CORRECTION: Cliquish K-Towners Mixing Happily In Changing Mid-City
CORRECTION: In our story we indicate the western boundary for Koreatown is Crenshaw Boulevard. In fact, according to a motion by the Los Angeles City Council from 2010, it is Western Avenue. We regret the error.
KOREATOWN—In this neighborhood bound by Beverly and Olympic boulevards, you can get delicious Korean bar-b-que right next to an El Salvadorian pupusa.
There’s K-pop, or Korean pop music, that blares out of the plentiful Korean coffee shops on nearly every corner or the one and only El Flamin’ Taco truck that dishes up delicious carne asada tacos for long lines of hungry customers.
Here, you’ll see Latino mothers and fathers walking their children to and from school past Bangladeshi stores that sell authentic South Asian goods and groceries.
And then there’s the youthful looking Koreans—in their fast cars and designer clothes—bar hopping and belting their hearts out “Gangnam Style” at the neighborhood’s packed karaoke bars.
Once an insular, strictly ethnic neighborhood where newly arrived South Korean immigrants moved to find better opportunities and build a new life, Koreatown is changing. Today, this neighborhood—with the largest population of Koreans outside of South Korea—is a chaotic, diverse mix of Latinos, Koreans, African-Americans and Bangladeshi’s that’s become one of the more diverse ethnic enclaves in the city.
Latinos make up more than 50% of the population of K-Town, as it is informally called, followed by Asians and then Anglos, according to the latest U.S. Census figures and education officials.
“The interesting dynamic of Koreatown [is] most of the residents are Latinos, so it’s tough to be insular when you have this big population,” said Edward Johnson, assistant chief deputy to Los Angeles City Councilmember Herb Wesson of Council District 10, whose district includes the area. Added to its heavy Latino demographic are also African-Americans.
“It’s one of the more exciting places in the city,” Johnson said.
For Sam Park, 24, who grew up in Koreatown but now lives in Hollywood, the neighborhood was indeed insular growing up, but he said it isn’t anymore.
“Now there’s a lot of ethnicities,” Park said, as he walked on Normandie Avenue recently with a friend. “I live and breathe this community.”
Cooke Sunoo recalls moving into the area more than 40 years ago at a time when you could only find a handful of Korean restaurants in all of Los Angeles.
He and his family rented an apartment in Koreatown, eventually moving into a house in the area in the early 1980s. Like others, he said, they slowly starting seeing changes.
“To me Koreatown is almost like a frame of mind because… Koreatown is not [really so] Korean,” now he said. Sunoo, 69, is also a founding member of the Koreatown Youth and Community Center on West Sixth Street.
“Los Angeles is a mixing pot of different [ethnicities]. We, too, are an evolving mixture of people,” he said.
According to Kyeyoung Park, an associate professor of anthropology and Asian American studies at UCLA, the area’s changing face sometimes shocks Koreans visiting for the first time who are expecting a “miniature” version of home.
“When [South Koreans] come here, they can be very disappointed because it’s not a replica,” she said.
Koreans first started immigrating to Los Angeles’ Bunker Hill in 1904. In the 1930s, they started inching westward to the area of Jefferson Boulevard between Western and Vermont avenues, according to Katherine Kim, author of Los Angeles’s Koreatown, published in 2011.
But upward mobility was stymied for Koreans due to Los Angeles’s racially restrictive real estate covenants which segregated white neighborhoods from people of color, Kim said. As a result, many Koreans were unable to find quality housing in Los Angeles’s, the first city in the nation to have such covenants, until 1948, when they were finally lifted.
Then, in the aftermath of the 1965 Watts riots, Koreans started moving north from Jefferson toward Olympic Boulevard, between Western Avenue and Hoover Street which still defines the area today.
What they found then was a primarily white and Jewish neighborhood. But because the 10 freeway was being developed nearby, “white flight” occurred, opening up real estate and cheaper rents for the Koreans, according to Kim.
Today, other new immigrant populations are, like the Koreans once did, looking for a sliver of Los Angeles to call home.
Bangladeshis started moving into the area in 2008 setting up their own shops along 3rd Street.
“Bangladeshi people didn’t know about Koreatown and our history,” said Jeff Lee, director of the Korean American Federation of Los Angeles. “Now they fully understand it and… we fully support that they [have made] their own corridor.”
Geographically Koreatown has a lot going for it. Namely, it’s strategically placed in central Los Angeles equally distanced between downtown and the Westside. As such, the neighborhood has been a magnet for new development, nightlife and restaurants for Koreans and non-Koreans alike, according to Scott Suh, President of the Wilshire Center Koreatown Neighborhood Council.
Koreatown is the future of ethnic neighborhoods in Los Angeles, he said.
“We have Mongolians, Bangladeshis, Latinos. We have whites and African Americans. I see a lot of different ethnicities here,” Suh said, “and it’s beautiful.”