One of the things that makes Los Angeles so unique is the vibrant mix of cultures that form small communities in the metropolitan city. It is truly a diverse megalopolis with each area feeling distinctively different from the next.
Longtime resident Christus Ahmanson cannot put it in better words:
“In less than fifteen minutes I can go from the primarily white Hancock Park, into Koreatown, into the Byzantine Latino quarter. No other city has all these different socioeconomic groups living so close to each other, and with no physical boundaries between neighborhoods. There are distinct divisions and differences in Los Angeles neighborhoods. Each one looks and feels different than the next, rather than just lumping them all together the city differentiates between groups. The city invites you to adventure. You can go from some of the worst areas in the United States to some of the safest and most affluent in the blink of an eye. Furthermore, the city is always changing. Something is always happening. No matter where you are or what time it is, something is always happening. There is always something to do. And because the city is so diverse it lends itself to a variety of activities.”
LA has always been known for its heterogenous identity; however, could it be that a serious alteration is about to take place? If major cultural centers, such as Koreatown and Chinatown continue to suffer from gentrification, that fear could easily become a reality.
A report by the Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance shows that of Koreatown’s current population of 200,000, the majority are immigrants and 70% are part of the working poor. Most residents have limited job skills and English proficiency, work in low-income jobs, and have difficulty accessing public services and local decision making processes. Almost all of Koreatown’s population is part of the working poor—more than 40% fall below the federal poverty line. Given current development trends, however, they believe that Koreatown’s demographics are going to shift rapidly and drastically as rental prices rise and low-income people are pushed out of the community.
As gentrification in Koreatown increases rent (for example, one-bedroom apartments that used to be $700 a month now are $1,000) housing has become a critical problem. What used to be accessible housing is now becoming less accessible to a majority of the immigrant population. What is worse is that the cheaper housing units are being torn down to make way for luxury condominiums and malls.
If this trend of building high-end condos and malls (such as the Solair) instead of affordable housing units continue, the immigrant population that was the heart of Koreatown could be forced elsewhere. As mom-and-pop shops go out of business and are replaced by upscale corporations, Koreatown can soon shift into a caricature of its former self, which is what Chintatown has already started to become.
What used to be a community for Chinese immigrants has now become a bastardized fusion of hipster culture and what hipsters perceive to be Chinese culture. At first glance, Chun King Road seems to be a marketplace for Chinese art; however, most Chinese residents in the area can tell you that it is far from the truth. Funie Hsu notes that poor economic conditions in Los Angeles’ Chinatown has kept many tourists and businesses away. Due to this unfortunate fact, Chinatown has now become a host to a community of “twenty-something, trend-seeking European American consumers” and art galleries that cater to a specific privileged public who can afford the luxuries of owning original pieces of contemporary art.
Some of the gallery owners then expanded their business by creating a nightclub in the area, attracting “the young, upwardly mobile customers trying to buy their way into the scene.” Hsu states, “The emerging nightlife in Chinatown draws the Hollywood crowd who come, just as they did decades ago, to flaunt their social and economic status by using the neighborhood as their personal entertainment venue. The neighborhood has become nothing more than an urban cultural playground in the eyes of European Americans who have come to utilize the space for their racial roughhousing.”
The profits from accommodating this new hipster culture have led to the rise of artist lofts in that area, only speeding up the process of gentrification. As the previous Chinese residents are driven to the San Gabriel Valley area due to the high prices of the new lofts, more and more hipsters move into Chinatown. Many social justice organizations in the rapidly changing town are fighting the trend, but with limited resources on their side, it seems as if the culture change will continue unless something drastic happens.
This problem should not only pertain to Korean and Chinese immigrants but to all Los Angelenos. Those who love the city should not let a unique quality of this great city fall. Only as a united group can we stop the spread of gentrification and keep LA from becoming a homogenous city.