When news spread about the demolition of the old brick building at First and Alameda Streets in Little Tokyo, it was a sign that the city had committed itself to the future. The century-old building will be replaced by a new Metro subway stop, slated to become a major transportation hub that will transform the way we travel through downtown. This may be good news from an urbanist perspective -- but what about the history? Should we be paving over a precious link to the past in the name of progress?
Last February a large crowd gathered inside the building (now a branch of local chain Senor Fish) to honor its legacy. Much of the conversation centered around the Atomic Cafe, which occupied the building for almost three decades and best known as an after-hours hangout for the local punks and weirdos in the '80s. Organized by the Little Tokyo Service Center, this event was kind of a last hurrah for Nancy Sekizawa, a.k.a. Atomic Nancy, the "kabuki kind of punk girl" who presided over the circus-like vibe of the cafe during its heyday, jumping across tables in rollerskates and slinging bowls of noodles to the rowdy customers in red naugahyde booths. This evening she took center stage in that same room for the very last time, as the featured DJ, spinning those dusty old 45s from the famous Atomic jukebox.
Months later when asked about the event and the impending demolition of the building, Sekizawa seemed relieved. "I don't give a shit," she said, perhaps showing a bit of stubborn defiance left over from her punk past. "I'm gonna be honest, it was so creepy playing in there and spinning those records."
But Sekizawa clearly does care about the Atomic Cafe and its legacy, which she proudly carries on by sometimes resurrecting the Atomic Nancy persona as a DJ. Perhaps she just doesn't need any physical monument to her memories -- "I don't believe in illusions 'cos too much is real," as her favorite singer John Lydon once sang -- since she experienced it all firsthand.
Minoru Matoba and his wife Ito both hailed from the northern states -- Minoru from Whitefish, Montana, Ito from Kemmerer, Wyoming. While Ito's parents ran a diner in Kemmerer catering to the local miners, she and her 13 siblings were sent back to Japan as kibeis -- American-born but educated in Japan -- and came back to America not long before WWII broke out. By the time the war ended, the Matobas had met, married, and settled in Los Angeles, where they opened the Atomic Cafe in Little Tokyo in 1946, with memories of the bomb and nuclear fears fresh in people's minds.
The post-war years in Little Tokyo was a time of recovery. After Executive Order 9066 forced Japanese Americans out of their homes and businesses, the neighborhood soon became known as Bronzeville, as newly arrived African Americans began occupying the empty apartments and storefronts. Some of these spaces became jazz and r&b clubs that attracted a racially mixed clientele -- a rarity in those days when de facto segregation was rampant. It was a similar spirit of inclusiveness that spilled into the Atomic Cafe in its early years, as seen in photos taken at its original location.
In fact, this kind of integrated cafe culture was nothing new to Little Tokyo. The first Japanese-owned business in Los Angeles was a restaurant opened in 1884 on East First Street -- not too far from where Atomic would be -- which served not Japanese food but hearty American fare, like meat and potatoes and soup. The patrons were decidedly mixed and working class, perhaps on their lunch break from working on the railroads at the nearby Santa Fe Depot. This kind of menu was the norm at many other Japanese-owned eateries of its day, like Quaker Dairy with a large African American clientele, and Sunrise Diner serving 15 cent chicken dinners.
At the Atomic Cafe, the menu consisted of "Japanese Chinese American" food. "Hamburgers, foo young, chop suey -- sort of like the old '60s type of food," as Sekizawa remembers. "We were known for our chashu ramen -- that was probably the only thing that was really good. Everything else was like, you know, I would eat when I can. It was alright for me -- I'm glad we're not on Yelp."
The Best Noodles and Jukebox in Town
The cafe moved to the old brick building at First and Alameda in 1961, which became its home until the end. Sekizawa practically grew up and lived at the Atomic Cafe during that time, and saw the neighborhood gradually change around her. "When I was a little girl I just knew that it was a community," she says. "If you had a flower shop we'd go and buy flowers for different occasions, and in turn you would come over eat at our place, bring your family over. So it was very community based ... And then during the '70s, I'd say the mid-70s, the cars -- the Hondas, Mitsubishi, you name it, Toyota -- they started coming over and changed the entire feeling of Little Tokyo. It was more 'Japan.' More of the businesses started coming in."
After a brief stint as a singer in a band Hiroshima (which included a quick lesson in Asian American studies and activism from her bandmates), Sekizawa reluctantly took over the cafe kitchen when her father became ill. Business during this time was not good. "I was cooking, and I didn't really like cooking," Sekizawa remembers. "I'm more of like a people's hands on kind of person."
When her father got better and resumed his role in the kitchen, Sekizawa began working the front of house. "And then I just started wearing the avant punk stuff," she remembers, "and since I entertained before, I said shoot, let me just do this, just put some punk records and put up some posters because these people like it. And I did too, and they were really cool. It was a circus, seriously."
Now the Atomic Cafe not only had "The Best Noodles in Town," but also a one-of-a-kind jukebox filled with a mix of oldies, classic rock, crooners, local private press punk, the latest Rodney Bingenheimer hits, and Japanese 45s that her father had bought from Bunkado, the longstanding Little Tokyo music store. This eclecticism was reflected in the cafe's patrons, which included not only the artists, punks, and weirdos -- The Go Go's, David Byrne, Sid Vicious -- but also local business and regular folk. Sometimes even shady Yakuza would show up.
So how did Atomic Cafe gain a reputation as an all-inclusive hangout for everyone? "Well I guess it was because it was so left field," Sekizawa says. "Punk rockers didn't have really a place to go. But we accepted them, you know, we just accepted them ... You know the bigger names like X would play at the Whiskey or the Starwood, but these guys also went to some of the local pubs and dives, and we were one of the dives."
Even for Sekizawa herself, the Atomic Cafe was where she felt the most comfortable. "Most punk rockers were misfits," she says, "and that's why I felt like -- I felt pretty good. I didn't feel like I ever blended, anywhere. Even in the Asian American scene, I just felt -- this was just too hard for me. But these guys were artists, and ADHD, you know schizophrenic, I didn't care ... It was a home for the ones that didn't feel like they ever had a home."
The Circus Leaves Town
The circus had to leave town someday, and so the Atomic Cafe came to a close on Thanksgiving Day, 1989. Sekizawa felt relieved, but bittersweet. "There was so much heartache that happened just to keep it going, that whole thing going," she remembers. "When it was done I was going yeah! It was over! It's fine!"
Around the old brick building at First and Alameda, where once stood other old brick lowrises that defined the neighborhood, were now empty dirt and parking lots, bulldozed in the name of redevelopment. The punks and weirdos had grown up or moved on, and Little Tokyo was changing. Sean Carrillo, who with Bibbe Hansen (Beck's mom) opened the influential Troy Cafe in the old brick building after Atomic closed, wrote this eulogy in the wake of the announcement of the demolition:
On the outskirts of the civic center of Los Angeles, and much closer to the ragged edge of the city, the burgeoning art scene co-existed with the punks in this nether world of bohemians, tramps, junkies, mobsters and world class artists.
If it could all be boiled down to one place, one nexus, one geographical location that served as ground zero where all these disparate groups met, where there was no animosity, no cultural arrogance, and certainly no exclusionary practices it was surely the iconic and legendary Atomic Café.
When asked if there could be another place like the Atomic Cafe today, Sekizawa didn't think so. "We did everything against all the codes, citations, we broke them then, and there would be such severe consequences today. That's why I don't think it'll happen. But I don't know. Who knows."
Pieces of the building are planned to become part of a memorial for itself to be incorporated into the new subway station. Perhaps the new train line will be another way to bring together the misfits, the locals, and maybe even the Yakuza, at the corner of First and Alameda, the same way the Atomic Cafe did; we can only hope.
Special thanks to Nancy Sekizawa and Remy de la Peza for their invaluable help.
Photos courtesy of Remy de la Peza/Little Tokyo Service Center.