Opinion: Remembering Tom Yamashita at the Detroit Bungalows

Tom Yamashita was a dear resident of West Hollywood who passed away on Memorial Day weekend. An elderly Asian American man without a nearby relative, he had lived at the Detroit Bungalows for 38 years. It was in this home that he was found alone and deceased.

I was a neighbor of Tom’s for three years. He was extremely quiet and introverted. So I considered it a privilege that he spoke to me. During the Christmas holidays I noticed Tom’s mail piling up. I knew that wasn’t normal. I found out from neighbors that he had been taken away in an ambulance, but no one knew where he was or how to reach him. I called around and found Tom at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

Tom Yamashita's vine-clad apartment at the Detroit Bungalows.
Tom Yamashita’s vine-clad apartment at the Detroit Bungalows.

Tom was so happy when I talked to him. I told him I was watching his car, home and mail. Tom was overwhelmed, thinking no one would even notice he was missing. When he came home we exchanged cell phone numbers and decided I would be his contact if any other emergency arose.

When his mail piled up again this Memorial Day weekend, I called his cell phone, and there was no answer. I called Cedars-Sinai, and he was not there. I concluded he probably had died. His death was confirmed four days later. My purpose in writing about this is to communicate things Tom would have wanted the residents of West Hollywood to know.

Tom Yamashita's apartment before the greenery.
Tom Yamashita’s apartment before the greenery.

Tom told me countless times that he was so grateful that I had demanded that the West Hollywood Community Housing Corporation paint the Detroit Bungalows and allow greenery. I was forced to start three different petitions pleading with WHCHC to let us have a few potted plants, to have fresh green paint on our window frames, which had been a flat dirty-colored beige for 20-some years. Tom signed every petition.

In the process of this fight, I received three warnings from WHCHC and their management company, the John Stewart Management Co. When Tom saw the retaliation from WHCHC and John Steward Co., he told me: “I’ll back you up. You are taking the brunt for all of us.” Tom said he believed the take over of the Detroit Bungalows by WHCHC had turned the property into a lifeless compound. Residents had become too intimidated by WHCHC to request anything.

For example, the neighborhood blessed us with a beautiful potted tree. WHCHC and John Stewart Management Co. demanded we get rid of the lovely tree we affectionately named “The Tree of Life.” At one point I asked residents to write a short paragraph telling WHCHC why they wanted trees, plants and a garden. I hoped that WHCHC would soften if it read the heartfelt pleas of elderly and disabled people who simply wanted a sense of home.

Here is the exact quote from Tom Yamashita’s request to WHCHC on May 17th 2014: “I have been a tenant here for over 37 years. When I first moved in, a big fruit-bearing avocado tree grew next to my apartment. Tenants grew potted plants outside their residences. When WHCHC purchased the property the bungalows were ‘rejuvenated’ and the grounds cleaned up. The avocado tree was torn down. We were no longer allowed to ‘clutter’ the fronts of our apartments with chairs, lounges, umbrellas, tables or plants. It was very clean, barren and sterile. Now mainly to Dr. Love and the voluntary efforts of others, there are contained plants and trees in front of our apartments and a truly ‘neighborly’ and comfortable feel to this place. I absolutely love the potted tree placed by the back of the wall that hides the storage units and ugly trash bin!”

These words of Tom continue to speak after his death. With this story are pictures of beautiful vines growing around Tom’s window that he loved. Also there is a picture of our organic garden right outside Tom’s window. Tom told me once that he was really glad to come home because of all the greenery.

The pictures show the dismal beige painted bungalow with nothing but gravel on the ground. This was what Tom had to look at for decades before I vehemently objected to Shannon Lampkins and Robin Conerly of WHCHC and Natalia Klimova of John Stewart Management Co. Finally Councilmember john D’Amico and West Hollywood’s rent stabilization and code compliance staff intervened, resulting in the more vibrant photo published with this article.

Today flowers have been put in front of Tom’s door. Flowers he will never see to appreciate. The flowers he saw and loved were the ones growing around his windows and the rose bushes in the flower beds.

WHCHC sent out its “resident services” to invite residents to a “Celebrate Tom’s Life” party to be held in front of Tom’s former home. White tarp and duct tape were thrown over Tom’s windows in an attempt to cover up the flies crawling on the inside of his Tom’s former home — flies that infiltrated the home because of the stench of a dead body.

This was an attempt to keep such an unsightly reality from the gala event planned by WHCHC’s residential services to acknowledge Tom’s departure. But it’s not the flowers you leave at the door when someone is dead that matter, it’s the flowers you allow someone to have in a pot in front of their window to enjoy while he is alive. Tom wanted to have a home, a place to take a minute from all the chaos and notice a flower, a tomato growing, a baby bird.

Now WHCHC is proposing to bulldoze the Detroit Bungalows and build an even more impersonal multi-unit compound. Is providing a home more important to WHCHC than the bottomline? Is it really a non-profit driven to help the less fortunate? Or is it simply a real estate developer that profits off of funding for the less fortunate?

A party for Tom who isn’t around to enjoy it? A celebration provided by WHCHC, which denied Tom for years the pleasure of a potted plant? A party in front of his now fly-infested home, with dilapidated window coverings? It is not what you do for someone when they are dead, it is what you do for someone when they are alive, that matters.

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Michael Wojtkielewicz - inactive member of WHCHC Board
Michael Wojtkielewicz - inactive member of WHCHC Board
7 years ago

Tom Yamashita, a 38-year long resident of the Detroit Bungalows WAS Aging in Place. Mr. Greg Sanders, a 41-year resident of the Detroit Bungalows IS Aging in Place. Dr. Love, a resident who had to endure the wrath of a West Hollywood Community Housing Corporation hired attorney for 2+ hours at an Administrative Remedies Procedure orchestrated by WHCHC’s benefactor, the City of West Hollywood, all because she and her neighbors requested the replacement of a small $150 entry gate for the property along with the desire to have a new garden rake, is CERTAINLY Aging in Place. In fact, all… Read more »

Larry Block
Larry Block
7 years ago

Hi Tom, Rest in Peace. Thank you for your years of love in our community. Thank you Pamela for this fine article. If there is a celebration of Tom’s life please let me know so I can attend. Personally, I think that is a nice thing and should not be looked at with blame to WHCC.

Disco Dan
Disco Dan
7 years ago

This matter should be addressed before a meeting of the WeHo City Council ! This scenario is very disturbing to me. Further, ANY WeHo Senior Citizen should contact TELECHECK, a service provided by WeHo wherein a volunteer will call that person M-F to ensure all is well. If they do not receive a response by mid-afternoon, they will call the person you have designated to come to your residence to ensure the person is OK.

7 years ago

Wow! A powerful (obit./criticism of WHCHC). We choose to think that Mr. Yamashita is an example of love. He is an example of the love that the Citizens of West Hollywood felt when the formed a City in 1984. John Heilman, Abbe Land and Sal Guariello had the good sense to help establish a housing corporation that provides safe, decent and affordable housing for many people. Mr. Yamashita was a beneficiary of that good thinking and well, we hope, more people will benefit from the forward thinking of West Hollywood’s founders. The management may not have been perfect, but 38… Read more »

7 years ago

A dreary court turned into a beautiful place. Perhaps the Housing Corp. should no longer be supported by the city.

Krisy K Gosney
Krisy K Gosney
7 years ago

Thank you Dr Love for continuing your fight for human dignity and the pursuit of happiness. I think your later conclusion is right- some where in the history of the WHCHC, they have figured out how to profit off of ‘serving the community’ by acting as real estate developers. Real non-profits have a humanity about the way they operate. For profit businesses, exist to serve the bottom-line. Both are fine. However, in the these years and years of worshiping the bottom line and disdaining humanity (in Weho and around the globe), it seems WHCHC has gone terrifically off course from… Read more »

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