Decades ago, Melrose Avenue was the spot that drew young people with unusual tastes to shop and congregate. Now they're heading to Little Tokyo. Stop by on weekends and you'll see large groups of high school and college-aged kids from across the city dressed up to browse shop racks, snack on mochi or sit down for a bowl of ramen. Weekdays are busy too, particularly if you're here sometime after school lets out for the day.
Little Tokyo, however, isn't just a destination for the young. This downtown neighborhood has found a balance between hip boutiques and old L.A. establishments, as well as between daytrippers and local residents. While it celebrates its 130th anniversary this year, it appeals to a new generation of Angelenos without losing its identity. We talked to one neighborhood insider on what makes this neighborhood unique.
Ellen Endo grew up in the area. Her parents owned a hotel nearby on 5th Street. “It was kind of our backyard,” she says of Little Tokyo. After years of working as a newspaper editor and in the television industry, she now runs Hapa Consulting Services. She's also the president of the Little Tokyo Business Association. That's the volunteer-run organization that represents the 429 businesses in the neighborhood and operates the Business Improvement District. They take care of things like street maintenance and safety as well as handling some marketing for the locals.
“It was really bustling, but it really was a Japanese-American community,” Endo says of the Little Tokyo of her childhood. “There weren't that many other nationalities or ethnicities there.”
Today, the neighborhood is a little different. She estimates that about 60 percent of the businesses are Japanese-owned or Japanese-operated. Some of those businesses are family-run establishments that have existed for generations. One of the best known of these is Fugetso-Do, a sweets shop known for its mochi. It's been around since 1903.
However, the number of family ventures in the neighborhood has decreased over the years. “A lot of the third and fourth generation people whose families had businesses in Little Tokyo, either chose to conduct business elsewhere— like Gardena, Torrance, Orange County— or went into totally different professions,” she says.
In recent years, though, Little Tokyo has seen an increase in trend-setting boutiques. There's Popkiller, with its mix of vintage and new items. Kools sells retro dresses from brands like Stop Staring! and Bettie Page Clothing. Fairytale specializes in Japanese street styles. QPop sells clothing and accessories alongside art. Then there are the multiple shops that specialize in colorful sneakers. The shoe stores were amongst the earliest to bring youth-oriented fashion the neighborhood. “These are young entrepreneurs, the kind of shops that you would find on Melrose,” says Endo.
With the new shops came new clientele. Stop by on a weekend and you'll see large groups of young people hanging around the neighborhood. Sometimes they're dressed up in Japanese brands like Baby the Stars Shine Bright or Sex Pot Revenge. Other times, they cosplay, or dress in costumes representative of characters from cartoon series and comic books. Endo says that it's been about a decade since locals began to notice the cosplayers. “Now it's a very common sight,” she says. “They seem to feel comfortable there and very welcome.”
Little Tokyo shops cater to a lot of subcultures, but it's the fans of Japanese media, from anime to fashion magazines to music, who turn up here most frequently, perhaps to buy a collectible at Anime Jungle or grab a bite at Mr. Ramen. Local businesses sometimes hold gatherings for the customers as well. Anime Jungle has put on a number of in-store events over the years. Fairytale recently organized a Fashion Walk for its well-dressed shoppers.
But it's not just the kids who love Little Tokyo. The neighborhood butts up against the Civic Center, which brings in the lunch crowd. Restaurants here can get packed and frequently stay that way until late in the evening. Endo mentions some of the most popular eateries in the neighborhood, including Sushi-Gen and Daikokyua Ramen. For the nighttime crowd, there are a few good watering holes too, like Far Bar or Nirvana. For non-drinkers, there are coffee and teas spots dotting the neighborhood. Yes, Starbucks is amongst those, but there's also Tom n Toms, a Korean chain with several locations in L.A., and Demitasse.
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Little Tokyo's residents are changing too. Some of the housing complexes that were built around the turn of the 21st century were marketed towards Japanese residents, Endo says. There is also senior housing that caters primarily to Japanese-Americans. The more recent buildings, though, draw an ethnically mixed group. Endo notes that Little Tokyo has attracted business owners in Koreatown who didn't necessarily want to live where they work. The Business Association hasn't done any demographic studies of the current residents.
The early-'00s rush to build more housing in urban areas led to Little Tokyo's evolution. “At first it was a shaky start,” says Endo. “They were looking at the possibility of not having tenants or buyers.” But Little Tokyo offers a lot of advantages that the rest of downtown does not. Endo points out that there are eight houses of worship in the area, as well as three grocery stores and “at least” six banks. “In downtown Los Angeles, it's so rare to live somewhere and not have to leave for your basic needs,” she says.
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