendors don't have health permits and they're not health permit certified. Where do they go to the bathroom? Where do they wash their hands before they're cooking? Or they leave trash all over the place and they leave grease, where people are slipping and falling.

What's your impression about the current neighborhood identity? Who are the residents and community members that use these businesses and these streets?

A lot of Hispanic families. And it's becoming a more walkable community. So I think a lot of young professionals are starting to move in the area. But I'm not so much sure, for example, how do we pull Occidental College students from York down to here? That's a challenge.

How do you think the newcomers, like the young professionals, are affecting the community, the businesses, and residents that are already here in Highland Park?

I think there's been gentrification taking place. And I think more and more people are going to get priced out of the area. Because the home prices are going up so high, I think that the lower income homes are going to be going for more money. So rent's going to go up and people are going to be forced to move.

I'm sure you've heard about recent efforts to improve boulevards -- through beautification, pedestrian encouragement, parklets and such things. How do you think these efforts are going to affect the community?

I think York is improving, and I think with the traffic calming, the four lanes down to three, I think that'll help the businesses. I've been hoping to do traffic calming here for a long time. Even if we could bring our four lanes down to two lanes, or even three lanes would be [great], just because traffic is going so fast.

Currently we're working with LANI, the Los Angeles Neighborhood Initiative. They received a $300,000 grant. I think $200,000 is dedicated to physical improvements on the Figueroa corridor. So we're going to go, with several other business owners, property owners, and residents, to talk about what we want to see that money used for on Figueroa, whether it's a parklet, whether it's crosswalks.

Are there any other improvements that you'd like to see going on on the boulevard?

It's really hard for a lot of business owners to facelift their buildings. This is a historic preservation overlay zone. On York they can do whatever they want, it doesn't have a historic designation. It doesn't have an overlay zone so you have Modern and you have Art Deco, and you have old buildings, historic buildings. They're all just meshed together. There are certain design standards here [on Figueroa], that the business owners have to follow and they have to get approval for changes. That [process] could be easier -- more streamlined, or if there were just general guidelines that we could print out to give to businesses. I think that this is an up and coming area.

In the future, where you see the neighborhood going?

I hope it keeps improving. That it keeps developing and growing.


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