Reimagining Koreatown

In Los Angeles’ Koreatown, an unfinished condominium skyscraper juts above a cluster of restaurantsand storefronts. It towers above one of the most congested intersections in the city. Once completed, the $165 million Solair project will twinkle on the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue as a mirrored high-rise, its luxurious, airy condos boasting imported glass, hardwood and floor-to-ceiling windows.

The 22-floor complex, designed by Archeon Group International, the Los Angeles architecture firm behind the $40 million Aroma Sporex project on Wilshire, will offer condos priced from $700,000 to $2 million, as well as high-end stores and services on the ground and second levels. Tenants will begin moving in this month. During a hard-hat tour of the penthouse last November, Christopher Pak, the CEO of Archeon and one of the project’s developers, touted the Solair tower as representative of “the transformation of Koreatown.” And, he added, “Koreatown is the new center of Los Angeles.”


Seventeen years after the Los Angeles riots, when Koreatown and many of its Korean-ownedbusinesses were reduced to ashes, it’s as if the neighborhood is re-entering another type of limelight. And it’s not just because of the Solair and several other luxury developments set to transform the area’s skyline. The centrally located Koreatown, just west of downtown Los Angeles, offers some of the city’s best public transportation, boasting two Metro subway lines and three stations, which helps explain why last year Forbes dubbed it one of the nation’s most fuel-efficient neighborhoods. In 2006, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s trip to Asia secured $250 million worth of direct South Korean investment in Koreatown. Just this past January, the Los Angeles Police Department opened a division that caters exclusively to Koreatown, with a station located right in its heart, at 11th Street and Vermont Avenue. The Ambassador Hotel, though once a revered architectural and Old Hollywood fixture, is being torn down to erect an innovative learning center offering K-12 education.

Indeed, this is an ethnic “town” in transition.

Though Koreatown has a 40-year history as the first-stop for Korean immigrants, with its culturally specific stores and services, the community also differs from other ethnic enclaves in its sheer size and influence. As the largest Koreatown in the United States, the urban neighborhood — with a heavy infusion of South Korean money and the steady influx of entrepreneurial transnational migrants — may be helping to re-shape Los Angeles.


Koreatown does not have formally recognized boundaries within the city of Los Angeles, and sections of Koreatown are found in four different council districts. Borders exist that are determined by the Los Angeles Police Department, the Los Angeles Fire Department, the Los Angeles Unified School District, neighborhood councils, and community organizations – but they all differ.

Informally, sources for this story, which included Koreatown residents, community organizers and scholars, defined Koreatown’s borders as east to Hoover Street, west to Wilton Place, north to Beverly Boulevard, and south to Pico Boulevard. North to south, this encompasses roughly 15 blocks, and roughly 26 blocks west to east. It is a 2.5-square-mile area (Los Angeles is 468 square miles). City-issued signs, which can be found on streets and the Interstate 10, as well as city maps, designate various areas as “Koreatown.”

Koreatown’s ambiguous borders have offered both gains and losses. Over several decades, it has allowed the neighborhood to stretch its legs and claim a far-reaching area within the Wilshire district of central Los Angeles, west of downtown and south of Hollywood.

It has also made statistics related to population, income and education difficult to gather and quantify.

Which is why community advocates like Hae Jung Cho, development director of the Koreatown Youth and Community Center, base the information they gather for grant-writing and program development on the population inhabiting the zip codes of 90004, 90005, 90006, 90010, 90019 and 90020. According to 2000 Census data, 285,465 people reside in these six zip codes, though the Koreatown numbers are probably closer to 240,000, say scholars who study the area. Of this number, about 117,000 are Latino, 42,000 Korean, 68,000 white and 13,000 African American.

“It’s Latino Town,” says Eui-Young Yu, an emeritus professor of sociology at California State University, Los Angeles, who specializes in demography, statistics and Asian American communities. Of the immigrants who dominate Koreatown, 62 percent are from Latin America and 22 percent are from Korea. “But Koreans own the businesses,” says Yu. “So in that sense, Koreatown is legitimately a Korean enclave.”

Indeed, Koreatown’s car-clogged streets are dominated by ads and storefronts emblazoned with bold Korean script. Korean-owned establishments include restaurants, spas, salons, bookstores, norae bangs, pool halls, neon-lit booking clubs, grocery stores, cafés, office towers and banks. The area is also anchored by large multi-level shopping centers such as the Koreatown Galleria and Koreatown Plaza, each of which boasts a smattering of small stores, supermarkets and food courts serving bibimbap and sundubu.

When Yu moved to Los Angeles in 1968, there was no “Koreatown.” In the late 1960s, he surmises, about 6,000 Korean Americans lived in Los Angeles – less than 1 percent of the city’s population – but Yu discovered Korean establishments and churches loosely concentrated near the intersection of Jefferson Boulevard and Normandie Avenue (which is south of the area now known as Koreatown).

“This was the ‘old Koreatown’ – a couple of restaurants, a place that sold kimchi,” recalls Yu.

In 1965, the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act abolished national origin quotas, allowing Koreans to arrive in the thousands, then tens of thousands. Before, Korean immigrants generally consisted of war brides, orphans and students. But in terms of commercial activity, the “pioneers of new Koreatown,” Yu adds, did not arrive directly from South Korea.

In the early 1960s, tens of thousands of Koreans moved to Brazil to works as farmers and small business operators, mostly in the garment industry, while thousands more were also sent to Germany as miners or nurses. This large-scale economic migration was in part inspired by the administration of South Korean President Park Chung Hee, and his efforts to pull the republic out of extreme post-war poverty. After some accumulated wealth abroad, they immigrated to the United States to launchbusinesses. In 1965, after the Watts riots in South Los Angeles, Jewish business owners abandoned the area. “That’s when the Koreans came,” says Yu. “They saw an opportunity.”


These Koreans provided an economic foundation, opening the door for the South Koreans who arrived in the 1970s to open mom-and-pops businesses that offered custodial services, or sold garments and wigs.

Olympic Boulevard would quickly emerge as a major hub of commercial activity, and several Korean community organizations and Korean-language newspapers sprouted, helping to nurture a sense of community.

By 1982, a “Koreatown” sign was installed on the Normandie and Western entrance to the 10 Freeway. During this decade, major institutions like Getty Oil, IBM and Union Bank abandoned their large office buildings along Wilshire Boulevard, paving the way for Korean entrepreneurs to set up a variety ofbusinesses and relocating the neighborhood’s commercial center from Olympic to Wilshire.

“A lot of good things happened that provided opportunities and wealth,” recalls Johng Ho Song, the executive director of the Koreatown Youth and Community Center.

Song emigrated from South Korea with his family in 1974, and Koreatown served as a gateway for them, as it did for the deluge of immigrants that arrived at that time. His father, originally from what is now North Korea, spent years in the military before moving his family in search of better opportunities. In Koreatown, Song’s parents worked odd jobs: painting, sewing, cleaning, then eventually owning a small Texaco station.

But he doesn’t believe Koreatown serves as significant a gateway as it once did. Roughly half of the 92,000 Koreans in Los Angeles live within the Koreatown boundaries. And it’s because Koreans, once they could afford to, moved to the suburbs — to the San Fernando Valley and Orange County, where better schools and family-friendly neighborhoods could be found.

“There’s no longer this sense that all the recent immigrants should come here to live and raise their families,” says Song. “It’s no longer that place.”

But he adds, “There are emotional and psychological ties with Koreatown, different associations related to work and friends, and then there were the riots, too, so there was that pain. Combine everything, and that’s the real Koreatown. It’s not just about alcohol and singing. It’s the place where we gained our identity. It allowed us to become Korean American.”


The “new” Koreatown may no longer be that gateway, but it does appear to be luring to its made-over urban digs some new Korean profiles: 1.5- and second-generation professionals, as well as empty nesters returning after completing their childrearing years in the ‘burbs. According to a study by Kyung-Hwan Park of the University of Kentucky, there was a nearly 34 percent increase in the Korean population in Koreatown between 1990 and 2000. Transnational migrants from South Korea, who can apply for a visa that allows them to remain in the U.S. if they invest in property or business, also account for this spike.

And although the Wilshire Boulevard area suffered a dip in real estate prices because of the riots, Korean property developers actually expanded their holdings by 1999, according to “The Contested Nexus of Los Angeles Koreatown,” a 2008 report by UCLA professor Kyeyoung Park and Ph.D. student Jessica Kim published in Amerasia Journal. Park and Kim note that Koreatown owes its expansion since the 1990s in large part to South Korean money. As of 2005, there are 10 mega-development projects in the area either being pursued by city-related agencies or the market sector, represented primarily by Korean American and South Korean, as well as some white American local developers, according to their research.

Recent high-profile projects include another luxury condo high-rise known as the Summit on Sixth and the Courtyard, MaDang, an unfinished entertainment complex anchored by Woo Lae Oak restaurant on Western.

Notably, advocates for Latino and Korean immigrant workers had to fight to keep the Ambassador Hotel project out of the hands of developers who favored building a retail attraction over the current plan to build a K-12 school.


The conflict pointed to the contradiction that this ethnic town so dramatically embodies. Behind the tall, glossy commercial buildings of Koreatown, rows of run-down and overcrowded apartments serve as shelter for poor, immigrant families.

“There are such huge disparities in Koreatown,” says Dae Yoon, the executive director of the Korean Resource Center in Los Angeles. “You drive on Wilshire and pass the Aroma health spa and club, where membership costs thousands of dollars. And then, not far away, people are working 24-7, barely making a living and facing evictions and housing problems. Koreatown is one contradiction.”

Given the neighborhood’s highly visible nightlife culture, where liquor, bars and clubs are plenty, Yoon worries the most for Koreatown’s high population of uninsured, undocumented youth, and whether they will be displaced by development catering to the wealthy.

“Their future is uncertain,” Yoon says.

More than 70 percent of Koreatown residents are considered poor, and the area’s median household income is $23,000, compared to $42,000 in Los Angeles County, according to a 2005 report titled “Koreatown on the Edge: Immigrant Dreams and Realities in One of Los Angeles’ Poorest Communities,” prepared by the nonprofit Koreatown Immigrant Workers Advocates and professor Edward J. Park of Loyola Marymount University. Many work, but language barriers keep the largely immigrant population in service sector jobs that pay minimum wage or less.

The report also found that due to low wages and high rent, 40 percent of Koreatown families live in severely overcrowded conditions, and noted that in a previous study of low-income residents by KIWA, 76 percent had no health care coverage.

One of the most densely populated areas in the nation, it is also a hub for illegal activity. Joann Lee, an attorney for the Los Angeles Legal Aid Foundation, works with clients who are survivors of sex trafficking between South Korea and Los Angeles. The foundation currently has 20 to 30 open cases related to the smuggling of Korean women and girls by Korean men into the United States. Many are forced into prostitution and sexual slavery in Koreatown.

“The problem is enormous,” says Lee.



As of last month, 40 percent of the 186 units in the Solair had been sold, mostly to Korean American “empty nesters,” says developer Christopher Pak.

“If this project had opened two years ago, [our units] would’ve sold out in a weekend,” adds the South Korea-born architect, acknowledging the impact of the current recession. “But now, it’s a different time and people are being cautious about making a home purchase. The sales are not as fast.”

Though construction for the Solair began in 2006, Pak has been working on the project since 1999. For Pak, who settled in Los Angeles after his family emigrated from Korea in the 1970s (his father used to work across the street from the project site), it seems the Solair represents his personal pursuit of a vision as much as it is a risky commercial project.

“A lot of Korean Americans lived in Koreatown at one time, but you live here two, three years, you start making more money and then you move out to the Valley,” says Pak. “Once they’ve done that, and their kids are gone, they long to return to Koreatown because to so many Korean Americans … it’s gohyang, it’s their home. Older parents are moving back into Koreatown because of its convenience, familiarity and comfort. They really see L.A. Koreatown as their motherland outside of the motherland.”

Pak also seems to embrace this idea of “smart growth,” an urban planning concept that tries to concentrate growth in the center of a city and advocates transit-friendly and mixed-used development. (The Solair will be just steps from a Metro Line station.)

Pak believes that Koreatown, full of ramshackle buildings that he says are sometimes mistakenly labeled “historic,” could use a facelift.

But others worry about what might be lost during this apparent expansion and building-up of Koreatown.

At the Korean American Museum, program director Irene Hong recently pulled out an archival photo of Western and Wilshire, the same area that the Solair tower now dominates. She points to a small, four-story, slightly dilapidated structure. “These old buildings represent Koreatown’s history,” says Hong, curator of “Koreatown: Here and Now,” a photography exhibition that documents the neighborhood’s rapid escalation. “Growth can be positive, but tearing down our buildings from the 1920s…I don’t want to see it all go. Mid-size malls are replacing small businesses. Koreatown may lose its character and charm.”

Song of the Koreatown Youth and Community Center also worries for Koreatown’s future because new investments don’t seem so aimed at nurturing a family-oriented community. Gangs are attracted to the billiards and clubs that remain open late. An oversaturation of liquor-serving establishments increases the risk of drunk driving and alcohol-related crimes. Better schools are found elsewhere. And, depending on how one defines Koreatown’s borders, there are one to three parks in the neighborhood.

Koreatown “isn’t catered to youngsters,” says Song, whose organization was originally founded to steer Korean teens away from gang life, but now provides a variety of social services for both Korean and Latino populations.

Miki Lim, who has worked in a Koreatown library for two decades, thinks the area lately is catering too much to the rich. “We have these expensive high-rise buildings and they’re very nice condos or apartments, but that is the reason that we have too much noise and cars in the area now,” she says. Lim, in her 60s, cautions that the changes occurring in Koreatown “have to work for everyone, not just the owners of the buildings, but those who live here.”

Pak responds to criticism of high-end projects like his by explaining that the transient nature of Koreatown needs to change in order to foster a sustainable community.

“At some point, you have to begin the process of trying to bring in varied economic groups into a community to really make it a community,” Pak says. “Obviously, if you’ve invested in a home in a community, you want to make sure that the community also improves, and that’s what we need in Koreatown. A balance of rental apartments but also ownership residences, as well as affordable [housing].”


Though many disagree on what Koreatown’s future holds, the actual borders of the community may be formally drawn out as early as this spring. Last summer, when Bangladeshi community members submitted an application to have a section in the Koreatown area where they lived designated as Little Bangladesh, city officials realized that boundaries needed to be established.

Professor Eui-Young Yu strongly believes Koreatown will thrive for at least 50 more years, so long as the Koreans continue to pass through its shifting, sprawling yet ambiguous borders and money keeps flowing in from Korea. And now that South Koreans, since last November, are able to travel to the United States visa-free for tourism or business, ties between South Korea and Los Angeles Koreatown will only get stronger.

“Koreatown is the symbolic center of our Korean identity,” says Yu.

Immediately after the Los Angeles riots, which caused thousands of uninsured Koreans to lose their businesses and life savings, Koreans all over the United States sent checks to Koreatown relief organizations. “A tremendous amount of money came in because Korean Americans feel this sense of ownership of Koreatown,” Yu recalls. “It’s our town.”

But how will that town be defined and how inclusive will that “our” be? Can Pak’s visions of high-rise grandeur co-exist with the ground-level reality of the working poor and small business owners – who still make up the bulk of the neighborhood’s economic engine?

“Historically, Koreatown has been an ethnic enclave, so, of course, we want to see development, we want to see good schools built, new apartments, nice stores,” says Daniel Kim, an organizer for the Bus Riders Union and Labor/Community Strategy Center, whose offices are at the same intersection as the Solair. “It’s a positive thing for Koreans, as an immigrant community, to want and to achieve these developments. But the question is, who is the development for? … If a three-bedroom unit costs $1 million, how does that serve the needs of the community as a whole? What are the plans for the many longtime residents of Koreatown who make minimum wage, who are undocumented or invisible, who are going to be pushed out?”

Kim cites the example of a respected institution in a neighboring ethnic enclave. The Little Tokyo Service Center, he says, approaches development holistically, bringing together the interests of businesses, existing residents and the greater community. “You can have developments that mix affordable units for low-income people and market-rate housing, that include commercial space alongside affordable daycare.”

With current development plans pushing forward, today’s Koreatown is certain to undergo a makeover. But perhaps what’s more important than how Koreatown looks is how it chooses to define itself. So, as much as the neighborhood is being lauded these days, those who find meaning in the area will likely continue to grapple with the dramatic changes ushering in this new era of Koreatown.

—Additional reporting by Fabiana Yu