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Atomic Cafe: Little Tokyo music landmark falls to wrecking ball



Nancy Sekizawa ran the Atomic Cafe for her parents during the '70 and '80s and turned it into the place for top punk bands to hang out.
Nancy Sekizawa ran the Atomic Cafe for her parents during the '70 and '80s and turned it into the place for top punk bands to hang out.
Courtesy Nancy Sekizawa
Nancy Sekizawa ran the Atomic Cafe for her parents during the '70 and '80s and turned it into the place for top punk bands to hang out.
Nancy Sekizawa ran the Atomic Cafe for her parents during the '70 and '80s and turned it into the place for top punk bands to hang out.
Nancy Sekizawa and her parents, the Matobas, who ran the Atomic Cafe at First and Alameda starting in 1961. The Matobas had been displaced from two other spots in Little Tokyo before.
Courtesy of Little Tokyo Service Center


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Indie rock, jazz, punk  — music always spilled from the brick building best known as the Atomic Cafe at First and Alameda in Little Tokyo.

That ends Thursday, when the low-slung building across from the Japanese American National Museum will meet a wrecking ball, as a demolition crew makes room for a new subway station.

In the 1990s, it was called the Troy Cafe and hosted Los Angeles's hottest Chicano bands, a young Beck and a long list of famous musicians.

During its heyday as the Atomic Cafe in the '70s and '80s, it attracted the likes of Sid Vicious and Debbie Harry and was known for its jukebox stocked with bootleg 45s of punk rock shows.

"It was just music that made you want to throw up sometimes, it was so grotesque sometimes," said Nancy Sekizawa with a laugh. Her family owned the restaurant, and patrons called her Atomic Nancy. "It was so great!"

Other music venues moved in and out of the space over the years. At one time, it was called The Brave Dog. More recently, the building housed a restaurant, Señor Fish, which took over most of the space.

All of it ends Thursday. 

Señor Fish

"Everyone's pretty much just sad. There’s no better word for it," said Remy de la Peza of the Little Tokyo Service Center, which has been working to commemorate the site.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority took the property by eminent domain last year so it could build a new station for a $1.4 billion connector to link the Blue and Gold lines by 2020.

RememberAtomicTroy Instagram Metro said it will save up to 1,000 bricks from the demolition to be used for the new station. Another brick building on the property that once housed the Spice Table restaurant, is also being razed.

"We're well aware of the historic significance of the buildings and have been working with the community to preserve some of the brickwork to be incorporated into the new state-of-the-art transit plaza," said Metro spokesman Rick Jager.

De La Peza said locals are not only mourning the loss of a landmark building but also bracing for changes coming to the neighborhood.

"How do we preserve what’s left here in Little Tokyo?" De La Peza said.

The Troy Cafe

Troy Cafe

Aside from the new Metro station, De La Peza said close to 500 new housing units have either been built or are under construction. Their prices are out of reach for many longtime residents, she said, including elderly Japanese-Americans.

De La Peza said the neighborhood generally supports mass transit, but some worry the protracted construction for the new subway station could make parking scarce and the neighborhood more difficult to navigate, potentially hurting local businesses.

In anticipation of the demolition, television producer Flavio Morales visited the building a few months ago with his family. He started his career filming performances for a cable access show called "Illegal Interns" at the Troy Cafe, and his wife used to frequent the Atomic Cafe. They felt welcome there.

"At least we had that little moment," Morales said. "With our kids, we hope they'll find a place that will accept them for who they are."

Morales said his time at the Troy gave him a "sense of responsibility to support places and people trying to put the arts out there."

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-JjGqo7yXzU

Sekizawa, whose family owned the restaurant, said she isn't sure if she'll watch the demolition.

"For me, I just feel like there is so much history, and they're going to bulldoze it, and it's going to be gone," Sekizawa said.

She said whatever the MTA does to commemorate the building, she hopes it shows "what we all did as a community of artists."

"It was one-of-a-kind, really," Sekizawa said. 

Do you have memories of the Atomic Cafe or its other incarnations? Please let us know in the comments, on our Facebook page or on Twitter (@KPCC).