Help Koreatown Hang On to Liberty Park

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Los Angeles is notoriously behind the curve when it comes to providing public parks for its citizens. In rating 100 US cities on their park systems, The Trust for Public Land put LA at number 74. And while the city as a whole is lacking in public space for recreation, there are some neighborhoods where the need is especially acute.

Like Koreatown. This dense urban community has plenty of asphalt and concrete, but not much green space. So it’s disturbing news when a proposed project threatens to take away one of the few parks available to residents.

Liberty Park was completed in 1967 as part of Beneficial Plaza on Wilshire Blvd.. Designed by Peter Walker, its graceful curves and striking contrasts make it a unique experience. Walker was just starting his career in the 60s, but has since been become an internationally recognized landscape architect.

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A view of the park facing away from Wilshire.

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The park provides much needed green space in Koreatown.

 

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Liberty Park provides a quiet space in the middle of a busy urban area.

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The park sits at the foot of the former Beneficial Plaza.

But even more important than the park’s design is the place it holds in the community. In an area where parks are scarce, this is one of the few places where people can escape to relax on the grass or read in the shade of a tree. It’s also been a gathering place for the community, whether to celebrate Earth Day or to rally behind the South Korean team during World Cup Soccer.

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A tall grove of trees provides much-needed shade.

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Looking through the trees toward the building that now houses Radio Korea.

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The park’s design offers some interesting contrasts.

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Looking up from beneath the trees.

The proposed project is a mixed-use complex rising 30+ stories, and if approved in its current version it would reduce Liberty Park to nothing more than a few scraps of green space. It’s frustrating that the City of LA only required the developers to prepare a Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND) for this new complex, allowing them to get away with a relatively low level of environmental review. It’s even more frustrating that the MND concludes that this project will have no impact on historic resources. This is ridiculous. Beneficial Plaza as a whole holds in important place in the area’s history, and there’s nothing else like Liberty Park in all of LA.

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A view of the park facing Serrano.

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A view of the park from the Oxford side.

But it’s not too late to preserve this beautiful and unique public resource. A group called Save Liberty Park has been working hard to raise awareness, and hopefully they can get City Hall to change course on this. They need your help. Here’s the link if you want to get involved.

Save Liberty Park

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Talking About Displacement

MTA construction along Crenshaw Blvd.

MTA construction along Crenshaw Blvd.

Speaking at a recent Los Angeles Current Affairs Forum, MTA CEO Phil Washington talked about how the growth of LA’s transit network has been accompanied in some areas by gentrification and displacement. Washington is concerned about the fact that low-income residents are being pushed out of the communities they call home, and he wants the MTA to do more to address the problem.

It’s good to hear somebody at the MTA talking about this. The question is what can actually be done. Earlier this year the MTA Board agreed that when new residential units were built on the agency’s land their goal would be to set aside 35% for low-income renters or owners. That’s fine, but it’s not nearly enough. What we really need is to have the City and the County commit to changing their planning practices. Mayor Eric Garcetti and Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas serve on the MTA Board. They should both support Washington and take a public stand against displacement. Then they should push for the City and the County to create policies to address the problem.

While gentrification is happening all over the city, the growth of LA’s transit system definitely seems to be a catalyst. Downtown, Koreatown, Hollywood, and Highland Park have already seen thousands of low-income residents displaced. Leimert Park and Boyle Heights seem to be next on the list as the MTA continues its rapid push to expand, bringing an influx of developer dollars to neighborhoods near rail stops. As property values skyrocket, rents go up, too, and low-income tenants who can’t afford to pay must find somewhere else to live. Tenants in rent-controlled apartments can be forced out by landlords who use the Ellis Act to convert their units to condos.

I’m really glad to hear Washington talking about displacement, and I hope others back him up on this issue. This is a conversation we need to have, and it should have started long ago.

MTA construction in North Hollywood

MTA construction in North Hollywood

Koreatown

This is the plaza above the Wilshire/Vermont Red Line station.

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And here’s a wider view of the plaza.

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The intersection at Vermont and Wilshire is a busy place. People live here, work here, eat here, shop here.

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This is Koreatown. It’s the most densley populated neighborhood in LA County. While the exact boundaries are hard to nail down, roughly speaking the area is bordered by Beverly, Vermont, Olympic and Crenshaw.

It’s important to remember that even though it’s called Koreatown, the majority of the people who live there are Latino. About half the population is of Latin American descent, compared to about a third who are of Korean descent. The area came to be associated with Koreans because the vast majority of businesses are Korean-owned.

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On the sides of the residential complex that rises above the Wilshire/Vermont plaza, you can see April Greiman’s mural “Hand Holding a Bowl of Rice”.

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You can visit the artist’s web site by clicking on the link below.

April Greiman.

Ktwn 16 Bldg New 3Directly across the street is The Vermont, a recently completed residential development comprised of two high-rise towers. This is the kind of high-end project that developers are pushing for all over LA, since they can be extremely profitable. But, not all Koreatown residents are happy about this trend. One concern is that projects like this will push rents up, making it harder for long-time residents to afford housing. Just to give you an idea, a one-bedroom apartment at The Vermont starts at $2,300 a month. In the near future, this trend will almost certainly continue, since The Vermont was recently sold for $283 million. With that kind of money being thrown around, you can be sure that developers will be knocking each other down in their rush to stake a claim in Koreatown.

Ktwn 17 Wiltern 2There are some beautiful older buildings in Koreatown, such as the Wiltern Theatre, designed by Stiles O. Clements of Morgan, Walls and Clements. This firm was a major player in LA back in the thirties and forties, designing local landmarks like Chapman Plaza, La Fonda Restaurant, and the El Capitan Theatre. The auditorium was designed by G. Albert Lansburgh, who also created interiors for the Palace and the Orpheum in downtown. I saw Tom Waits there years ago, and I can tell you that the inside is just as impressive as the outside. The Wiltern is actually part of a larger structure called the Pelissier Building, which was completed in 1931. It’s an amazing example of art deco architecture, with its blue-green tile cladding worked into elaborate zig-zag moderne designs. They don’t make ’em like this any more.

And on this stretch of Wilshire you can also find a number of bland office towers occupied by banks and financial services.

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Among the oldest buildings in Koreatown are the churches.

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Immanuel Presbyterian Church was constructed in 1928, and for decades was a center for the Anglo community that populated the area up through the middle of the twentieth century. In recent years, many of these older churches have become home to multi-cultural congregations, and have services conducted in multiple languages.

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The media has given a lot of attention to Koreatown in recent years, but mostly the stories tend to focus on the night life. Sure, there are plenty of good restaurants, and tons of bars and clubs. But Koreatown is more than just a place where you can scarf kalbi and guzzle soju til you pass out. Like any community, it has many different sides. It’s a place where art, business, technology and politics mingle and collide on a daily basis. Aside from the Korean American population, there are Central Americans, African Americans, Latinos and Anglos. Really it’s impossible to define in terms of a single ethnicity or culture.

Koreatown is relatively young, even by LA standards. The number of Koreans in the city was pretty small until the sixties. It wasn’t until 1965, when the US rewrote its immigration policies, that Koreans started arriving in large numbers. The area we now call Koreatown didn’t really come together until the seventies. Since then it has continued to grow, in terms of both population and area.

The Korean Consulate is located on Wilshire not too far from Vermont. As I was walking by one day, I saw that community members had created a memorial to the victims of the Sewol ferry disaster.

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Here in the US, the coverage of the Sewol incident was pretty limited and faded from the scene quickly. In Korea, it sparked a huge scandal, as a growing body of evidence suggested it could have been prevented. A series of protests were held in Seoul, with many people accusing the government of a cover-up and demanding that President Park Geun Hye resign. Here’s an article from the Washington Post that gives further details.

Grieving Families Want Independent Probe

Not too far off Wilshire is the Pío Pico Koreatown branch of the LA Public Library. Pico was the last Mexican governor of California before it was annexed by the United States. For many years he was one of the wealthiest and most influential people in the state, but by the time he died he was living in poverty.

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I love libraries. Maybe it’s the quiet. Maybe it’s being surrounded by people reading.

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Something about this billboard caught my eye. K-Pop isn’t just huge in Asia. It’s got a significant following in the US, too. EXO is built around an unusual concept. The band actually consists of two groups. EXO-K performs their songs in Korean, and EXO-M performs the same songs in Mandarin.

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With groups like this, obviously the music is not the focus. Some promoter has gathered a bunch of cute guys that will look good in music videos. People have been doing this for decades, but to me it’s interesting that the Korean media have managed to turn K-Pop into such a cultural phenomenon.

Also on Sixth Street, I dropped in on Red Engine Studios. Actually, that was because of a misunderstanding. I thought the place was a gallery. Turns out it’s a school. The guy at the door seemed uncertain about letting me in, but I guess he finally decided I looked harmless enough. They do have some cool art on the walls, and you can view it by visiting their site.

Red Engine Studios

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There are lots of skateboarders in Koreatown. I saw guys riding up and down the sidewalks everywhere, and there was this vacant lot on Sixth where a bunch of kids were practicing their moves.

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When I think of Koreatown, I think of malls. As I said earlier, Koreatown got its name because Korean entrepreneurs have been spectacularly successful in creating a vibrant community for businesses to thrive.

There are newer malls, that were built to house dozens of small shops.

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And there are older malls, where a bunch of businesses are crowded around a tiny parking lot.

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This one looks like it dates back to the sixties. I’m kind of fascinated by how spaces like this change over time, evolving as the neighborhood changes around them.

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Of course there are also massive indoor malls. Like Koreatown Plaza.

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I went into Music Plaza looking for traditional Korean Music. They didn’t have much of a selection. But if you’re looking for the latest K-Pop releases, this is the place to be. It may not look too busy in this photo, but I had to stand in line to make my purchase. And I feel pretty certain that they make way more on the merchandise than they do on the music.

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I’m not sure why this bookstore seems quintessentially Korean to me, but it has something to do with the colors.

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Like every other mall, Koreatown Plaza has a sizeable food court.

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Walking around the area you see that health and beauty are definitely marketable commodities. There are lots of spas and beauty parlors.

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It was the stacks of firewood that made me want to take a picture of Pollo a la Brasa.

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As large swaths of LA get gentrified and prettified, it’s cool to see an old school restaurant that isn’t too worried about its appearance. And in addition to keeping the grills going…

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…the logs also serve as benches while people wait for the bus.

Yeah, LA’s sidewalks are a mess, but I have to say I have an affection for the huge, overgrown trees that are breaking up the concrete. The thick branches spreading over this stretch of Eighth Street made it seem like a small forest.

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Ktwn 70 KIWAAnd right here on Eighth Street is the Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance. KIWA has worked for years to defend the rights of workers, and is currently engaged in a campaign to fight wage theft, which is rampant in LA. One of their notable victories was helping Heriberto Zamora recover wages that had been denied him by Urasawa, a posh restaurant in Beverly Hills. Even after being cited by the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement for multiple violations related to wage theft, Urasawa resisted paying Zamora what he was owed until just before their final hearing before the DLSE. To find out more about KIWA’s work, click on the link below.

KIWA

Koreatown is changing rapidly, but pieces of the past still remain. I hadn’t been to Dong Il Jang for decades, and I’d been thinking about stopping by for a while.

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The waitresses were friendly. The food was good. Even though I hadn’t been there for years, it felt familiar. And it was just reassuring to know that it was still there.

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Old and New

DSC02587There were two things I’d been wanting to do for a while. The first was to visit the Natural History Museum to see their show on LA history. The second was to take some photos of the Sixth Street Bridge, which is slated to be demolished and replaced, although that may not happen for a while. So Tuesday morning I took the Red Line down to Seventh and Figueroa, where I transferred to the Expo Line. Pretty soon I was standing on the platform at the Exposition Park station.

It might have been twenty years or more since I’d been to Exposition Park. Walking toward the fountain at the center of the gardens was sort of like walking into the past. In part, that’s because of my memory of visiting the museums as a child. But also, the three buildings that border the park are massive reminders of the ornate, imposing architecture that was considered appropriate for museums a hundred years ago. In fact, the Natural History Museum is celebrating its one hundredth anniversary this year. Their web site offers a brief history, which you can read by clicking here.

The photo above shows the current entrance to the museum, which presents a modern facade. It’s an interesting contrast to the NHM’s original entrance, which is what you see in this next photo.

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The exhibition I went to see, Becoming LA, was really good. The curators did a nice job of presenting the area’s multi-layered history, weaving together the threads of all the diverse groups that made the city what it is. Of course Becoming LA is just the latest in the recent onslaught of shows about Los Angeles. Local museums have been giving a lot of attention to the city in the past few years. I’m all in favor of highlighting LA’s art, culture, etc., but at times it seems like we’re crossing the line into bombastic self-promotion. Which, I guess, isn’t really that surprising.

After I was finished with the museum, I took the bus north on Vermont to Olympic, where I had to transfer. This put me right in the heart of Koreatown. There’s an interesting vibe in many parts of Koreatown, which I think has to do with the zillions of small businesses competing for your attention. There are numerous strip malls, and they all seem to be bursting with restaurants, karaoke bars, tech retail outlets, nail salons, etc.. Here’s one example….

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But the look of Koreatown is changing. In the image below you’re looking up Vermont toward Wilshire, where you can see two high-rise towers that combine residential and retail. I understand some Koreatown residents aren’t too happy about the wave of high-density development that’s hitting their area. I doubt that bothers the City Council, though, and it certainly doesn’t bother Mayor Garcetti. They are all one hundred percent committed to serving the developers who put them in office. Click here for more info about this massive project.

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The bus showed up and I got on. A few minutes later I got off at the end of the line, Sixth and Maple. I headed up Maple and over to Wall. As I was walking along, I heard a voice behind me.

“Excuse me. Are you a tourist?”

He must’ve seen the camera I was holding.

“No, I’ve lived in LA all my life.”

“Oh. Cuz I was just wondering if you knew this is a really horrible area.”

I laughed, but he had a point. The street was filled with people who were living on the sidewalk. The desperation was palpable. I can’t say I was really afraid, though. I spend a fair amount of time downtown, and I’ve walked through skid row now and again. If it was night, I probably would be worried. But in the harsh light of day, these people looked too beaten down, too demoralized, to be a threat.

We walked along together for a block or so. I told him I had the camera because I wanted to shoot photos of the Sixth Street Bridge. He knew the bridge was going to be replaced, but he felt it would be a long time before work actually started. Somehow we got talking about the LA City Council, and we both agreed they have absolutely no respect for the law. Interesting how the one thing that seems to bind Angelenos together is our absolute distrust of the people at City Hall.

Then we went our separate ways. I headed over to Little Tokyo for a bowl of udon and a beer. Then I started walking down Central to Sixth.

It was late afternoon. The streets were mostly deserted. There were few cars and fewer people. I walked past the Woori Market’s empty parking lot. It’s been closed for a while. There were large warehouses, like Los Angeles Cold Storage. A couple small restaurants. A lot of places have security fences, and a few were topped with barbed wire.

The bridge rises up over the warehouses and the railroad tracks. As you get near the mid-point, the landscape below stretches out for miles in every direction. Here’s a shot of the bridge looking back toward downtown.

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And here’s another looking down on the LA River.

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Freight cars covered with graffiti sit lined up below.

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And here’s another shot of the downtown area.

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On the other side of the bridge, Sixth Street becomes Whittier Blvd., which leads you into Boyle Heights. I waited for the bus in front of Carnitas Michoacán #3, which seemed to be doing steady business. And then the seven twenty showed up to take me home.