Little Tokyo’s Pentecostal Miracle

The plaques and signs memorializing Azusa Street are understated, but the historic site could have fared much worse.

By Mark Kendall, MARK KENDALL is a freelance writer based in Ontario.
May 2, 2007. Los Angeles Times

NEVER-LOOK-BACK Los Angeles managed to brick over one of the nation’s key religious historical sites without even realizing it. And somehow that turned out to be a good thing — maybe even a miracle.

It was in downtown just over a century ago that the hands-raising, tongues-speaking form of Christian faith now known as Pentecostalism ignited into a global movement. From a bare-bones church on Azusa Street, a black preacher named William J. Seymour led multiracial crowds in an ecstatic revival that began in April 1906. Today, this movement stressing the need for believers to receive the “baptism in the Spirit” booms far beyond the U.S., in Latin America, Africa and parts of Asia.

But when Pentecostal pilgrims find their way to Azusa Street these days, they discover no soaring memorial or grand cathedral. The movement’s holiest site outside of the Holy Land is today just another downtown L.A. plaza, this one in what is now Little Tokyo. The street was long ago reduced to an alley.

For more than a decade, a group of Pentecostal and community leaders have worked to memorialize the site. Bill Watanabe, executive director of the Little Tokyo Service Center, knew nothing of Pentecostalism but became intrigued after being repeatedly asked by visitors for directions to Azusa Street — which he knew only as an unremarkable alley. After learning the story behind it, he helped launch the Azusa Street Memorial Committee in the 1990s.

But formal recognition of the site’s importance remains understated at best. The location where the church — torn down in 1931 — stood is covered over by a brick plaza created by renowned sculptor Isamu Noguchi in the early 1980s as part of the larger Japanese American Cultural and Community Center complex.

The memorial committee’s efforts have yielded only a city sign marking the alleyway as the “Cradle of the Worldwide Pentecostal Movement” and two plaques at the actual church site. And those plaques are decidedly hard to spot so as not to alter the appearance of the plaza — the entire space is considered a work of art.

Advocates of a grander memorial stepped up their campaign last year during the buildup to the Azusa Street Centennial Celebration, which drew thousands of Pentecostals to Los Angeles in April 2006. They touted a proposal for a “SpiritWalk” depicting the famous revival and the neighborhood’s multicultural history through a mural and promenade along the alleyway. But the JACCC has objected to the use of the back side of its wall separating the plaza from the alleyway for a mural. The center is planning renovations to the property and the wall may not stay, according to Executive Director Chris Aihara. Last week, memorial advocates were touting a simpler plan for an obelisk to be located on city property deeper into the alleyway, next to where the church once stood.

But whether or not a fitting memorial materializes, I can’t help but wonder if something more significant than markers or murals has been missed. In the decades after the revival, this prime piece of land in downtown Los Angeles could easily have been overtaken by another sterile steel-and-glass high rise, a concrete-bunker parking structure or a dumpy little hot dog stand.

The site, then a parking lot, narrowly escaped being overtaken by a theater when the redevelopment plans for Little Tokyo unfolded in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The theater was to be built as part of a larger JACCC complex, and nobody involved seems to have understood the place’s history. The Times’ stories at the time made no mention of it. “We did not know the significance of the location,” said Les Hamasaki, a former urban planner for the city who has become part of the Azusa Street memorial effort.

But when Noguchi saw the plans for the complex, he balked, insisting that the project needed a larger plaza. He literally picked up the model of the theater and moved it, according to Hamasaki. The artist got his way, and the sacred site was inadvertently spared, “just by happenstance,” Hamasaki said.

Or was it?

Today, the stark plaza where the church once stood offers an open space where Pentecostals are still able gather to worship and seek something more lasting than a memorial. There’s the miracle — one of the harder-to-spot kind that I’m certain happens all the time in the City of Angels.