Re-Mapping Immigrant Spaces: Koreatown after 1965

Everywhere seems also to be in Los Angeles.…And from every quarter’s teeming shores have poured a pool of cultures so diverse that contemporary Los Angeles represents the world in connected urban microcosms, reproducing in situ the customary colors and confrontations of a hundred different homelands.1

In the body of urban theory following Cary McWilliams’s 1946 observation that Los Angeles is a racial and cultural archipelago consisting of “White, Negro, Mexican, and Oriental”2 Los Angeles has been emphasized as a conglomeration of distinct communities each with a stable ethnic homogeneity within them.  Though Los Angeles is characterized as the ultimate postmodern, polycentric city with satellites of ethnic enclaves ranging from Little Tokyo and Little Armenia to Thai Town, and now Little Bangladesh, it is often assumed that these enclaves are largely isolated from each other and ethnically, even culturally integrated within.  This tradition by social theorists from Charles A. Stoddard in 1894 to Edward Soja in 1989, of over-emphasizing ethnic and cultural homogeneity within these segregated urban enclaves, is no longer tenable.

In one of the most ethnically identified neighborhoods in Los Angeles, Koreatown, a community with clear spatial boundaries, with a long history whose immigrants originated from a country as powerfully nationalistic and ethnically homogenous as Korea, even in Koreatown it is impossible to define the community along any singular ethnic or cultural lens.  Rather, what distinguishes Koreatown is the heterogeneity within its ethnic enclave, its contested identities or the tensions not only ethnically but along the lines of class, nationalities, and generations that make it impossible to characterize as simply homogenous.

Nicknamed the “L.A. district of Seoul City,” Koreatown in Los Angeles evokes both a local and global concept of place.  Though its geographic boundaries have been in flux since the first Korean immigrants arrived in Los Angeles in the early 1900s, Koreatown’s official boundaries designated by the City Council since August of 2010 are: Third Street to the north, Vermont Avenue to the east, Olympic Boulevard to the south and Western Avenue to the west, including a narrow strip of Western Avenue up to Rosewood Avenue.3 Prior to 2010, the boundaries of Koreatown were unofficial and more expansive, roughly delineated from the south to north between Pico Boulevard and Melrose Avenue and from east to west between Wilton Place and Fairfax Avenue.4  Though Korean immigrants have inhabited the area since the 1960s, Koreatown was only officially recognized as a section of Los Angeles in 1980 but without any designated street boundaries.  In 1982, “Koreatown” signs were posted on the highway and on the streets surrounding its neighborhood, located around three miles west of downtown Los Angeles.5

The current official boundaries of Koreatown were created as a result of a proposal made in 2009 to designate an existing ethnic community within the boundaries of Koreatown, Little Bangladesh.  According to a mapping project undertaken by the cultural and advocacy group the South Asian Network in 2005, the current population of Bangladeshis living in the area is approximately 20,000.6 Community members representing both the Korean and Bangladeshi immigrant population worked with the City Council to negotiate the new official boundaries of Koreatown and its sub-community of Little Bangladesh.  This recent development magnifies and makes obvious how assumptions of homogeneity within Koreatown’s ethnic enclave are no longer applicable. Though it is perceived as a predominantly Korean immigrant place in Los Angeles due to the number of Korean businesses and the proliferation of signage in the Korean language, as indicated earlier, its residents are primarily Latino, with Koreans comprising the largest Asian residential population within the community.  Today, the spatial practice of Koreatown includes the daily social and economic interactions among its mix of residents and visitors who are diverse in both racial and ethnic makeup.

  1. Edward W. Soja, Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory (London: Verso, 1989), 223. 

  2. Carey McWilliams, Southern California: An Island on the Land (Layton, Utah: Gibbs Smith Publishing, [1946] 1973), 315. 

  3. Katherine Yungmee Kim, Images of America: Los Angeles’s Koreatown (Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2011), 125. 

  4. Eui-Young Yu, Peter Choe, Sang Il Han, and Kimberly Yu, “Emerging Diversity: Los Angeles’ Koreatown, 1990–2000,” Amerasia Journal 30:1 (2004): 25-52. 

  5. In 1982 “Koreatown” signs were posted at the intersections of Vermont and Olympic and Western and Olympic in Los Angeles. Kim,Lee and Byun, Korean Centennial, 230. 

  6. Raja Abdulrahim, “Little Bangladesh Must Grow into its Name,” Los Angeles Times, November 28, 2010, accessed May 24, 2013, http://articles.latimes.com/2010/nov/28/local/la-me-little-bangladesh-20101128