California Fool's Gold -- Exploring Koreatown

Posted by Eric Brightwell, May 17, 2010 03:00pm | Post a Comment

NB: Since the initial publication of this blog entry, Koreatown's borders have been expanded and made official by the city. A new map reflects this but the text of the blog entry does not. 

This blog entry is about the Los Angeles neighborhood of Koreatown. To vote for more LA neighborhoods to be the subject of future blog entries, click here. To vote for Los Angeles County communities, click here. To vote for Orange County neighborhoods, vote here.

In recognition of you, the blog readers' votes, and in recognition of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, I headed to Koreatown for answers. While Palisades Park, New Jersey has the highest concentration of Korean-Americans in the United States and Georgia is home to the fastest-growing Korean-American population (in the US), Los Angeles is home to the largest population of Koreans and our Koreatown destroys the competition.

Deco Korean shopping center that's not technically in Koreatown... or is it?

Somewhat shockingly, what constitutes Koreatown is in the eye of the beholder. The US Census Bureau, Wikipedia, The LA Times Mapping Project, LAist, the LAPD, the LA Fire Department, the LA Unified School District, the Wilshire Center-Koreatown Neighborhood Council, LA County and the Koreatown Cultural Center all have different definitions of the neighborhood. Most lump in mostly Central American and Oxacan neighborhoods like Wishire Center and parts of Pico-union, which ends up making Koreatown demographic data vary widely based on definition.

Koreatown's skyline with downtown Los Angeles in the distance

Koreatown is mainly a Korean shopping district, although a number of poor and recently-arrived Koreans live alongside their mostly Latino neighbors. Once they get established, Koreans are more likely to move to Buena ParkCerritos, Chatsworth, Diamond Bar, Glendale, Granada Hills, Hacienda Heights Little Tokyo, Long Beach, Park Mile, Porter Ranch, Rowland Heights, communities in the South Bay, or Wilshire Park, Nonetheless, Koreatown is the undisputed cultural and commercial center of Korean-American life in the vast sprawl (which also includes Little Seoul in Garden Grove).

One can tell when one is getting close to Koreatown as the air begins to get smokier, the number of signs written in Hangul increases and, oh yeah, there are more Koreans. But finding exactly where Koreatown is becomes more problematic -- different parties tend to claim different areas as Koreatown to serve their own agendas. Its contained with the Wilshire Center district, and is neighbored by Westlake to the east, Country Club Park and We-Wil to the west, and Harvard Heights and  Pico-Union to the south, and Little Bangladesh to the north. 

Pendersleigh & Sons' Official Map of Wilshire Center and Koreatown

The expansion of Koreatown has been steadfastly resisted to varying degrees by neighbors on the West, South and East... especially the west, whose Midtown neighborhoods are much quieter, more upscale. and far less commercial. 

When Koreatown was officially designated in 1980, the LA DOT placed signs along Olympic and Koreatown became synonymous with "The Olympic Area." 

However, as the Korean population and businesses have poured out in all directions, people have defined its northern edge as 8th, Wilshire, 6th or even 3rd, home of Little Bangladesh, which Koreatown imperialist Chang Y. Lee has tried to suggest is the heart of Koreatown, depite the fact that Olympic (where all the official Koreatown signs remain) is over a mile to the south. He's even gone so far, in the wake of Little Bangladesh attempting to gain official recognition, as to expand Koreatown's borders to effectively obliterate the hopes of their neighbors to the north.

It is true that Koreatown has outgrown the narrow corridor of Olympic as Korean businesses have expanded into a neighborhood that's still mostly Central American and Oaxacan. I refuse to call anything north of 3rd "Koreatown." 

Despite Los Angeles' K-Town being the best, it isn't the only one in the country, as there's also one in Annandale (Virginia), Atlanta, Bergen County (New Jersey), Chicago, New York, Oakland and Seattle... Only China has a bigger one though. However, there was a time when there were hardly any Koreans here at all.

for Brandi, who loves the word "Hanmi"

An Chang-Ho immigrated to San Francisco in 1902. In 1903 he founded the Friendship Society, the first group that was organized exclusively for Koreans in the US. In 1905, he established the Mutual Assistance Society , the first Korean-American political organization. In 1909, after Japan had conquered Korea , Chang-Ho established the Korean National Association which published the country's first Korean-language newspaper, The New Korea.

In 1924, the passage of the Oriental Exclusion Act excluded further would-be immigrants from Korea. At that time, and even more in the 1930s, Midtown (and especially the neighborhood of Wilshire Center) was touted as Los Angeles' equivalent of New York's Upper East Side. However, by the 1950s and '60s, the suburbs were increasingly attracting many of the neighborhood's longtime residents.

Meanwhile, following the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, and the end of the Korean War in 1953, small numbers of students and professionals entered the US. A larger group of immigrants followed, composed largely of the war brides of U.S. servicemen. After the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, Koreans became the second fastest growing Asian ethnicity in the country, surpassed only by Filipinos.


In 1969, the seed of what would become Koreatown was planted by the opening of Olympic Market at the corner of Olympic and Hobart by Hi Duk Lee (who'd immigrated to Los Angeles the previous year. He also opened one of the city's first Korean restaurants, Young Bin Kwan (VIP Palace and now home to La Guelaguetza) and the adjacent VIP Plaza (which opened in 1975). Lee dreamed of creating a Koreatown and topped his buildings with the traditional blue tiles of Korean architecture. His dream Koreatown was bounded by 8th to the north, Vermont to the east, 11th to the south, and Western to the west. He went on to serve as director of the Koreatown Development Association, the Koreatown Chamber of Commerce, and the Korean-American Friendship Association. He bought several blocks of land and lobbied the city's leaders. He built the Korean Village Shopping Center and planned to build a Korean Village Hotel

Though Lee's hotel was never built, more Korean-oriented restaurants, gift shops and stores sprang up on Olympic although most abandoned the Korean architecture of Lee's buildings. Nowadays there are loads of often nondescript shopping centers and malls, including the large, sunny Koreatown Galleria (below), which opened in 2001.


Also in 1969, and then never thought of as Koreatown, the 34-story, 138 meter tall Equitable Life Building was completed -- to this day the tallest building in Midtown. The International style building was designed by Welton Becket & Associates.

Back to 1972 -- the Heavy-Chemical Industry Drive initiated by right wing dictator Park Chung Hee provided an impetus for an estimated 70,000 Korean immigrants Koreans to move to Wilshire Center's "Olympic Area" and emerging Koreatown. Korean immigrants established another foothold of the area with the opening of the Korean Youth and Community Center in 1974. 

The large, sunny Koreatown Plaza on a quiet day

In the 1980s and 1990s, Koreans flocked to the US to open small businesses such as dry cleaners, convenience stores, and churches. On the afternoon of April 29, 1992, a Los Angeles area jury acquitted four white LAPD officers in the videotaped beating of Rodney King. Many Koreans now know the day as 4.29 or Sa-I-Gu. Footage of Rodney King's beating in addition to footage of a fifteen-year-old black girl being shot by a Korean woman after an altercation at a liquor store were shown with almost numbing regularity by local stations until things erupted in violence. To the largely Korean victims of the riots' violence, the event was not just about black frustration. Due to one of the most egregious examples of racial scapegoating in modern times, an estimated forty percent of the looted stores were Korean-owned and many were around Koreatown and Jefferson Blvd in South Los AngelesPioneering Asian-American journalist K.W. Lee described it as "America’s first media-fanned urban pogrom which gutted more than 2,000 Korean businesses and ruined 10,000 lives to the tune of nearly a half billion dollars in property damage..." 

Most of the Korean businesses along Jefferson closed but Koreatown, having largely recovered from the riots, today there are many doctors, florists, clothing shops, BBQs, cafes and, of course, churches. It's not all Christian, however, as there's also the Vietnamese Buddhist Temple, Zen Center of Los Angeles, Johrei Fellowship and International Buddhist Meditation Center. Every year, the Korean Festival & Parade is held along Olympic Blvd and marches to the Seoul Peace Park. 

In Koreatown, the nightlife tends to center not around bars, but around restaurants, where one also drinks. For Koreans, eating and boozing go together like peas and carrots, peaches and herb, or like "rama lama lama ke ding a de dinga a dong." There's even a term 안주, (anju), describing food eaten with alcohol. The sign above says it all.

The real action happens at the neighborhood's many Korean restaurants, including Naegohyang, Korean Soup, New Seoul, Honey Pig, Ham Hung, OH MA Nee, Sol Bart, Ja -Yu Dai-han Ji-ki-ki Ae-kook Woon-dong Bon-bu‎, Jiazen, Ondal, Umma Jip, Halmae, Jun Won, Darakbang, Mountain Cafe, Joo Kyung Ya Joo, Ma Dang Gook Soo, Shin Chon Sul-Lung-Tang, Park's BBQ, Coffee Prince, Beverly Soon Tofu, Jan Ang, Madoros, Ma San, O-Dae San, Sanya, Gam Ja Gol, Olympic Snack, Cafe Patio, Healthy Zone Jook Hyang, Cafe Me-Ryun, Kaya, Tofu House, Soot Bull Jeep, Cafe Village, Chung Dam Gop Chang, Pao Jao, Gamja Bawi, Dandelion, Sindangdong, Nicole's Cafe, Plaza Han Shik, Plaza Sandwich & Juice, Plaza Sushi, Seoul Soon Dae House, Tonkatsu House, Kwang Sushi, Town Noodle, Olive Bakery and Poong Nyun Bakery

For those that want to eat something besides Korean food, or just want to save a buck, there's also Pollo a la Brasa, Pho 8, LA Chicken Center, Los Comales, China Food Express, Hamilton Cafe, Los Cantaros, Mandarin House, Vim, Ocha Classic, Thai Ocean 2, A-Won, China Gate, Wien Bakery, Shin, Francaise Bakery, New York Bakery and Pho 2000.

Music Plaza

My research didn't really uncover any musicians who actually hail from Koreatown. There are music studios there, however, and music stores with large selections of Korean (and other) music as well as karaoke clubs, and music dealers including Music Plaza, Music City, Music Music Studio, Smile Music Studio, Lee's Music Lesson, Ting Ga Ting Ga, Rosen Music Studio and LA Music Connection.



Koreatown was a filming location and subject of Eli's Liquor Store (2007). That year also saw the release of Koreatown. KK Family List (1997) dealt with two rival gangs-- one Korean (The Tigers) and one Chinese (The Dragons). Friends with Money (2006), Reign Over Me (2007), Chinatown (1974), Being John Malkovich (1999), Collateral (2004), Yes Man (2008) and The Prestige (2006) all featured Koreatown in some scenes. However, my favorite Koreatown film is David Choi's A Random Day in Koreatown.

Koreatown itself is practically the star of webseries like KTown Cowboys and K-Town. Koreatown is also home to one of Los Angeles's two theaters that regularly screen Korean Films: CGV Cinemas. The other, the Korean Cultural Center, Los Angeles is in not-too-distant Miracle Mile.

Central Video

Although at Amoeba we have a fairly healthy section of Korean movies and dramas, Koreatown is home to several smaller stores that specialize in Korean DVDs and Blu-Ray as well as film production studios including Video Korea, Amore Cosmetics, Pathlight Studios, Central Video and Super Video USA.


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