Neighborhood Project: Koreatown

Hanmi Bank, kickin’ other banks upside they mutherf****n’ head!
There are three very distinct communities housed in the jumble of high-rise office towers, apartment buildings and houses that make up Koreatown. There is the Koreatown of middle-class and wealthy Korean families, who live, eat, shop, party and golf in a faithful facsimile of their native country. There's the Koreatown of toil and danger, experienced by the Latinos and blacks occupying much of the neighborhood, working in the thousands of local businesses and (occasionally) having to cope with gang violence. Then there's the K-town of the hipster masses who descend on the area at night for booze and music, both of the live performance variety (The Wiltern) and the homemade variety (karaoke!). Three very different communities with a variety of goals and dreams, so of course sometimes people bump heads. But the one unifying force among K-town's disparate communities is a shared love...of alchohol and all-night barbecue.

(Tons more on K-town after the jump!)

Map
Boundaries: Pico to the south, Hoover to the east, Beverly to the north and Wilton to the east, though the reality is that K-town has overrun large swaths of the residential communities of Country Club Park and Hancock Park to the west, making it's true western boundary Crenshaw.

According to the Los Angeles Business Journal, this five square miles packs in roughly 250,000 people, making Koreatown one of the densest residential areas in the United States outside of New York City (to put it in perspective, the entire city of San Francisco has 744,000 residents over a 45 square mile area). The community is predominantly Latino (60%), but the sizeable Korean minority (30%) own the vast majority of the businesses, giving the major commercial arteries of Olympic, Wilshire, Western, Vermont and 6th the appearance of a "Little Seoul". The Latino presence is more pronounced along 8th Street, where a decent number of Taquerias and Latino-oriented businesses can be found among all the Korean pool halls, video game arcades and BBQ shops.

Latino-centric 8th Street
Pedestrian friendly (and Latino-centric) 8th Street

Political Breakdown: Parts of the neighborhood fall in both Council District 10, Councilmember Herb J. Wesson, Jr. and in Council District 1, Councilmember Ed P. Reyes

2nd County Supervisorial District, Councilwoman Yvonne Braithwaite Burke

State Senate Districts 22, Rep Gilbert A. Cedillo and 26, Rep Kevin Murray

State Assembly District 48, Rep Mike Davis

U.S. Congressional Districts 31, Rep Xavier Becerra and 33, Rep Diane E. Watson

Subway stops: Koreatown is blessed with some of the best subway access in the city. Two Re...um...Purple Line stations (Wilshire/Western and Wilshire/Normandie) and two Red Line stations (Wilshire/Vermont and Vermont/Beverly) make getting around the neighborhood a snap during the day. Unfortunately, a subway that closes down at midnight isn't very useful in a late-night hotspot, and the car remains king (and the side streets largely deserted) after dark. That, combined with the still active gang presence in some pockets of the neighborhood, keeps K-town's gritty reputation intact. However, it's seedy rep is definitely blown a bit out of proportion. The worst experience I ever had was walking home one night from the Wilshire/Western station down a deserted residential street, where I was confronted and chased a block by a couple of Raccoons. But that's a story for another day...

Metro station
Metro photo by aisipos via Flickr.

Usually considered: Koreatown

People who front say they live in: Hancock Park or Country Club Park on the western side of the neighborhood or Wilshire Center in the area near the Wiltern.

mourning doves
Little-known facts: Beverly Hot Springs on Oxford Ave is the only natural spring-fed spa in Los Angeles, its alkaline waters delivered from 2,200 feet below the surface. Many of LA's top chefs frequent Koreatown supermarkets for their ingredients, including unique vegetables and (of course) beef. Avid birdwatchers can catch an amazing variety of species from K-town rooftops, including a number of hawk species that seem happy to prey on the area's pigeons and mourning doves.

Insight: Most major cities in America (and the world) have a Chinatown. Let’s run down the list…New York, Boston, Washington DC, San Francisco, Chicago, London, Melbourne, and so on. But how many cities boast a Koreatown, let alone one the size of our own? That's why it can be frustrating to see travel guides insist on relegating one of the west coast's most interesting Asian neighborhoods to a brief mention as a community “devastated because of the LA riots.” Our Koreatown gives more insight into the culture after which it is named than most tourist-oriented Chinatowns do. The most noticeable structures in Koreatown are the looming office towers on Wilshire (larger than the downtowns of many American cities) and the high nets of the area’s many driving and putting ranges (Koreans love them some golf). The best BBQ places are usually the ones packed with middle-aged Korean men wearing Titleist baseball caps and golf gloves.

Library and driving range
Korean culture is one of the most fascinating (and overlooked) in Asia. I once took a university course on the Economics of Southeast Asia. Being the only non-Asian guy in the class, I was stunned by how openly the group discussed the quirks of their individual countries, and how important those social differences were when conducting business with one another. The professor (from Singapore) went down a list of countries, and when she arrived on Korea, threw out tidbits like “obsessed with brand name clothing and merchandise,” “initially aloof, but will warm up over time” and “like to get drunk before discussing business”. Up to that point I'd considered myself somewhat versed in Korean culture since I had taken Tae Kwon Do from a Korean instructor/restauranteur since my teenage years. Hell, I was even a licensed Tae Kwon Do referee for a while, so I had a rudimentary knowledge of the language. But I was still surprised by the professor's comments. I was even more surprised when the three Korean guys in the class all guffawed as they displayed their designer watches. Now maybe these are just stereotypes, but no one in that class seemed to disagree with it. In fact, the key thing I took from that class, other than economics principals, was that what in America would be considered stereotypes are often “cultural identifiers” that are worn as sorts of badges of honor in many Asian countries. The Koreans seemed to embrace their perceived lack of friendliness as much as the Thai students loved how their overt friendliness helped them succeed in the tourism and leisure businesses. Fascinating stuff, but I digress... The point is, check out the Korean American Museum (KAM) on 6th Street if you have a chance, and you'll see there's much more to the neighborhood's namesake community than BBQ and pool tables with no holes.

Koreatown's version of downtown
Out of town visitors routinely mistake the business district along Wilshire Blvd. between Western and Vermont as downtown Los Angeles, which is no surprise considering Koreatown's financial district often has more daytime foot traffic than parts of downtown's banking district.

Koreatown tower

History: Koreans first began moving into the area in large numbers during the 1960s, after the formerly wealthy commercial area began losing its allure thanks to classic Los Angeles sprawl. The pace of migration picked up in the 70s as upper middle class Koreans fled an oppressive South Korean regime, and what was formerly Wilshire Center was renamed Koreatown. Throughout these years, there had always been a major Latino and (smaller) black component in the neighborhood, and tensions between the groups occasionally flared. The Los Angeles riots of 1992 saw the destruction of many Korean-owned businesses, and large segments of the community dispersed throughout greater Los Angeles during the 90s.

But even during these dark times for the neighborhood, K-town remained the cultural and spiritual hub of LA's Korean community, and by 2000, a new generation of Koreans and Korean-Americans began returning and reinvesting to the area. Today, Hanmi Banks outnumber Bank of Americas and there's probably not a corner in the entire neighborhood that isn't within a few blocks of a driving range.

Wiltern
Landmarks: The neighborhood's most historic landmark, The Ambassador Hotel, was unfortunately blasted into oblivion in 2006. Fortunately, the Wiltern Theatre is not only still standing, but seems to be near the top of LA's live music venue hierarchy.

Originally built in the 1930s, this 12-story green structure is the most recognizable of the many art deco buildings lining Wilshire Blvd. After falling into disrepair like much of the neighborhood, the theater was renovated in the 1980s and is now one of the finest art deco structures in the country and one of the largest live music venues in Los Angeles.

Wiltern

Church
Not far from the Wiltern sits the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, one of the oldest synagogues in the city.

another church
In fact, there are several large and distinctive churches from a variety of denominations tucked in among the office blocks of the business district.

take your pick
Food: It's hard to choose a place to begin. A few years ago, LA Weekly's Jonathan Gold wrote an excellent Top 40 Restaurants List of Koreatown that just barely scratched the surface of all the food available in this area. And no one would argue that there's no place on the West Coast with anywhere near the amount of 3am dining options as K-town.

Diners aren't simply limited to Korean cuisine, either. Not all beef need be of the Korean variety, as Taylor's Steakhouse serves up some of the best in the city, American style. In addition to a sizeable contingent of Thai, Vietnamese (including a smorgasborg of Pho joints on Western), Chinese and Japanese in the neighborhood, there is also a wealth of Oaxacan restaurants. Restaurante Guelaguetza on 8th Street is one of the best. The southeast corner of the neighborhood is even home to a tiny Greektown called the Byzantine-Latino Quarter and anchored by Papa Cristo's.

When it comes to Korean BBQ, everyone has their personal favorites, from Dong Il Jang on 8th Street to the leafy-on-the-outside, classy-on-the-inside Chosun Galbee on Olympic.

what's your name again
This happens to be my favorite Korean BBQ place. Don't ask me what the name is, because I don't know. It shows up on my credit card receipts, and I usually forget about a month after tossing them. But trust me, it's good.

Another awesome cheap spot is The Corner Place at 2819 James Wood Blvd. A little divey, even by K-town standards, the heaping servings of beef (one order of most dishes is enough for two people) is perfectly complemented by some of the best icy-cold dongchimi noodles in town.

mmmm...pancakes
This is a hidden gem of a greasy-spoon diner. The House of Breakfast on Olympic and 5th is tiny, with only a few booths, a couple of two-top tables and a small counter with stools. The cook makes everything on a single, tiny griddle, so you shouldn't be surprised if your eggs bear the slight taste of sausage. A typical breakfast plate consists of pancakes, eggs, sausage and fried rice (seriously). So why are there always small crowds waiting outside on weekends for a table? Simply put, the breakfast can't be beat. I don't know if the pancake mix is homemade or from a box, but regardless, these are some of the best pancakes in town.

HK Supermarket
Then there are the Korean supermarkets. Most of them bear similar characteristics: Korean television shows blaring on monitors, generous free samples of food products, indoor counter dining spots and awesome seafood and meat sections. Like BBQ joints, everyone has their favorite. I waffle back and forth between the soon-to-be-renovated California Market and HK Supermarket, distinctive for its grafitti mural exterior.

HK deli counter
Once inside, HK has one of the best Korean deli counters around...

HK seafood
..and an excellent seafood section. Yes, those are live fish swimming in the tanks in the background. They usually have boxes full of live blue crabs too, which are great for impromptu gumbos or seafood boils.

the beloved meat
But the main reason most non-Koreans visit Korean grocers is for the always awesome selection of meat.

library
Just two blocks down from HK is one of the most quaint little libraries in the LAPL. The Wilshire Branch doesn't have as extensive collection as other libraries, but it does have a great kids section, and it sports a really nice outdoor courtyard with benches. It's never crowded, which makes it a great little sanctuary.

Bars and nightlife: K-town is really a nightlife hub these days, with new bars opening all the time. Among the newest to hit the scene are the R Bar at 8th & Irolo, where a password gains entry to the sign-free entrance. It's yo, ho, ho, by the way. For karaoke, stalwarts include Caffe Brass Monkey and Rosen Music Studio.

The Prince
There are also some truly venerable drinking establishments in the neighborhood, none more so than The Prince. The trademark red leather booths of this watering hole can be seen in a number of Hollywood flicks, more recently in Thank You For Smoking.

construction
Number of major developments being constructed in the neighborhood over the next three years: 14

These days the only thing outnumbering the high-rising nets of driving and putting ranges are the high-rising metal of construction cranes. The LABJ said these numerous developments will total $1 billion. The vast majority of the projects are being undertaken by Korean companies reinvesting in the community.

The Solair Wilshire is rapidly rising behind the Wilshire/Western Red Line station (across the street from the Wiltern). It'll be 22 stories tall, and hold 185 condos.

$1,950 for a 1BR in Koreatown?
Wilshire/Vermont Station is near completion and already renting units. The 449-unit apartment building is bringing previously unheard of rents to what was once the seediest part of the neighborhood. How high are the rents, you wonder? Try about $1,950 for a small one bedroom overlooking a parking lot. Ouch.

used to be cheap, not anymore
Many of the "classic" K-town structures remain, though even they are no longer the bargains they once were. Take this building on Serrano, which for years has had the distinction of being a destination building for east coast transplants. The views from the corner cupola rooms are incredible, but now you'll definitely be paying for those views...

another classic K-town apartment building
Here's another charming little K-town apartment block, just across the street from the Wilshire Branch library.

New K-town housing
Much of the new apartment housing, both rental and condo, seems to lack quite a bit of that charm, no? I'm sure these buldings are perfectly lovely on the inside, but the exterior just doesn't seem to match their surroundings at all. This might work if the building were sitting on Wilshire, but this one happened to be tucked in a few blocks away on a residential street.

To developers' credit, much of the new housing is going into retrofitted office towers as opposed to being dropped in the middle of residential streets like this one.

Los Altos apartments
But my favorite K-town apartment facade remains the Los Altos building on Wilshire.

Photo by Walter Kitundu

Aroma Wilshire Center
Not all of the new construction is hideous. The Aroma Wilshire Center kicked the building boom into high gear when it was completed in 2001. Housing a gym, spa, driving range (duh) and an awesome basement food court, the television screen atop the building has become a recognizable landmark in the increasingly neon-tinged transformation of the neighborhood. The screen stands out, even from several blocks away.

Aroma Center rear

Metro station
See? (top left)

Koreatown Galleria
The Koreatown Galleria was also completed in 2001, and along with the older Koreatown Plaza a block away, helped usher in the Korea-centric renaissance of the neighborhood.



Here's a great little video walkthrough of some neighborhood highlights, including the Korean malls, HK Supermarket and The Corner Place.

Downtown at night from K-town roof
And with that, we come to the end of our K-town journey. We'll exit with a nighttime view of downtown Los Angeles taken from a Koreatown rooftop. Cue the music.