Saturday, June 9, 2018

the masque

On February 19, 1942 FDR signed Executive Order 9066 forcing the relocation of Japanese-Americans to internment camps, including many citizens whose parents and grandparents were born in this country. Isei, Nisei and Sansei, 1st, 2nd and 3rd generation Japanese Americans, were taken to the camps, and the area of Los Angeles surrounding 1st and Alameda was soon repopulated by African-Americans instead, for a time it was even nicknamed Bronzeville.

When the war was over in 1945, those able to return and rebuild, did so. In 1946, Ito and Minoru Matoba opened a diner serving noodles and Japanese fare and gave it the rather bold name, Atomic Café, despite the very recent atrocities at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. "People will always remember the atomic bomb. Maybe they will always remember the Atomic Café," said Matoba.


By the mid-seventies central LA had evolved yet again and years of suburban flight caused the area around the Atomic to became a scary and brave new world, but the café lingered on. When punk music hit the city in 1977, the Atomic Café was reborn. Nancy Sekizawa, daughter of the owners and  a former singer with the band, Hiroshima, decided to plaster the walls and ceiling of the café with posters and fliers for punk bands. The jukebox, already a mix of standards, classic rock and roll and Japanese hits also began to reflect this shift. In short order, the jukebox at the Atomic was perfectly suited to its clientele and provided the soundtrack for a unique cultural mash-up.

Paige Osburn, in an article for LA Weekly wrote, "Once upon a time, Sid Vicious walked into a tiny café in Little Tokyo, got six orders of fried rice and started a food fight. On another occasion, David Byrne ordered an Egg Foo Yung and a glass of milk. And on different night, an all-girl band from Los Angeles picked up a plate of Gogo Chicken and decided they liked the name."

"I broke my arm one time when I was in kindergarten and everybody [at the Café] signed it," recalls Zen Sekizawa, Nancy's daughter. "It was like, the Screamers logo, anarchy signs - people writing 'fuck you' and putting out their cigarettes on it. Then of course I went to school and my teacher was horrified. That's when I realized, 'Oh wow, we have a different lifestyle than other people.'"

The Atomic was an incredible mix of punk, ska, locals (Asians), celebs and great times centered around music. The café closed in 2013, albeit far removed from its punk heyday, and one year ago today the iconic building at 1st and Alameda in Little Tokyo was demolished. (Here’s where an ex-Angeleno wants to type a sad face.) The hundred year old bricks bear witness to the evolution of a city. A city and a café where electric railway cars once rolled past and punks, artists and Yakuza sat side by side eating noodles and listening to the Clash, Gene Vincent and Frank Sinatra. As an aside, I find something quite interesting. I am a Sansei. No, not from Japan.  My grandmother came over from Germany in 1908, an Isei, and I was born to a German-American mother, the Nisei who was never interned in a camp, but continued to live instead in a charming little home in Clifton, NJ.