If you’ve heard about a thing called “Tuesday Night Cafe” you might have heard this line: “We’re one of the longest-running, free, public art+community series in Downtown L.A. and the oldest-and-still-running Asian American-run open mic space in the country…”
What does that even mean?
After saying that at a recent TNC celebrating several kick-ass L.A.-based AAPI LGBTIQ organizations, it made me pause and take a look back…
I remember the word way back when -> They said J-Town was dying. It was 1998… but, that was also a constant sentiment throughout the decades after WWII, well before I was born in the ’70s. Some folks know the story. In a super-reduced nutshell? Los Angeles’ pre-WWII Little Tokyo was a huge, thriving community, with tens of thousands of Japanese American residents and workers.
Then through war, racism, xenophobia, and economic greed, Japanese Americans were stripped of their rights and property … and dignity for that matter. Some were “given” the chance to move east to the few cities, like Denver, that would take in Japanese Americans just after Pearl Harbor. Most on the West Coast were placed in American concentration camps. Both sides of my family were taken out of West L.A. and Torrance and placed in Manzanar up in Inyo County (yes, on the way to Mammoth). After the war, JAs weren’t allowed to go back, en masse, to develop community in the way it was prior to the war. Thus, the tiny 4 1/2-block stretch you see now is what’s left of the last three Japantowns in the U.S.
Fast forward to 2013.
People come into Little Tokyo from all over and if you’ve been hanging out there since you were a kid like me (or for many, many years), you might find yourself saying things like, “Wow! It’s SO crowded!”…”$3/hour parking meters?!”…”Umm, is there, like, an anime convention happening? Again?”…”Little Tokyo is crazy now!!”
Another thought more quietly proclaimed in my head, albeit constantly, as I walk through J-Town: “You have no idea…”
It happens while I’m in line at the tiny markets. It happens when I’m watching people cross Second Street toward the JVP (Japanese Village Plaza). It happens when I’m on the other side of First Street and I spot teens in cosplay garb passing right by an old-timer who has been a resident for decades at places like the San Pedro Firm Building or in the old apartments above storefronts throughout J-Town. It happens when I see a group of tourists rush past a community organizer who is likely moving even faster while trying to get to her next meeting.
Most have no idea they are passing right by these unassuming, amazing individuals who are the tireless, behind-the-scenes players of a small community that is much more than a Saturday afternoon tourist destination.
Of course, it’s totally understandable. People visit because all their hard work manifests in festival, exhibition, reception, business — all the “products” that become entry points and reasons to return. But I do marvel at how easy it is now to forget all that Little Tokyo would have been were it not for the People despite the powerful corporate and political forces of redevelopment along the way.
If it weren’t for community engagement over a decade ago, we’d have a jail right next to one of our largest Buddhist temples, Nishi Hongwanji. If it weren’t for community folks right now, Metro would probably bulldoze straightaway through Señor Fish for the Regional Connector Station, without realizing the importance to L.A. music history of the building’s former Atomic Cafe and Troy Cafe.
For every time city politics has attempted to grab yet another piece of Little Tokyo, there are those who make sure the larger community gets involved. They’re the ones who create pathways to the process, support for small business, and ensure a meaningful focus on social and cultural relevance to the residents, workers, and the Nikkei, Asian American and larger L.A. communities.
If you look hard enough, you’ll start to notice these unsung heroes. You might spot them selecting the perfect combination of manju at Fugetsudo or over near JANM (Japanese American National Museum) — 80- or 90-somethings with names like Mits, Min, Mary, Tak, Babe. You might find them plotting or simply hanging out at Cafe Dulce or Far Bar’s happy hour — Sansei folks who were breaking major ground in their twenties during the Asian American Movement era, starting up all kinds of projects and organizations like Visual Communications, Gidra magazine and LTPRO (Little Tokyo People’s Rights Organization). They have names like Kathy, Evelyn, Karen, Alan, Chris.
We pass by them all the time.
You might see them with a bunch of Asian American and Muslim high school youth in the JACCC Plaza (Japanese American Cultural & Community Center) facilitating icebreakers — vital 20-somethings with names like Kristin, Mickie, Craig, Stacy, Jessie. They might be busy introducing programs with thoughts brewing in the back of their minds of the future impact their organization has on the community and the world at large. They’re folks I think of as “post-youth” (wink, wink). They have names like Leslie, Shinae, Abe, Koji, Alison, Dean.
We pass by them all the time.
My introduction to J-Town as a child came through things like Nisei Week and concerts at the JAT (Japan America Theatre). My deeper introduction as a young adult came with a great opportunity to work through a Getty internship and later as staff at JANM and LTSC (Little Tokyo Service Center). I got to work for brilliant minds like Karen Ishizuka (then curator at JANM) and Evelyn Yoshimura (community organizer at LTSC) — great folks who became my mentor/elder-sistahs. Still other bad-ass sistahs like Kathy Masaoka and Kay Ochi and members of NCRR (Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress) have given me countless opportunities to grow as a performing artist/organizer through our partnerships in Day Of Remembrance programs since the late ’90s.
They were all voices in my earlier years who strongly supported me when I wanted to initiate a free, all ages art + community space and call it the “Tuesday Night Cafe.” I was inspired by the Chicana/Latina communities and their constant clip of gathering spaces in East L.A., Highland Park and South L.A. to talk about issues and to organize the community through art.
I was inspired by countless discussions many of us in a group called A.C.T.I.O.N. had about, basically: “Where’s the API scene?! What can we do to create more of one here in L.A.?” We worked our butts off and organized an event called “Art Attack” — once in 1997 and again in 1998. Our friends from other communities of color came out to support and said they felt like they were in “a parallel world.”
It all led me to the desire for a meaningful space…an art and community venue, that could happen regularly, in a simple manner that we could build and maintain throughout the year. Something that could be multi-faceted and bring together as many art forms, people, and organizations as possible. And I really wanted to do it in Little Tokyo.
So folks in the community, co-workers at JANM, my theater cohorts at the time through Hereandnow, a band called Visiting Violette, San Pedro Firm Building residents Darryl Daniels and Eddie Oshiro, and especially Evelyn and Bill Watanabe from LTSC, all made it possible by simply saying, YES. Let’s do it. Go for it. Do it here. Make it happen. I’ll help you. I’m in.
We had our official launch on a cold Tuesday in February of 1999.
Here we are 15 years later and it’s still going on — spring through fall, April-October. It’s still on first & third Tuesdays. It’s still free. It still has a bunch of feature spots we curate and a short open mic section people can sign up for. It still presents new artists and great organizations, alongside folks who’ve been around since day one.
Tuesday Night Cafe has grown tremendously and now our volunteers, viewers, community partners and featured artists weave in and out, not only from every of part of L.A. but from cities and countries across the globe.
Now, I could go on for another three pages trying to convey to you a ton of stuff about Tuesday Night Project, the organization, and Tuesday Night Cafe, the series. But, I do understand you might be getting tired of scrolling down for so damn long on this here blog. And, I can’t talk about TNP & TNC without saying all of the above.
What I will say is this.
I think about context. All the time. And things like gratitude and forgiveness and connection. I think all the time about Los Angeles and the PEOPLE who brought me up and those, of all ages, who continue to raise me. I think of the undeniable power of art to bridge people at a totally necessary heart and spirit level. That, if I didn’t have art, I wouldn’t know how to survive and if I didn’t have community, I’d have no reason to. I think about all these wonderful people we’re surrounded by, who are passionate as much as they are grateful and forgiving of each other and themselves in order to stay in it… for the long haul.
In a way, it feels like we’re coming full circle. Johneric — whom we got to know back at Art Attack when he was a teen telling stories of Echo Park — recently retired as our resident host after 10+ years to take care of his bursting-at-the-seams restaurant, The Park’s Finest. And my co-curator, Sean (Mr. Hyphen, no less), is a young 20-something who first heard about Tuesday Night Project by reading about us on Angry Asian Man!
But they’re just a couple examples of why and how we keep going. Our space is a pretty neat entry point to Little Tokyo, art+community space, and to L.A. & the people committed to evolving it. At the same time, it’s still just another small, hidden gem among countless many in this uniquely sprawling city. All I know is how extremely, eternally and unabashedly grateful I am to the magnificent TNP team, to our audience, community, and all the people around and before us.
Wow. Does it sound like I’m getting all emotional? HaHa!
You have no idea.
traci kato-kiriyama is a performer, actor, writer, author, educator, and art+community organizer who splits the time and space in her body feeling grounded in gratitude, inspired by audacity, and thoroughly insane – oft times all at once. She’s passionately invested in a number of projects that include Pull Project (PULL: Tales of Obsession); Generations Of War; The (title-ever-evolving) Nikkei Network for Gender and Sexual Positivity; Kizuna; Budokan of LA; and is the director/co-founder of Tuesday Night Project & co-curator of its flagship “Tuesday Night Cafe.” She’s working on a second book of writing/poetry attuned to survival, slated for publication next year by Writ Large Press. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.