LITTLE TOKYO — When Junko Suzuki, and her sister Yuriko Regaert, came to the United States in 1969, they settled in Little Tokyo and opened Suehiro Cafe in 1972. They didn’t have any restaurant experience, and were constantly on the verge of bankruptcy, but the community helped them stay afloat in those early days, and a regular even lent them money. Initially they dutifully tried to assimilate, serving typical American diner food, to poor results. But their luck changed when they abandoned the typical breakfast fare of a diner and began serving Japanese comfort food — ramen, curry, donburi, onigiri and gyoza — they had found their niche. Kenji Suzuki, now the owner and Junko’s son, recalls those stories fondly.
A community of locals and tourists of all backgrounds eat at Suehiro. The cafe is considered one of Little Tokyo’s “legacy businesses,” defining so much of that neighborhood’s history and culture. And they’ve also faced many challenges since Suzuki took over as owner — including COVID-19, during which Suzuki had to cash out his retirement accounts. So when the pandemic lockdown was finally lifted, Suzuki thought Suehiro was safe again.
“That’s when I got the news from our landlord that he wanted our spot.”
Suzuki has been fighting to keep his restaurant open ever since, and a couple years ago decided that the way to do that would be to move Suehiro elsewhere — outside of Little Tokyo. They’ll soon leave their 1st Street location and reopen several blocks away. Suzuki’s struggle echoes that of other marginalized communities fighting against displacement amid gentrification (and often amplified by the arrival of valuable new transit services, like Metro’s new regional connector). And while many like Suzuki have found themselves forced out, others are attempting to control their destiny through land ownership, realizing that is key to winning, though that realization has come too late for people like Suzuki, who have to leave areas where they have so much history.
Little Tokyo is one of LA’s oldest neighborhoods and has been a resilient center of Japanese-American culture through multiple periods of displacement, including mass incarceration in internment camps during World War II, and waves of redevelopment that resulted in the displacement of residents and small businesses during the post-war period and in the 1970s and 1980s. Now the neighborhood faces a new round of gentrification due to its prime spot in a downtown bubbling with development money, with historic buildings demolished and legacy businesses pushed out because of rising rents.
Bill Watanabe is the founder, and a former executive director, of the Little Tokyo Service Center, a nonprofit focused on social services, affordable housing and community development. In 2018 he and several other Japanese-American elders formed the Little Tokyo Community Impact Fund, an investment fund with the goal of helping the community purchase buildings and rent them at subsidized rates to legacy businesses. Anyone can pay into the fund with a $10,000 minimum investment, while nonprofit workers or young people with limited financial means can invest $1,000. The fund is part of a larger trend of Japanese-American stakeholders working to establish community control of Little Tokyo.
“Once you own the land and the building, then you get to control what happens there,” says Watanabe.
The construction of the Metro regional connector and the attendant new Little Tokyo station — set to open June 16 — have definitely accelerated the gentrification of the area. Anxieties over rising property values and displacement have accompanied the construction of the Metro regional connector in Little Tokyo, as well as the K Line extension along Crenshaw Boulevard. Suzuki points to this as the reason his landlord, Anthony Sperl, served him with an eviction notice earlier this year: to replace him with a more profitable venture.
Suzuki says he would have loved a landlord who cares about preserving Japanese history and culture, but at the end of the day, in his words, “Those would be luxury items that I couldn’t even think about right now.” Describing a tactic that is familiar to commercial tenants who have dealt with landlords, Suzuki says Sperl would frequently hassle him about issues with the building, “He was a man that was always very nitpicky about his building.”
Anthony Sperl declined to comment.
Recently, Suzuki decided to move Suehiro to a new site at 4th and Main Street, outside of the neighborhood. Because the area has less foot traffic, he worries about Suehiro succeeding there, but he’s determined to find a way back to Little Tokyo, mainly for his mother. “I owe it to all the hard work that she put into the restaurant.”
The Sperl family, on the other hand, has owned their 1st Street building since at least 1882, according to news and zine articles found by the Little Tokyo mutual aid group Jtown Action and Solidarity, buying it when the neighborhood was in its infancy. From the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act that same year, up through the early 20th Century various laws were passed at both the federal level and as part of the California Constitution to block Asian immigrants from becoming citizens or owning land.
The importance of community control
Over a decade ago, Suzuki asked Sperl to renew Suehiro’s lease six months before their previous one would expire. Suzuki says he would ask Sperl about this every chance he got, and every time Sperl told Suzuki that he was working on it. That is, until rumors started to spread that the Metro regional connector — which broke ground in 2014 — would come to Little Tokyo.
In 2014 Metro set up a fund to provide financial support to Mom and Pop shops affected by transit construction. Suzuki was thinking about applying and asked Sperl again about a new lease, but that’s when the landlord said the lease might not happen.
“I think he probably saw the dollar sign back then and decided to not even talk about a lease at that moment, because he figured that he could do something else with it,” says Suzuki.
As to what the future of the space might be, Sperl’s name is listed on a statement of information filed in 2018 with the state of California for a limited liability company (LLC) called Tokyo Greens, though the LLC is currently listed as suspended on the California Secretary of State’s website, as first reported by the Los Angeles Times. That company’s address is listed as 339 ½ E. 1st Street, the space above Suehiro Cafe. Suzuki cited a widely circulated rumor of Sperl going to community meetings to try and drum up support for a marijuana dispensary.
In 2022, Sperl started telling Suzuki that he wanted Suehiro out, and almost doubled the rent. Suzuki kept paying the rent but also started looking for a new location and signed a lease for the 4th and Main Street site last year. In March, Sperl’s lawyer, Dennis Block, filed an unlawful detainer (California legal jargon for an eviction lawsuit) against Suzuki for non-payment of rent, but then last Friday the suit was dropped.
In an interview, Clifford Jung, Suzuki’s lawyer, said that he was surprised that Block and Sperl apparently decided to drop the case, but cautioned that they can refile on different grounds. It doesn’t ultimately change the fact that Suzuki has to leave.
“It’s good news today, but we don’t know what’s going to happen next week,” said Jung. Block did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
In another corner of the neighborhood, the Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC) is building First Street North Apartments, a development on Judge John Aiso and Temple Streets, that will bring affordable housing to Little Tokyo. LTSC has invited Suehiro to move into its commercial space once the development is up and running. Takao Suzuki (no relation), LTSC’s director of community development, says the project could break ground by early next year and then finish construction by early 2026, and that the hope is to also provide retail space to legacy businesses like Suehiro.
Bill Watanabe, the founder of the Little Tokyo Community Impact Fund, says the investors are mostly retirees with deep ties to Little Tokyo and want to help it survive. So far, the fund has raised $750,000, with 80 investors. The fund recently made an offer on a commercial property in the heart of Little Tokyo, but the sellers “do not feel [it] is worthy of a response,” Watanabe said via email. He and other investors are now looking into loans to help them with any future bids.
An outpouring of community support
Suehiro’s troubles with their landlord were well known in Little Tokyo, but the news reached a wider audience after LA Times columnist Frank Shyong profiled the cafe and Suzuki. Around that time, Suehiro announced that local artist Robert Vargas was going to paint a new mural inside the new location and the public was invited to watch. A few days later, I stopped by and spoke briefly to Vargas, known for his large-scale portraits on various downtown buildings. He was painting a portrait of Suzuki’s mother Junko and his aunt Yuriko, who opened the restaurant and turned it into the touchstone it is today. The finished mural “Shimai,” meaning sisters in Japanese, features Junko with palms outstretched serving food to the viewer, Yuriko stands by her side amid splashes of gold, purple and blue.
Vargas is from nearby Boyle Heights and calls Suehiro one of his favorite haunts. When he heard a couple months ago that the restaurant was moving, and under such frustrating circumstances, he offered to paint the mural in support of Suzuki and his staff.
“For a place like Suehiro that’s been around for 50-plus years, it’s important that we support these types of businesses — there’s not many that have been around that long,” says Vargas.
Vargas also wanted to honor Junko and Yuriko with the mural.
“What I’m trying to capture with this mural is really their resilience and their persistence and their wanting to not only make a better way of life for themselves, but for their children.”