A Los Angeles Primer: Sawtelle, 'Little Osaka'


In 1965, the New Yorker published a series of articles on Los Angeles by "far-flung correspondent" Christopher Rand, then known by the magazine's readers for his dispatches from other such exotic locales as Greece, India, Hong Kong, and Cambridge, Massachusetts. Two years later, these became the book "Los Angeles: The Ultimate City," which, despite its age, I often recommend to friends looking to understand the place. Very few to whom I mention the title have heard it before, and Rand himself, who passed in 1968, rings a faint bell at best, even to other New Yorker writers. "He was a man of intense curiosity and strong perceptive powers, whose writing showed the results of a quest for understanding through the amassing of relevant detail," reads Rand's obituary in the magazine, which adds, "he once walked a hundred miles over rough Himalayan terrain in two days." When this highly skilled and now unjustly forgotten writer of place came to seek his own thorough understanding of Los Angeles almost half a century ago, he set up base camp in Sawtelle, a small west-side neighborhood centered on that boulevard between Olympic and Santa Monica.

"The place is a dozen miles west of Little Tokyo, toward the ocean, and it has been a satellite Japanese quarter since the thirties at least," Rand explains. "Japanese truck-gardeners and nurserymen moved out there from Little Tokyo because the land was cheap, being mostly open country then, and the weather was good for growing." Though not enthralled by all Los Angeles has, sometimes aggressively, to offer — but clearly always fascinated by it — the writer takes pleasure in this neighborhood he makes his temporary home. "In July the Japanese Buddhist Church of Sawtelle put on a fair to celebrate the festival Obon," he writes, with a quaintly touching use of use of italics. "The fair was complete with paper lanterns and scores of kimono'd women dancing old Japanese dances; it also had food-stalls, and Mexican tacos were sold there along with Japanese delicacies like sushi and chicken teriyaki. Mexicans of all ages came to it, too, as did several Anglos or Caucasians, and an air of intercultural friendliness prevailed."


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Simpler racial times, it would seem, though I might also call them less interesting ones. Large sections of Rand's book examine the dynamics between what he saw as Los Angeles' four major groups: whites, Mexicans, Japanese, and blacks, the last of which he never found living in Sawtelle ("though I imagine many would have liked to, if only because a great number worked nearby"). But the next twenty years would bring new waves of immigration — Central Americans, Koreans, Middle Easterners — and thus a change beyond recognition in the city's demographic makeup. By the mid-sixties, Los Angeles had reached roughly the halfway point of the process that would transform it from America's least to most diverse major metropolis. Through it all, Sawtelle has essentially retained its "satellite Japanese quarter" sensibility, the one district apart from Little Tokyo where I know I can find a convenience-store bento lunch, imported magazines, or myriad inexpensive, cheerful, sometimes animal-shaped housewares. Still, walk far enough up Sawtelle today and you'll certainly come across a hookah lounge or two. Turn left onto Santa Monica, and you can even check out a fair few books in Farsi from the local branch library.


As for the influence of the Korean population, which also began arriving in force in the seventies, look no further than Mississippi Avenue, which runs through the heart of the neighborhood: on one side, Seoul Tofu; on the other side, Seoul Sausage. The latter gives a nod to neighborhood history and identity in the name of one of its signature items: the "Li'l Osaka" rice ball. While you can always call Sawtelle Sawtelle, other names incorporating its Japanese history have also made reasonable claims: community pillar Jack Fujimoto titled his Images of America book "Sawtelle: West Los Angeles's Japantown," but I tend to prefer Little Osaka, which not only invokes my favorite city in Japan, but adheres to proportionality: Tokyo ranks as that country's largest and most central conurbation, with Osaka as its second, just as Little Tokyo ranks as Los Angeles' largest and most central Japanese neighborhood, with Little Osaka as its second. Little Tokyo's location close to downtown's skyscrapers reflects, albeit on a small scale, the urbanism of its namesake across the Pacific. But with Osaka's forest of towers, utilitarian gray by day but blinkingly aglow with commercial energy by night, the humble built environment of Sawtelle would seem to have nothing in common at all.

Rand, in his day, observes a more purely Japanified streetscape: "The place abounds in Japanese contract-nurseries, Japanese shops, Japanese restaurants, even Japanese oculists and dentists," and quite few restaurants and a couple of particularly iconic nurseries have held out. He also sees a then-new wave of "small apartment-houses, two storeys high with ten or twelve units each" in which "the Nisei landlords do much of the maintenance themselves and get a modest income while waiting for the great expected high-rise city to approach." Some of those little complexes still look just as they must have back then; some became classic dingbats in the seventies; some grew fortified with concrete and glass bricks in the eighties; some went down over the past twenty years and came back up in flat colors and light wood, studded with blocky balconies. (When viewed from their narrow back alleys, some of these really do remind me of urban Japan.) A few incongruously angular but not particularly imposing office buildings aside, that great high-rise city, 49 years on, shows few signs of imminent arrival in Little Osaka. Even the new Expo Line, that brave pioneer of 21st-century rail service to the city's western half, won't stop anywhere nearer than an irritating half-mile from the neighborhood.


Still, I say to myself as I walk through Sawtelle Boulevard and its environs, if I had to live on the west side, I'd live here: the public, the commercial, and the residential fit within walking distance of each other, the East Asian foods and other consumables I enjoy lay close at hand, and, of course, a writer I admire once made his home here. (Think of the way Bukowski enthusiasts make their pilgrimages to 5124 De Longpre Avenue.) But I realize with no small amount of shame that this line of thinking slots me into a depressingly standard partisan position in the long-standing Los Angeles conflict of west versus east. Debates around this issue usually collapse into cultural and economic hand-waving, personal attacks, and arguments built upon folk geography. Few even agree on where to draw this supposedly great divide: downtown? La Brea Avenue? La Cienega? The 405? Still, using any of these boundaries, Little Osaka qualifies as solidly on the west side, and comparing it to Little Tokyo reveals, at a glance, several of the qualities that still distinguish the west from the rest: slightly higher prices, predominantly low-rise construction, persistently automobile-dependent lifestyles, a feeling of remoteness (either pleasant or unpleasant) from the city, restaurants who shut down their kitchens even before their strangely early posted closing times.

We eastsiders — or, since I myself use a tripartite breakdown of the map, we residents of the central city — regard such neighborhoods, in bitter moments, as hotbeds of regressive NIMBYism. But we dismiss the concern "Not In My Back Yard" too easily if we haven't actually seen a back yard in a while. In Sawtelle, just a block from the Little Osaka strip, the single-story, single-family homes still outnumber the apartment and condo buildings. They have back yards, for the most part, but also front yards, more than a few of them landscaped and sculpture-populated in the traditional Japanese manner. Stroll along a few of the patriotically named residential streets parallel to Sawtelle — Missouri, Nebraska, Iowa — and you'll find some of these houses topped by roofs with the polished tiles and curved eaves everyone recognizes from the architecture of old Japan. You feel the legacy of two merged lifestyles, that of the Japanese immigrant and the American proto-suburbanite. Or maybe three merged lifestyles; "the Mexicans," Rand writes, "seemed to draw the Japanese toward their own style of outdoor living," getting them cooking "out of doors on their traditional hibachi — braziers." It occurs to me that this fascinating process of hybridization may have happened more regularly in the sixties than it does today, but we now live in a Los Angeles in which we hardly dare count the number of lifestyles, groups, or subcultures that exist, even in Sawtelle alone.

Photos by Colin Marshall.

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