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Memories of Little Tokyo on East First Street

Standing in the shadows of the slick architectural lines of the Civic Center and modern high rises in downtown Los Angeles, there's a collection of quaint old buildings that seems almost impossible in this era of rapid redevelopment and bulldozing of history. Built between 1882 and 1957, the structures on the north side of East First Street, between Central Avenue and San Pedro Street, are survivors -- the last ones standing.

The opening of Kame Restaurant in 1885 -- the first known Japanese-owned business in Los Angeles -- signaled this block as the beginning of what we now know as Little Tokyo. From serving as the entertainment district for itinerant farmers, through the WWII years, to the redevelopment threats of the post-war era, this little stretch has seen through the constantly changing landscape of the city.

Omoide no Sho-Tokyo, or Memories of Little Tokyo, a public art project by Sheila Levrant de Bretteville and Sonya Ishii, traces the history and memories of the neighborhood with a timeline of landmark events and businesses embedded on the sidewalk. Juxtaposed with the historic yet still-thriving surroundings, it provides a fascinating glimpse into the past, while planted firmly in the present. This block, known as the Little Tokyo Historic District, can be seen as a living museum.

So what are some of the "exhibits" on display? Let's take a look.

Far East Cafe opened in 1935 | Photo by Yosuke Kitazawa

Rising at the site of the oldest business listed on the Omoide timeline -- the Queen Hotel from 1890 -- is one of the most recognizable features of East First Street: a neon sign glowing with the words "Chop Suey." This was the site of the Far East Cafe, which opened in 1935 and quickly became the informal center of the Japanese-American community. Families and friends often gathered inside its wood-paneled booths, savoring their favorite China meshi (Chinese food) dishes like the chashu pork and almond duck. Tony Osumi, a former regular, writes in his "China Meshi Manifesto,"

My grandparents went there in the '30s. My father in the '50s. I in the '70s. And when I have children, the family scrapbook will show them in a high-chair continuing the tradition... true, it may not be chic or immediately accessible, but you have to admit -- Far East has soul.

A few doors down, in front of the American-diner-style red and white tiles that line the facade of the Japanese diner Suehiro Cafe, the timeline reads:

Ca.1890: First Japanese immigrant opens American style restaurant

In fact, as fitting for an area that has always been diverse -- from Jewish and German businesses scattered among the issei-owned, to the First AME Church on Azusa Street -- the earliest Japanese-owned eateries such as Kame Restaurant (1885, 340 E. First St.), Quaker Dairy (1888, 304 E. First St.), and Sunrise Restaurant (1895, 209 E. First St.) did not cater exclusively to the Japanese; they all served mostly American meals to the working class in the area.

Interestingly, Suehiro Cafe, one of the oldest operating restaurants in Little Tokyo (since 1972), is located in the ground floor space of the Sperl Building, built in 1882-- one of the oldest continuously family-owned building in Los Angeles (and supposedly haunted).

Suehiro Cafe at the Sperl Building | Photo by Yosuke Kitazawa

By early 20th century, Little Tokyo was, for better or worse, a self-contained Japanese-American community. Based on the Omoide timeline, you can see that one could run their entire laundry list of errands just on East First Street: buy the latest edition of Rafu Shimpo at E. Fukushima Bookstore, lunch at N. Kimura Restaurant, catch a matinee at International Theater, and pick up groceries at Kii Shokai Foods on the way home.

These days, that same grocery store location sees a constant overflow of foodies waiting for their bowl of fatty ramen at Daikokuya, one of the most popular spot in Little Tokyo. This restaurant itself represents a curious time paradox: opened in 2002, its wood-paneled interior with vintage beer ads suggests a Showa-era ramen shop, housed underneath the rumbling train tracks of post-war Tokyo. But this isn't Occupied Japan -- rather it's located inside a century-old building in downtown Los Angeles, representing a collision of the past and present.

Outside Daikokuya | Photo by Yosuke Kitazawa

As you continue along the Omoide timeline, it becomes apparent that it goes no further than the year 1947. It also contains many gaps -- notably the absence of any reference to the block's pre-Little Tokyo era. But it wasn't for lack of research that the timeline appears incomplete. As explained by Sheila Levrant de Bretteville in an interview conducted by artist Lynn Hershman Leeson in 2008, "you could leave those gaps unoccupied so that people have a place to have their thoughts and bring content to it -- a place for what's absent, a place for absence -- because that allows another kind of presence to take place there."

This gap is where we come in. As we gather stories from the community, we fill in some of the gaps, write our own version of history, and extend the timeline into the future. Historic businesses like Fugetsudo, Anzen Hardware, and Bunkado will remind us of the tight-knit community of the past ("As children we played on this street, and all the shopkeepers knew us" -- Brian Kito, third generation owner of Fugetsudo, as part of Omoide); new boutique shops and restaurants will breathe new life into the ever-changing neighborhood.

But our work is never complete -- there will always be room for more. As de Bretteville explains further, Omoide is really about "leaving space for who's not there yet to come and find their place -- places change over time and you need to make sure... that there's something left for those who come later."

Do you have a Little Tokyo story of your own? Let us know, and help us build upon our collective Memories of Little Tokyo.

Corner of San Pedro and First Street | Photo by Yosuke Kitazawa

Explore the related interactive mural

About the Author

Yosuke Kitazawa is the Site Editor of KCET Departures.

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