May Issue: How K-Town Lost and Won

Photo by Eugene Yi

How K-Town Lost, and Won

Politics is dirty. Local politics is dirtier, and redistricting is as dirty as it gets. This spring, Koreatown fought back. The neighborhood will never be the same.


The disbanding of an ad hoc political commission is a bit like the end of camp. Take the case of the Los Angeles City Council Redistricting Commission.  For its three-month existence, the 21 appointees of the commission spent hours together, often late into the night, poring over maps, gutting through accusatory public testimony and bickering, as they redrew the boundaries of the 15 council districts in the City of Angels. On Feb. 29, 2012, after they’d voted to approve the map that would be thefruit of their labor, each commissioner was given two minutes for some final thoughts. The arch-top windows lining the sides of the chamber had long gone dark, and nostalgia emerged as the commissioners reflected on the process.

“Hearing from … the Koreatown neighborhood council, I’m never going to forget that. Never going to forget everyone standing up at the same time in solidarity. That’s an image that’s going to be burned in my mind,” said commissioner Antonio Sanchez.

“I can still see, in my eyes at night, everyone sitting there with the white sashes across their chest,” said commissioner Ken Sampson, sounding haunted by the beauty-pageant-style protest sashes worn by hundreds of Koreatown protestors as they delivered their message: keep the neighborhood whole, and put it in a district where they could potentially elect a Korean American to the City Council.

Instead, the commission’s final map would leave the neighborhood’s political power split, as it has been for decades. For most, it wasn’t a surprise.  There are few parts of American democracy as nakedly political as redistricting, the decennial process that redraws electoral districts to reflect the latest census data. The term gerrymandering has been around for 200 years, and incumbents have long used redistricting to fortify their access to money and votes. There are winners, there are losers, and often, there are lawsuits.  This year, Koreatown lost, and Koreatown is talking lawsuit.

Redistricting affirms the old saw about all politics being local, often for the worse. Haggling over blocks can seem abstruse to the outsider. But Koreatown’s redistricting woes became the political story of a season in Los Angeles. Hundreds of Koreatown activists attended months of meetings, adopting the color coordination and mudslinging required of any local politicking, attracting mainstream media attention and pulling off, arguably, the greatest mobilization of Asian American people power since the aftermath of the 1992 riots. When some observers referred to it as the “birth of Korean America,” or even the “Koreatown Spring,” it was hard to shrug it off as mere hyperbole.

Los Angeles has few natural boundaries, and Koreatown occupies three flat, particularly landmark-less square miles in the middle of the city. Six commonly referenced sets of boundaries exist, and Koreatown currently spans three or four city council districts, depending on which set is used. Anything from a business permit to a pothole requires a glance at the map to determine which councilmember to call. The redistricting commission held public hearings in every city council district in December and January to field public comment, and hundreds of Korean Americans took advantage of their multiple opportunities to speak.

“You couldn’t paper the city and get that kind of public participation unless something was wrong, unless you’re striking some chord. And in the end, that’s really what was happening,” said Helen B. Kim, one of the redistricting commissioners.

Rumors had been circulating for months that redistricting commissioners planned on using the strictest definition of Koreatown, one that would leave the neighborhood asunder in the minds of most. A laundry list of grievances emerged at the hearings, all linked to redistricting. Without a single councilmember to hold accountable, the neighborhood had gone far too long without more parks, senior centers, affordable housing, public works projects.  Impressively, people representing a broad spectrum of Koreatown interests attended the early hearings, from workers to churches to business owners to seniors. A few groups had worked to speaker-bomb the hearings, but the turnout seemed to go beyond any individual group’s efforts.

Instead of the rumored boundaries, many speakers suggested using those of the Wilshire Center-Koreatown Neighborhood Council, referenced frequently by the unwieldy acronym WCKNC.  Neighborhood councils were created in 1999 to more effectively channel local concerns to elected officials. The redistricting commission had asserted its aim to preserve as many neighborhood councils as possible, so focusing on those boundaries seemed like a good tack.

The first draft of the map, though, confirmed the rumors. The Feb. 1 redistricting hearing sought feedback for the entire central region of Los Angeles on the draft map, but it quickly became clear that the night would be about Koreatown.  A restive crowd filed into the historic Wilshire Ebell Theatre, just west of the neighborhood. Assertive volunteers shouted in Korean and in English in the chilly winter air, handing out white sashes embossed with the slogan “KEEP WCKNC WHOLE.” A who’s who of Koreatown notables milled about in the lobby. In Los Angeles’ ultimate indicator of unexpectedly high turnout, parking lots and side streets were packed.

Alex Cha, a WCKNC boardmember, said activists contacted all the major Koreatown organizations to try and fill the theater. And they responded.  “We had 600 sashes, and they were all gone,” he said.

Grace Yoo, executive director of the Korean American Coalition, spoke early during the hearing, and set the tone.

“My name is Grace Yoo, and as you can see I’ve got my ‘Keep Wilshire Center Koreatown Neighborhood Council Whole’ sash on, along with several hundred of my fellow Koreans. We have a problem here in this community when our voices aren’t heard,” she said.

Some soon-to-be familiar dynamics emerged. The commission would call a raft of Korean names, and Yoo would hustle up and down the aisles to round up the group. Speaker after sashed speaker would then decry what they saw as the injustice of the new maps, using every argument they could: the commissioners were corrupt political appointees;

Koreatown had been split, just like the Korean peninsula remains divided; the neighborhood would stay unsafe and neglected; hundreds had spoken in favor of keeping Koreatown united, and yet the new maps had split it apart yet again.

“The process is flawed if you have all of these public input hearings, and you don’t take that public input into account,” said Ben Juhn, a staff member of the Korean American Coalition, at the hearing.

Meanwhile, a group claiming to represent Koreatown Salvadoreans urged the commission not to bend to the Koreatown activists’ will. Some Bangladeshi speakers agreed with them, though other Bangladeshi representatives disagreed, proclaiming solidarity with Korean Americans. Shouting matches and impromptu pow-wows coalesced outside the theater. The polyglot politics of Koreatown were on fulldisplay, and everybody, implicitly or explicitly, spoke for a people.

About halfway through the evening, local commercial real estate agent Jimmy Chai approached the microphone to speak.

“I have a letter here from a Korean restaurant owner, and it was made out to [10th District Los Angeles City Council member] Herb Wesson on January 24, 2011. And it reads: ‘Hello Councilman Wesson, as a concerned citizen I want to file a complaint in regards to an illegal transaction from your deputy, Michael Bai.’” The letter had purportedly been written by Brian Jung, the owner of a chain of successful all-you-can-eat Korean BBQ restaurants.  It alleged that business owners had been forced to make political donations for business license renewals.  Chai added that he had seen Bai at the hearing, and, “This is a public forum, I want to give him an opportunity to respond to this, but be warned there’s a lot of restaurant owners here, so …” he said, trailing off.

The authenticity of the letter was immediately called into question, and Jung has denied that he wrote it. But, as quickly as some community leaders distanced themselves from the explosive comments, the mainstream media picked up the story. The fight to keep Koreatown whole had, very publicly, pitted the activists against Wesson, the new City Council president, and the second most powerful politician in Los Angeles.

Koreatown has a tradition of largesse toward its elected officials, hinging on local businesses’ need to renew liquor licenses every few years by applying for conditional use permits (CUPs).  The difference between rubber stamped passage and bureaucratic purgatory is the euphemistic “good relationship” with one’s council member. The 10th District has long commanded the largest swath of Koreatown, and its elected officials have benefited for decades. Nate Holden represented the 10th through the 1990s, and he received tens of thousands of dollars from Koreatown business owners, according to contemporaneous Los Angeles Times accounts. Wesson, who started his career in Holden’s office and now represents the 10th, received a third of his reported 2011 contributions from Koreatown businesses, according to the Times. It’s hard to imagine that Wesson would have much interest in letting Koreatown go.

“[Business owners] are not trying to bribe, anything like that,” said Kee Whan Ha, a prominent Koreatown business owner and president of the Wilshire Center-Koreatown Neighborhood Council. “Some people may not [be] willing to come out to [a] fundraising event. But [if] I’m a businessman, I would put $500,” he said, the maximum allowed contribution from an individual.

“[Or a] husband [and] wife [pay a total of] $1,000. If you pay, if you have a good relation, then you have CUP pass through, then that’s really good investment.”

But beyond the unceasing neon of the main thoroughfares, the streets of K-town are poorly lit and trash-strewn.  Dilapidation and blight seem to lurk just out of sight. Neighborhood concerns like parks, safety and public services seem to have taken a back seat. “If I were a council member, I would want Koreatown,” said political consultant Charles Kim, a former and longtime executive director of the Korean American Coalition. “They don’t complain, they don’t vote, they just give money. And not just small money. Big money. And they don’t demand anything other than their business interests. … You go to a black district, a Latino district, or even a Jewish district, [if] they donate $100, they call you every day and say, ‘I’m a donor. Fix my pothole.’ Koreans don’t even make phone calls.”

In essence, Korean Americans have become the merchant class of their own neighborhood, profiting from all of the binge soju drinkers and foodies discovering samgyeopsal, with individual concerns outweighing community needs. But that’s been the case for decades.  The story of the Koreatown Spring, of course, is that Korean Americans have become the rabble-rousing class of the neighborhood as well.

Hanna Yoon. Photo by Charles Kang

The sheer number of Korean American groups based in Koreatown would seem to give credence to the affliction termed the hwaejang disease, symptoms for which include a chronic need to be the hwaejang, or head, of an organization. Alliances and rivalries within Koreatown reflect the fractious nature of any local politics, but the groups that came together for redistricting seemed to show a breadth and unity that had not previously been displayed. The initial coalition included several groups led by 1.5-generation Korean Americans, ranging from advocacy groups like the Korean American Coalition, to religious organizations, political groups and professional societies. As time went on, more and more would join.

“This is the first time that I personally experienced first-generation and second-generation groups working together, and the first time I saw churches and non-religious KA organizations working together,” said Hanna Yoon, an attorney and president of the Korean American Democratic Committee.

Over many shared breakfasts, late nights and strategy sessions, the leaders of the groups grew closer as it became clear that redistricting would not be a blitzkrieg, but a trench war, with T-shirts and sashes and volunteers and transportation to be mobilized for hearings every week.

“Whenever any individuals or groups go through trauma together, or a common enemy, a certain kind of bonding happens,” said Hyepin Im, president and CEO of Korean Churches for Community Development. “I do feel that we went through a war together, and in that way, a certain bond and camaraderie have formed. And I think it’s created a foundation in trust that’s going to take us to another level of community empowerment and advocacy.”

“We’ve known everyone for many, many years, but we never had the opportunity to work on a special cause like this,” added Alex Cha, board member of WCKNC. “This was a unifying cause because we all had the same goal, the same agenda, which was very refreshing.  It appeared to me that no one really wanted to take all the credit.”

Countering the sashes, the T-shirts and the persistence of the activists, Council member Wesson seemed to be firmly in control of the redistricting process, starting with the appointment of Andrew Westall as executive director of the redistricting commission. Westall was a senior deputy to Wesson, and was still listed as such on the council member’s website as of late April, though he had earlier resigned from the post to serve on the commission.

Korean Americans flooded public hearings this past spring, urging the redistricting commission to make Koreatown whole. Photo by Ryoko Nakamura/Rafu Shimpo

David Roberti, a longtime state legislator who has served on the last two Los Angeles redistricting commissions, stressed that Westall is “very competent,” and that his appointment to the commission, despite his close connection to Wesson, was “just how it goes.” He added, though, that, “Obviously, [Westall’s] not going to work toward dismembering his former boss’ district.”

All the public comment in the world would not change that fact. Westall did not return requests for comment, though at the final redistricting commission hearing, he boasted of uniting Koreatown, which he technically had done.  But the final map had done it in the 10th District, under Wesson, rather than the 13th, with its open seat. And the map had used the city’s tighter boundaries, rather than the broader neighborhood council boundaries.

“All these other neighborhood councils, [the other commissioners] moved heaven and earth to try and unite. They’re like, ‘Oh, there’s overwhelming testimony,’” said Robert Ahn, a lawyer and the other Korean American redistricting commissioner.  “When they talk about strong testimony, they’re talking about like 10 people that came out and said, ‘Hey, we want to be whole.’ But when you compare that to the hundreds of Koreans that came out, advocating for WCKNC boundaries, that somehow got ignored.”

Procedural irregularities, as well as violations of open governance and civil rights laws, blocked Koreatown’s path toward unity outside of the 10th, according to commissioner Helen Kim.  A map that moved Koreatown to the 13th mysteriously disappeared for a key vote, she said. Subcommittee meetings out of the public view created at least the impression, if not the reality, of the proverbial smoke-filled backroom.

A voting bloc that often thwarted K-town activists seemed to ally Wesson’s appointee with powerful Latino politicians. The race card got played early and often, with some commissioners pushing to make the 10th a majority African American district to shore up Wesson’s base, as other commissioners argued it would make Korean Americans in Koreatown a captive minority, unable to sway an election on their own. In the zero-sum game of politics in a pluralistic city like Los Angeles, it seemed to always end up being about race, even as the commission, before every hearing, expressly spoke of the legal imperative to avoid relying solely on it.

Helen Kim kept careful notes of the proceedings, and co-authored a minority report that accompanied the final commission map. It reads like the basis for a lawsuit. No action is expected until Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa signs the maps into law, which he can do as late as July 1. But activists have announced their legal representation, and they are positioning themselves to file.

Photo by Eugene Yi

Justin Levitt, a law professor at Loyola Law School who specializes in redistricting, said he felt that there were “certainly credible claims” on the part of the Koreatown activists. Still, “a lot of it, in the final analysis, is going to be left up to how much courts believe that the [City] Charter requires them to wade into what has become a really big mess.” The scale of the mess is reminiscent of a 1990 lawsuit, which found that Los Angeles County’s redistricting process had prevented Latinos from electing one of their own. Judge Alex Kozinski wrote in a minority opinion, “When the dust has settled and local passions have cooled, this case will be remembered for its lucid demonstration that elected officials engaged in the single-minded pursuit of incumbency can run roughshod over the rights of protected minorities.”

In part because of Koreatown activists’ vocal protests, Eric Schockman, a political science professor who helped create the process by which city officials appoint redistricting commissioners, recently expressed regrets about his input a decade ago.

“In retrospect, it was wrong and I apologize,” Schockman said. “We should never have allowed the politicians through their surrogates to redistrict the city of Los Angeles.”

On March 15, City Councilmember Eric Garcetti met with Asian American community leaders to curry their favor for his run for the mayoralty next year.  When asked about the redistricting battle, he pointed to a lack of clarity in what the Koreatown community wanted. “Some have said, ‘We want to be in one single council district,’” Garcetti said. “Others have said, ‘We want as much of this neighborhood council boundary to be in a single council district.’ Others have said, ‘There’s certain councilmembers who we want to be with, and other ones we don’t want to be with.’ And other times, that ‘We wanted to have opportunities, areas for Asian Pacific Islander candidates or Korean American candidates to run and win.’ So those aren’t always the same thing, and one of the things I respect about the Korean community is that it is an incredible diverse community with diverse opinions.”

Grace Yoo, executive director of the Korean American Coalition, speaks to the Korean media, following a March 16 press conference outside City Hall. Photo by Charles Kang

The room for Garcetti to equivocate was created by fissures among the Koreatown groups, which started to show as the redistricting battle became a highly politicized slog. Chang Lee is the former head of the Koreatown Chamber of Commerce, and though he had attended early redistricting hearings to urge the commission to unite Koreatown under the WCKNC boundaries, he did not join the coalition of activists in organizing speakers to make a show at public hearings. He later spoke in favor of the final proposed redistricting maps at a City Council hearing, angering many of the activists. Lee did not respond to interview requests, but he told the Times, “I think we made enough noise. [Wesson] must have heard us.”

Kee Whan Ha, the president of the WCKNC, said that he was opposed to continuing the redistricting fight. Ha was never a public part of redistricting efforts, though he said he was not opposed to the activists’ initial efforts to be heard.  But once the anti-Wesson rhetoric got cranked up, Ha, who said he had a “good relationship” with Wesson, didn’t see the point of resisting the maps.

“If you cannot win, I’m not going to fight,” he said.

For some, support for redistricting ended after Chai read the letter at the Ebell theater meeting. “That turned off a lot of people,” said Alex Cha, the WCKNC boardmember. “Nobody authorized him to do that. In hindsight, that opened up the gate for a lot of us to have more courage.” For the activists, they suddenly had nothing more to lose by stepping up their attacks on Wesson, Cha said, while other groups distanced themselves.

“I think for our community, we’re very young in experiencing how to fight the Goliath,” said Im, of the Korean Churches for Community Development.  “And so in every way, at a certain point, a pressure point comes, it’s very easy to decide to succumb. Because that is kind of a safer route, or it appears to be the safer route in the short run. However, I think … now enough members of our community are starting to experience or have experience that, when you actually stand your ground, all those fears of all those horrible things that could’ve happened or you thought were going to happen, actually turned out to be not so true. And actually that there’s increased respect for you for standing your ground.”

Others disagreed with Im’s assessment.

“[The activists] should start working on an exit plan,” said Charles Kim, the Korean American Coalition’s former head. “Who’s going to pay the price?  Many Korean businessmen [are] going to pay the price, because permits will be delayed. By law, they can delay, and they can hurt the business a lot. The politics are reality. It’s not just symbolic.”

The disagreements illustrate something about Koreatown’s nature: It is more neighborhood than enclave.  It is one of the poorer areas in Los Angeles, with a working-class Latino majority, Korean-dominated commercial corridors, a smattering of other ethnicities and a slowly growing hipster class to boot. Koreatown is a symbolic home to Southern California’s Korean Americans, not a physical one. The needs of those who live in Koreatown, who are often poor and of limited English proficiency, are very different from the needs of the business people.

These fissures became fault lines during the redistricting battle. But because they became so public, Koreatown advocates found themselves working harder to straddle divides that they otherwise would have.

Justin Kim is a Koreatown developer who recently got appointed to the city of Los Angeles’ planning commission.  “We need to decide for the long term: Is it going to be a balance, a little more tilt toward business, or we’re really going to try to have affordable housing [and] senior housing?” he said.  “You do that by putting together a community plan.” Such a plan would define goals and incentives for development in an area. Since 2001, Koreatown has been part of a broader Wilshire Plan.  Creating a Koreatown-specific plan would allow many of the varying concerns in the neighborhood to attempt to form a consensus, rather than working through their individual channels, whether it be protest or donation, to accomplish their ends. To get a community plan together, though, would require a politician to take an active interest in Koreatown’s future, and despite the neighborhood’s longtime importance to its elected officials, no such plan has yet emerged.

A Korean American politician is no guarantee of automatic community support, of course. In 1992, Jay Kim became the first Korean American elected to Congress, representing some of the eastern suburbs and outskirts of Los Angeles. But Kim, a conservative and a Republican, was deeply unpopular among the many progressive second-generation Korean Americans who had come to prominence following the Los Angeles riots. When his political career ended in a corruption scandal, it’s not difficult to imagine that more than one Korean American indulged in a moment of schadenfreude.

Several Korean Americans are rumored to be mulling a run for the 13th City Council District next year, not to mention other Asian Americans. The chances for more fracturing of the community are manifest. How quickly the activists, the business owners, the nonprofits and the myriad other Koreatown interests can unite behind a single candidate will most likely determine whether the gains of the redistricting battle will be sustained. But it will be another political season, and another story.

A fitting coda for the just-passed season came on April 17, at the WCKNC open house. Mexican, Bengali and Korean food were promised, as well as free T-shirts, at the auditorium of Young Oak Kim Academy, a middle school in Koreatown, no matter what set of boundaries are used. The room buzzed with the energy of the students who were there to perform, as well as with the white noise from the shoddy sound system that is typical of most middle school auditoriums. Tall stacks of the now-famous bright yellow “I ♥ K-Town” T-shirts sat stacked by the stage. A few hundred people attended, including most of the major Korean Americans who were part of the redistricting battle, on one side or the other. Following the hip-hop dance performance that has become de rigeur in the post-Jabbawockeez age, Alex Cha introduced a surprise guest: Herb Wesson and his embattled deputy, Michael Bai.

L.A. City Council president Herb Wesson speaks at an April 17 open house for the Wilshire Center-Koreatown Neighborhood Council (WCKNC). To his left are WCKNC board members Alex Cha (far right) and Kee Whan Ha, ready to present Wesson with his own “I ♥ K-Town” T-shirt. Photo by Eugene Yi

Wesson spoke briefly, saying he looked forward to working with the community to address the neighborhood’s needs. He acknowledged the difficulty of the last few months, and he said he wanted to reach out to the younger people as well, alluding to the activists who had spent the last few months tarnishing him, many of whom were in the room. Yoo and Cha, among others, presented him with an “I ♥ K-Town” T-shirt of his own. Pictures were taken, though only the Korean media was present. Politics, it seemed, had reverted to its usual, local nature.

Wesson and Bai quickly left.  The mostly teenage audience chatted happily away, unaware of the rapprochement they had witnessed. A few speakers followed Wesson, but they worked mostly in vain to engage the youthful crowd in the stuff of local politics. Once the last of the speakers finished, the audience mobbed the front of the room to line up for their small, medium, large or extra-large T-shirts, which were efficiently handed out, and there was a distinct sense that excess inventory was being purged. Exultant teens immediately donned their shirts.  Food was left over, and people were invited to take some home. The meeting quickly dispersed. For several hours, outside of a middle school in Koreatown named after a Korean American World War II hero, kids wearing “I ♥ K-Town” T-shirts could be seen for blocks around.

This article was published in the May 2012 issue of KoreAmSubscribe today!