On a cherry-blossom blessed curve of Yokohama’s Ooka River lies Koganecho — the town of gold. For the past 60 years, however, this alluring name has felt like a bad joke to local residents.

In World War II, American B-29s bombed the area flat, and the black market that sprang from the rubble quickly became teamed with narcotics and prostitution. During the 1950s, American bebop pianist Hampton Hawes and the father of the Beatniks, William S. Burroughs, extolled the potency of the area’s drugs, while director Akira Kurosawa chose Koganecho to depict the evils of heroin in his 1963 thriller, “High and Low.”

Although the drug trade was stamped out in the late 1960s, prostitution boomed and, by the beginning of the 21st century, the area had more than 150 tiny chon-no-ma (one-woman brothels) — the majority of which were worked by women from developing countries. This was not the type of international image that Yokohama was hoping to project in 2009 during celebrations to mark the 150th anniversary of the opening of its port. So in January 2005, the police launched “Operation Bai-bai” to clean up the area once and for all.

The three-month campaign was overwhelmingly successful in eradicating the sex trade, but the authorities were faced with a new problem — without the flow of cash and foot traffic the brothels had generated, the streets now resembled the shuttered ghost towns found throughout postindustrial Japan. The solution to this decline was a radical one.

“To be honest, art was the only answer,” says Shingo Yamano, the current director of Koganecho Area Management Center, the NPO charged with the task of bringing life back to the district.

“The wide variety of groups involved (in the area’s rejuvenation) — the police, the residents, the city authorities — had such a diverse range of ideas, that art really was the only way to link them together. So we decided to create a town where artists could come to live and work.”

In 2006, the city set about gutting the 20-sq.-meter brothels — many of which still held prostitutes’ hastily abandoned belongings — and refurbishing their interiors into offices, studios and workshops. Alongside these existing buildings, two large studios were constructed beneath the Keikyu Corporation railway tracks. Built of glass with a series of elevated walkways from where visitors can watch the artists working below, the Koganecho and nearby Hinodecho studios provide a refreshing degree of transparency in contrast to the illicit former brothels.

Locals who had endured two generations of vice, however, remained doubtful as to how art could help their community.

“The turning point was the 2008 Koganecho Bazaar,” explains Yamano. The 2 1/2-month festival was held in conjunction with the Yokohama Triennale — a city-wide exhibition of international art. The Bazaar brought 30 artists to the area from as far afield as Beijing and Brisbane, Australia — along with more than 100,000 visitors. Not since the days of its sex trade had Koganecho been so busy, and the Bazaar highlighted to residents the project’s potential benefits.

Interactions with the artists themselves also helped to win over many skeptics. “Seeing the artists living and working among them made people realize that they were regular folk,” says Yamano. “In particular, two artists stood out.” Wit Pimkanchanapong, a Thai artist, set up a workshop where people could make origami fruits and exchange them for real apples and bananas. Oita-native Taisuke Abe came to Koganecho and created hundreds of stuffed toys — based on designs provided by the general public.

Bazaars in 2009 and 2010 built upon the success of the 2008 fair. The 2011 Bazaar is scheduled to be held in the autumn and, given the recent devastation in northern Japan, it is hoped that, by conveying Koganecho’s rejuvenation, it might inject a tiny sliver of optimism into these troubled times.

Yamano, though, realizes that a truly sustainable community requires much more than annual events — the true litmus test is how it survives for the rest of the year.

With this in mind, I headed to the area on an overcast winter Sunday. Walking past Koganecho’s new koban (police box), a policeman called me over and pointed proudly to Isetaka-kun, the anime-esque hawk perched atop its roof. “The bird keeps a watch over the neighborhood and makes people feel safe.”

Back on the ground, the alleyways reflected this optimism. Bright murals and video installations illuminate the once-shady arches; the former brothels were busy with artists dyeing, painting and creating digital designs. At the Koganecho Studio, a resident novelist was giving a talk on how technology can benefit the creative process, while in the next room, performance artist Zan Yamashita blended surreal yoga-like gestures with a seamless monologue of pop-cultural puns that enthralled the audience of university students and local youngsters.

In the same building, Kazuko Hiyoshi watched over the community’s farmers’ market, selling cabbages, bay leaves and fresh-made onigiri. When asked how she feels about the NPO’s campaign, she explained, “I’ve lived in Koganecho for 30 years and I saw how bad things used to be. We couldn’t change things by ourselves so I’m very grateful for the work that everybody is doing here.”

Hiyoshi isn’t alone in her gratitude. Yokohama City subsidizes the rents on the converted brothels, allowing many young people to open businesses for the first time. Yoshiko Kigawa, the owner of Kibou-cha, is typical of these entrepreneurs. Serving Japanese and Chinese teas in a three-floor cafe, she said the setting is ideal. “The river and the cherry blossoms are the perfect spot for a tea shop like mine. I’d never be able to afford a location as good as this elsewhere.”

However, not everybody is satisfied with the district’s changes. One longtime resident, who declined to be identified, lamented his loss of income. “In the past, I used to receive ¥10,000 a day from the prostitutes who rented my property. Now the city is offering me around ¥30,000 a month.”

There are also those such as bar owner Shinji Sato, who wishes the NPO would embrace some of the area’s former grittiness. “Instead, they are trying to erase all traces of the past. Many locals don’t feel welcomed by the new project.”

Yamano is aware of these sentiments, but he compares the bygone Koganecho to a flower. “Some people are nostalgic for its bright bloom, but they’ve forgotten about the roots and stem that allowed it to flourish — the gangsters and organized criminals.”

While the authorities have done much to drive conspicuous crime from the area, Yamano worries about what might happen behind the closed doors of the roughly 100 chon-no-ma that are, as yet, outside the NPO’s management. “We fear that criminal groups will move poor men into the buildings, lock them up and farm them for their welfare payments. That sort of thing goes on in Kotobukicho (the nearby slum district) and we’re concerned it will happen here.”

To prevent this, the NPO plans to lease 50 more former brothels in the next three years, hopefully tipping the balance in its favor.

“At the same time, we intend to build four new studios beneath the railway tracks. Fortunately, we still have the financial support of the city, but we know that won’t last forever.”

On April 2 and 3, NPO Koganecho Management Center will open its studios as part of the area’s annual Ookagawa cherry blossom festival. Although, the recent temblor in Tohoku has necessitated changes to its schedule, there will be live music, food stalls and a children’s class on how to build a house from cherry blossom petals.

For updated information, access the NPO’s website at: www.koganecho.net.

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