The one- to four-story buildings that once stood on this block of East First Street somewhat predated the establishment of Los Angeles’ primary Japanese enclave, having been largely completed around the turn of the century. By the 1930s, they were at the very heart of Little Tokyo’s bustling business district. In addition to a number of restaurants and hotels, the city’s three largest Japanese department stores, Hori Brothers (left foreground), the Asia Company (far right), and Tomio (not in view), were then located on the north side of the block.
The beginning of wartime hostilities between the United States and Japan had disastrous consequences for Americans of Japanese descent. The top photograph shows the north side of First Street as it appeared on April 11, 1942, at the height of the forced relocation of Japanese Americans into distant internment camps. Within a month, nearly all of the city’s Japanese residents would be evacuated, leaving behind hundreds of shuttered and abandoned businesses in Little Tokyo.
Nonetheless, the district did not remain deserted for long. The beginning of Japanese internment coincided with the great migration of African Americans into Southern California, driven by the growth of wartime manufacturing. For a brief (and largely forgotten) period of time, the area became the locus of central Los Angeles’ African-American community, known as Bronzeville. The above photograph, taken in 1947, shows the former Asia Company at the corner of San Pedro Street replaced by Sylvan’s Department Store. It appears as well that a number of Chinese businesses had settled in the area; a closer look shows the former Hori Brothers store under a sign reading “Tongking Low,” which curiously seems to be the Cantonese name for either Tonkin Building or Tokyo Building (both written as 東京樓).
Even after the return of Japanese Americans after the war, this stretch of First Street was never able to return to its halcyon years, as severely depressed property values made it an easy target for the continuation of the Civic Center urban renewal scheme. All buildings on the north side were demolished by the city in 1950 to make way for a sprawling new Police Administration Building, later known as the Parker Center. At the same time, First Street was widened by roughly 20 feet between Main Street and San Pedro Street, while San Pedro Street was widened north of First Street.
A more detailed overview of Bronzeville [The Bronzeville Project]
1. “Board attacks alien property problem.” Los Angeles Times. 3 May 1942. 18
2. Cohan, Charles C. “City to erect two modern structures.” Los Angeles Times. 3 Sep. 1950. E1.
3. Cohan, Charles C. “Notable downtown street plan ready.” Los Angeles Times. 21 Dec. 1952. 34.
4. “Japs enjoy their last meals in cafe before internment.” Los Angeles Times. 8 May 1942. A10.
5. “Little tokyo banks and concerns shut” Los Angeles Times. 9 Dec. 1941. 4.
1. Albers, Clem. “Street scene in Little Tokyo near the Los Angeles Civic Center.” 1942. War Relocation Authority Photographs of Japanese-American Evacuation and Resettlement. Calisphere. Bancroft Library. http://content.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft6580071x/?brand=calisphere.
2. “1st St and San Pedro St.” 1947. Bronzeville, Los Angeles Photo and Document Archive. Miyatake Family Private Collection. http://website.bronzeville-la.com/displayimage.php?album=2&pos=3.