by Eric Brightwell
Mapping ethnic enclaves
Los Angeles is known for its diversity of all kinds: ethnic, linguistic, religious, species, topographic. It is the most populous county in the country and home to hundreds of cities, communities, and neighborhoods. All of these are reasons that after first visiting in 1998 I decided to move here and devote much of my time to exploring, usually on foot but occasionally with the aid of trains, buses, and my bicycle. As I explore, I make maps. Of particular interest to me are the region’s ethnic enclaves, which are to me central to the city’s identity.
For most of human history, ethnic enclaves have often been created out of discrimination and exclusion, but the role they play in the life of the cities in which they are located is complex. Los Angeles County and neighboring Orange County are almost certainly home to more enclaves than anywhere else in the world, and they are good places to explore where culture and demographics are encoded—and sometimes recoded—in the urban landscape. For new immigrants, these enclaves can help mitigate the strangeness of a new city in a new country, offering not just familiar food, sounds, and smells, but also social services. In today’s California, these neighborhoods are often as much business and economic districts as they are residential ethnic enclaves.
As ethnicities assimilate into the mainstream, enclaves sometimes vanish, as Los Angeles’s French Town, Little Italy, and Sonoratown did. Today, Los Angeles and Orange counties are home to Cambodia Town, Chinatown, Filipinotown, Koreatown, Little Arabia, Little Armenia, Little Bangladesh, Little Brazil, Little Central America, Little Ethiopia, Little India, Little Russia, Little Saigon, Little Seoul, Little Tokyo, Little Osaka, Tehrangeles, and Thai Town. Currently, there are efforts to officially designate a Peru Village, a Little Venezuela, a Paseo Colombia, a Guatemalan Mayan Village, and an Oaxacan Corridor. Enclaves are no longer just for immigrants; an official designation can elevate a restaurant into a destination for tourists from around the world and across town.
Filipinos have a long history in this section of Los Angeles, although the word “Historic” was added to the neighborhood name to appease its many non-Filipino residents when the area received its formal designation in 2002. An actual historic Filipinotown, colloquially known as “Little Manila,” was centered along First Street between Bunker Hill and Little Tokyo, but it was razed to make way for the Civic Center in the 1940s. That’s when many Filipinos moved over from Bunker Hill to what is now Historic Filipinotown, on the northern edge of the Westlake neighborhood. Greater Los Angeles now has several larger Filipino communities, including ones in Carson, Eagle Rock, Panorama City, and West Covina. You might still see a jeepney on the streets of Historic Filipinotown. At Christmas, you might see the paper star lanterns called paróls in the neighborhood, which is still home to an assortment of Filipino organizations, social services, churches, art stores, restaurants, and apartments with names like Larry Itliong Village, Luzon Plaza, and Manila Terrace.
What was historically known as Greek Town was cumbersomely designated the Byzantine-Latino Quarter in 1997. The neighborhood developed in the 1890s as Pico Heights; but when a hundred or so Japanese Angelenos moved there, wealthy whites fled, and their void was largely filled by Mexicans and Eastern Europeans, including Greeks—especially after the California Alien Land Law in 1920 all but halted Japanese immigration. Greek immigrant Sam Chrys opened C & K Importing in 1948, but his Greek restaurant, Papa Cristo’s Catering & Greek Taverna, inspired the most adoration. Across the street, Saint Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral, built in 1952, towers over the neighborhood. Aside from those two vestiges, there are few signs of Greeks in the mostly Latino and Korean neighborhood today.
Little Tokyo has overcome several existential threats to become Los Angeles’s oldest extant ethnic enclave. Japanese people began settling in the neighborhood as early as 1869, and the first Japanese restaurants appeared in the 1880s. The neighborhood lost two thirds of its Japanese population during World War II. Then, in 1953, a large portion of the area was razed to make way for the Civic Center. In the 1970s, corporate interests—both American and, ironically, Japanese—led to mass evictions and redevelopment of much of the neighborhood. The Little Tokyo Towers, built in 1975 to serve those whose homes were destroyed to make way for a hotel, are now home to a population that is roughly one-third Korean. Korean investment continues to flow into Little Tokyo, and some Korean investors, like those who bought the dreary, half-empty Little Tokyo Galleria, have taken pains to preserve—or even promote—a more overtly Japanese image.
Businessman Lee Hi Duk sowed the seeds that would become Koreatown when he opened Olympic Market on Olympic Boulevard in 1971. In 1975, he opened a Korean-style restaurant, Young Bin Kwan, with imported blue roof tiles from Korea. He encouraged developers to follow his lead and build in an explicitly Korean style. Few heeded his wish, and his restaurant eventually became the Oaxacan restaurant Guelagetza. In fact, if you want to see Korean-style architecture, you’re more likely to find it in Little Tokyo, at the Little Tokyo Plaza.
Chinatown’s roots extend back to the great railroad projects of the 1860s. In 1871, when a white farmer was killed in the crossfire between two rival tongs, as the Chinese gangs were called, a mob of 500 murdered eighteen Chinese people in the worst-ever mass-lynching in United States history. Chinatown survived this racist terrorism but was later almost entirely destroyed to make room for the construction of Union Station. The last remnants of the old Chinatown were obliterated by construction of the Hollywood Freeway in 1954. By then there was a new Chinatown, built in 1938 and designed largely as an open-air shopping area. China City, with its red gate and hanging lanterns, was built in part from leftover set pieces that had been constructed for the film The Good Earth. This new enclave, built with both Chinese and non-Chinese in mind, helped the latter overcome their fear of yellow peril and even embrace Americanized Chinese dishes like chop suey.
The new Chinatown was built on top of Los Angeles’s Little Italy, which came into being without the input of Hollywood set designers. Had its architecture been more “authentic,” it might have garnered a greater preservation effort. The last Italian restaurant in the neighborhood, Little Joe’s, was demolished over almost no objections more than seventy years after its construction. But there are still a few vestiges of Little Italy in the area including Casa Italiana, Eastside Market, Lanza Brothers, the Pelanconi House, San Antonio Winery, and St. Peter’s. Most others departed with the Italian-American population, which headed in large numbers over the Repetto Hills into the post-war suburbs of the western San Gabriel Valley.
Large numbers of Armenians first began settling in this neighborhood east of Hollywood—and east of East Hollywood—in the 1970s. Often fleeing rising regional instability, they were immigrants not so much from Armenia directly, as from other diasporic homelands in Turkey, Iran, and Syria. Many came from Lebanon, where the well-known Armenian chain Zankou Chicken was founded before opening a second location in Little Armenia. Although the neighborhood has its share of imaginative architecture, including a Moorish auto shop with minarets, there are few overt signs of Armenian-ness in the neighborhood aside from bakeries with signs written in Armenian, the distinctly Armenian architecture of Saint Garabed Armenian Church, and several murals that celebrate Armenian history or commemorate the Armenian genocide of 1915.
Over time, the suburbs of the western San Gabriel Valley became home to Armenians, Japanese, Mexicans, Italian, Serbians, Cubans, and Puerto Ricans. Today recent Asian immigrants and Asian Americans dominate those suburbs. This demographic shift began in the 1970s, when realtor Frederic Hsieh began promoting the San Gabriel Valley suburb of Monterey Park as the “Chinese Beverly Hills” in Taiwanese and Hong Kong media. By the 1980s, Monterey Park was the first Asian American majority city on the American mainland. Soon, Taiwanese families began to move to more distant suburbs, such as Diamond Bar, Hacienda Heights, Irvine, Rowland Heights, and Walnut. The suburbs of the San Gabriel Valley are increasingly home to a multiethnic but largely Asian population that includes large numbers of Chinese, Vietnamese, Indonesians, Burmese, Filipinos, Koreans, and others—although, as with Chinatown, there are vestiges of the Italians who preceded them in the form of markets like Claro’s and restaurants such as Di Pilla’s, Bollini’s, Angelo’s, Mama Petrillo’s, and Vittoria. On the Far East Side, there is relatively little architecture that is recognizably Asian, aside from the odd home, shopping mall, Shun Fat Supermarket, and Hacienda Heights’s huge Fo Guang Shan Hsi Lai Temple.
Home to the largest concentration of Koreans outside of Korea, Koreatown may be the most vibrant neighborhood in Los Angeles; however, located in the Orange County suburb of Garden Grove is a small, suburban counterpart known colloquially as Little Seoul. Officially, it is designated as “The Korean Business District.” Little Seoul arose in the 1970s, around the time Korean Americans found a niche as greengrocers—and, indeed, the first Korean business in the area was a grocery store. As with several other enclaves, relics from before the enclave include seedy motels and adult video stores, but the dominant businesses in the almost invariably blue-tiled strip malls are markets that, unlike most grocery store chains, actually deserve to be called by the overused, honorific title of “supermarket.” The streets of Little Seoul are car-oriented and shadeless, but they are still quiet and walkable. Under the roofs of the markets, a super-extraordinary variety of businesses occupy the periphery, including restaurants, music stalls, discount shops, banks, optometrists, cosmetic shops, herbalists, and more.
Little Arabia’s development followed a familiar path. An immigrant couple, in this case Palestinians from Nazareth, opened a restaurant in a seedy, unincorporated area surrounded by Anaheim. In time, Lebanese and Syrian developers further built up the area and helped found the Arab American Council there. Locals began calling the area the Garza (and sometimes “Gaza”) Strip. Gradually, the strip bars, budget motels, and saloons were joined by halal butchers, bakeries, markets, and shisha dens—although, predictably, their presence wasn’t universally welcomed and ordinances were proposed to require special permits for live music and belly dancing. Anaheim ended up granting official recognition to Little Arabia in 2014, although it’s not strictly an Arab neighborhood as Turkish, Persian, Ethiopian, and Uyghur restaurants can all be found there.
Little India is located in the southeastern Los Angeles suburb of Artesia, a city with a Mexican American plurality and a large Asian minority (hailing from the Philippines, Korea, and Vietnam more often than India). In 1970, the owner of Los Angeles’s first Indian market, Selecto Spices, moved from Hollywood to Artesia, lured by cheap rent. More markets followed, which in turn were followed by restaurants serving Gujarati, Punjabi, and Maharashtrian cuisine. By the 1980s, the area was colloquially known as Little India; however, to avoid offending non-Indian business owners in the area, it was officially designated the International and Cultural Shopping District, although I suspect that no one has ever referred to it as such. The Indian-business-dominated stretch of Pioneer Boulevard continues to grow, and Hindu temples thrive in nearby Cerritos and Norwalk.