Our tour started on the corner of First Street and Central Avenue in Little Tokyo, the very spot where in January 1942 Japanese-Americans were told to report for transportation to internment camps during World War II.
Because of the corner’s symbolic significance, the Japanese American Museum was erected here along with the original Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist temple. And as the first place in Los Angeles to receive public art funding from the city, there is also a bronze replica of a photographer’s tripod camera that was assembled inside an internment camp from boxes and a smuggled-in mirror.
It is exactly these histories buried within the structural landscape of some of Los Angeles’ most overlooked areas that the Architecture and Design Museum’s Urban Hike program aims to expose.
Started in 2001 by a group of architects, the A+D Museum has remained itinerant for years, living in donated spaces in Downtown and the Sunset Strip before finally settling into a permanent space in the Miracle Mile earlier this year.
The tour series — dubbed “Forgotten Los Angeles” — has provided curiosity-seekers with enriching exposés of neighborhoods such as Leimert Park, Boyle Heights and Eagle Rock for the last three summers.
In 2010, however, the program expanded to include both a spring and fall/winter series, turning the seasonal hikes into a year-round opportunity for Angelenos to learn about the many unique pockets of their city.
Last weekend’s Little Tokyo tour was one of the more interesting of the bunch, however, since — unlike other Urban Hike locations such as MacArthur Park or Koreatown — the culturally themed neighborhood on the northeast side of Downtown is relatively well-known.
Many who grew up in Los Angeles (and thus, many on the tour) had been to Little Tokyo before, but none had taken the time to explore its architectural and artistic nuances.
That’s where Mike the Poet comes in.
Mike Sonksen, aka Mike the Poet, is the guide for all of the Urban Hikes. A third-generation L.A. native, Sonksen is a teacher and L.A.-centric slam poet who frequently hosts localized tours for groups throughout the city.
His knowledge of Los Angeles’ history and multi-faceted culture brings personal perspectives to what could easily be cookie-cutter tours, a quality most useful in a familiar, pedestrian-friendly neighborhood such as Little Tokyo.
Sonksen walked the group from our original internment camp-pick-up gathering spot down to the Go For Broke World War II Monument at the end of the promenade, explaining along the way how the jazz scene on South Central Avenue moved north during the war, turning the deserted Little Tokyo into what was then called Bronzeville.
Once at the monument, he read a poem from one of his students called “We Are the Brave,” which provided a modern voice to the Japanese-American plight during World War II.
We are The Brave, the poem says, For courageously enduring the harsh acts / that the U.S. government bestowed upon us.
Being reminded of the lowest point in this important minority group’s history in Los Angeles was a somber way to begin a tour of Little Tokyo, but it was crucial to understanding the context of the artistic and cultural prosperity that has subsequently flourished in this still-evolving neighborhood.
The mood lightened as we began the main part of the tour. In addition to pointing out popular restaurants along the route — “They’re all good because if they weren’t, they wouldn’t last” — Sonksen introduced public art pieces and riffed on the histories of some of the area’s more interesting structures.
The Noguchi Plaza, for instance, houses not only the entrance to the Japanese Cultural Center but also an art piece (called “To The Issei”) by the plaza’s namesake and designer Isamu Noguchi. A native Angeleno of Irish-Japanese descent, Noguchi is an internationally renown artist, but the plaza remains his only installation in his hometown.
Another point of interest for Sonksen was the building on the corner of Central and Second Street, which he and his friends call “the Batman Building.” Built in 1931 by famous L.A. architect A.C. Martin (the building’s stern facade does have a Gotham City feel to it), it used to house the Brunkswick drug factory, but the remainder of its history has eluded Sonksen’s research and little else is known.
Though the building’s past remains enigmatic, its current tenants on the ground-floor retail spaces tell of the neighborhood’s future. The former home of American Apparel’s flagship Little Tokyo store (which is now located across the street), the Batman Building houses a specialty sneaker store, a jazz club and — as of a few months ago — an art gallery dedicated to promoting street artists such as Shepard Fairey and MER 1.
Although traditional Japanese culture will forever be a part of Little Tokyo’s visual fabric, the historical district is transitioning into a unique urban space with chain stores such as Starbucks and Pinkberry, new luxury loft complexes dotting the formerly low-slung landscape and a young, hip demographic quickly moving in.
In this, Little Tokyo is a neighborhood in transition. Once the literal home of many of Los Angeles’ Japanese-American citizens, it now serves as a symbolic cultural center for commemoration and celebration. Its freshest buildings are expanding the neighborhood’s boundaries, linking it with the adjacent artist district and Downtown’s historic core.
Through the Architecture and Design Museum’s Urban Hike of Little Tokyo, the area’s past, present and future were illuminated and the current evolution of the district into a more multi-cultural urban environment is being mirrored in neighborhoods across the city.
As Sonksen said in his final poem of the tour — an ode to Los Angeles he wrote called “Living the Dream” — “It’s hard to believe open space used to define this place … check this new age renaissance.”
Sarah Bennett is a senior majoring in communication. Her column, “Fake Bad Taste,” runs Wednesdays.