24 Apr

World Cultures: Los Angeles’s Koreatown






By Thomas Jang and Ivana Mowry-Mora

The Korean diaspora is in fact one of the largest diasporas in the world. Called 한인 (Han-in) in Korean, approximately 7.3 million people live in North America, South America, Europe, Southeast Asia, and the southern Pacific. A significant portion of the diaspora, approximately 84%, live in just five countries. These include the United States, with the largest population of Koreans, followed by China, Japan, and Canada. In many of these countries, Koreans have established ethnic enclaves known as “Koreatowns,” where immigrants have settled for comfort, protection or familiarity. These tight-knit urban enclaves have also extended through suburban sprawl into surrounding areas. 

The largest Koreatown in the US is in Los Angeles, west of downtown and south of Hollywood. These three square miles represent the highest concentration of Korean-owned nightclubs, shopping malls, 24-hour businesses and restaurants in the country. The densely packed neighborhood is home to more than 120,000 residents, around 20 percent of Korean heritage. Even though the majority of its population is Latino, Koreatown—the first and most famous Koreatown in the U.S.—retains a distinctly Korean air. 

The story of Koreans in America starts in the late 19th century. A slow trickle of exiled social reformers arrived in San Francisco in the 1880s. After the Japanese formally annexed Korea in 1910, more Koreans immigrated to America, settling in San Francisco, before migrating down to Southern California to work in farming communities such as Riverside and Claremont. 

The first Korean community in Los Angeles was in Bunker Hill, where the Methodist Mission was, which offered a vast array of social services. In the 1930s, Korean-Americans began to move to West Adams, especially around Jefferson Boulevard, due to racially-restrictive covenants in place until 1948. The West Adams community represented many communities of color due to this racist housing practice; Koreans settled among Black, Latinx and Japanese neighbors. In 1938, the Korean Presbyterian Church and the Korean National Association both moved to Jefferson Boulevard, cementing the area as a Korean community. 

During the 1940s and 1950s, a few thousand Korean immigrants arrived in America. It was the Hart-Cellar Act of 1965 that greatly increased the number of immigrants allowed in the country. Thousands of Koreans arrived in Southern California and joined friends and family that had arrived in the first and second waves of migration. By 1970, there was a 4,000 percent increase in Koreans in the U.S. 

A man called Hi Duk Lee, who arrived by way of Germany in the late 1960s, had an enterprising vision to transform a neighborhood into a bustling Korean-led mini city in the heart of Los Angeles. He had his sights set on a declining stretch of Wilshire Boulevard, where he opened Olympic Market in 1971, which soon became a hub for the roughly 10,000 Koreans living in the L.A. area. Soon after, he bought five blocks around this market and redesigned the area to represent traditional Korean architecture. More and more Korean-owned businesses opened around the area. Bigger Korean corporations began to open branches of banks and other financial institutions, and wealthy Koreans invested in the area. 

After the Watts riots, a notable white flight occurred in downtown L.A.. Immigrant communities moving to the area were able to find affordable rents in the area, building up ethnic enclaves, including Koreatown. In 1980, the neighborhood of Koreatown was officially designated by Los Angeles County. Koreatown continued to flourish, thanks to the enterprising spirit of many third wave immigrants. 

Korean owned liquor stores would be among the hardest hit by the LA Uprising, which was sparked on April 29, 1992 after the acquittal of four policemen charged with beating Rodney King. Over the five days and nights of the violent unrest, thousands of Korean-owned businesses in South Central and Koreatown were looted, vandalized, or burned to the ground. Many small businesses were never able to reopen. In the late 1990s, investment in large scale projects returned to the area. Over the past 10 years, Koreatown has experienced an explosion in big ticket development, with more than 50 new projects in the works now.