This is the plaza above the Wilshire/Vermont Red Line station.
And here’s a wider view of the plaza.
The intersection at Vermont and Wilshire is a busy place. People live here, work here, eat here, shop here.
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.
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”.
You can visit the artist’s web site by clicking on the link below.
Directly 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.
There 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.
Among the oldest buildings in Koreatown are the churches.
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.
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.
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.
I love libraries. Maybe it’s the quiet. Maybe it’s being surrounded by people reading.
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.
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.
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.
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.
And there are older malls, where a bunch of businesses are crowded around a tiny parking lot.
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.
Of course there are also massive indoor malls. Like Koreatown Plaza.
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.
I’m not sure why this bookstore seems quintessentially Korean to me, but it has something to do with the colors.
Like every other mall, Koreatown Plaza has a sizeable food court.
Walking around the area you see that health and beauty are definitely marketable commodities. There are lots of spas and beauty parlors.
It was the stacks of firewood that made me want to take a picture of Pollo a la Brasa.
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…
…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.
And 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.
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.
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.