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10 Things You May Not Know About Koreatown

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You've been to Koreatown plenty of times before. Maybe you were scarfing down some jangban guksu at Kobawoo House last week. Perhaps you got roped into singing "Video Killed The Radio Star" at Young Dong. Or maybe you were snacking on some "Death By Duck" at Beer Belly. You can always find something to do in Koreatown, where everything's a constant whirl of light and noise. The shiny veneer, however, can distract us from the more-hidden aspects of the neighborhood. Here, we take a glimpse at some of the lesser-known trivia regarding our beloved K-Town.

It Wasn't "Koreatown" Until 1980

The National Origins Act, enacted in 1924 as a result of xenophobic fervor, put restrictions on the number of immigrants coming from Asia, the Middle East, and other parts of the world. By the 1960s, however, public opinion was changing. In 1965, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act, which undid many of the rigid immigration laws of the past. This resulted in a sharp increase of Koreans coming to America (they were fleeing, among other things, political instability in their native country). In 1960, there were approximately 11,200 Korean immigrants living in the United States. By 1970, that figure had tripled to 38,700.

As to why the Wilshire area became a hub for newly-arrived Koreans, Los Angeles's Koreatown believes it has to do with two things: the 1965 Watts riots and the construction of the freeway system. The riots led many of the white middle-class to spread out into the suburbs, and the freeways helped along this decentralization of the city. The Wilshire area, then, went into an economic depression, and Koreans, encouraged by cheap rents, moved in and transformed the area into a vibrant hub of commerce. It wasn't till 1980, however, that local businessmen were able to convince city officials to designate the area as "Koreatown."

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It should be noted that, in spite of the neighborhood's name, it's now Latinos who make up the majority. They account for 53.5% of the Koreatown area's population.

Gone With The Wind Won Its Oscar Haul Here

The former Ambassador Hotel had a storied history, though it's best remembered as the site of Robert Kennedy's assassination. On June 5, 1968, Kennedy was making his way through the hotel's kitchen when Sirhan Sirhan gunned him down with a .22-caliber handgun. Immediately after Kennedy was shot, photographer Bill Eppridge stepped in and snapped one of the most enduring images in American history. The picture depicts busboy Juan Romero, then 17 years old, coming to the aid of the senator.

Before Kennedy's assassination, however, the Ambassador was noted for more optimistic reasons. This was where Nikita Khrushchev, who came to tout a message of coexistence, stayed when he visited the U.S. in 1959. The hotel also hosted six Academy Awards ceremonies. And it was where Gone With The Wind won the Oscars sweepstakes, nabbing ten awards in 1940 (a record at the time). Here's Vivien Leigh accepting her statue at the Ambassador:

The Ambassador was demolished in 2006 and later rebuilt as Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools, a collection of public schools.

It's Got The Only Natural Hot Spring Spa In L.A.

Aside from the grilled meats and karaoke halls, Koreatown's array of bath spas (there are about 40 of them) is also popular with bon vivants. Not everyone knows, however, that Koreatown is home to the only natural hot spring in L.A.—Beverly Hot Springs actually has its own well that pumps in water from over 2,000 feet underground.

How is this possible? It goes way back to the turn of the 20th century, when oil prospectors drilled a hole by (what is now known as) Western Avenue and Beverly Boulevard. They failed to turn up "black gold," but the hole was later repurposed as a well that supplied drinking water to early settlers. In 1915, water mains were installed in the area and made the well obsolete. It had a brief resurgence when some crafty entrepreneurs bottled and sold the water as a cure-all, but demand dwindled when the second World War rolled around. The well was then left to languish for decades.

It wasn't until 1984 that a couple of enterprising Korean businesspeople (including an Olympic weightlifter) bought the land around the well and turned it into a spa.

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But Is It The First Koreatown In Southern California?

Korea was deemed a colony of Japan from 1910 to 1945. Some Koreans, however, managed to leave the country before Japanese rule came into effect. In the early 20th century, about 7,000 immigrants (mostly men) sailed to Hawaii to work in sugar plantations. In search of better job opportunities (mainly in farm work), the immigrants passed from Hawaii to San Francisco, then spread out across the West Coast. By the 1930s, Southern California would become the immigrants' de facto base of operations. The Korean National Association, which started in the Bay Area in the early 1900s, was formally moved to Southern California in 1937.

Riverside, as it turned out, was a popular destination because the citrus industry there was rich with jobs. But there was an issue: Many of the citrus orchards were controlled by Japanese labor contractors, which meant that Korean laborers found it difficult to secure work. Dosan Ahn Chang Ho, a Korean scholar and activist, struck up a deal with American businessman C. E. Rumsey to create a Korean-owned employment agency. As part of the deal, many of the Korean laborers would work in Rumsey's orange groves. And, in turn, Rumsey developed housing for Korean families in Riverside, which led to the establishment of the first Korean settlement in the U.S. mainland. Some scholars argue that this settlement can be regarded as the first Koreatown in Southern California, though this really depends on your definition of what a "Koreatown" is.

A statue of Dosan currently stands in downtown Riverside.

The Brown Derby Is Still Here (Sorta)

The famed Brown Derby used to be located across the street from The Ambassador. This location (there were several other Brown Derbies) was the original, and it was the only one to be constructed as an enormous, dome-shaped derby.

The restaurant was shuttered in 1980, and construction crews were primed to tear it down to make space for a high-rise development, but members of the Los Angeles Conservancy stepped in to halt the demolition, and the high-rise never came to fruition. In 1985, however, the location was turned into a two-story shopping mall. The dome of the hat was preserved and inserted (somewhat haphazardly) into the building's layout. You can still see the dome today at 3377 Wilshire Boulevard, nestled inside the, yup, Brown Derby Plaza.

It Really (Really) Needs A Park

You can find almost anything in Koreatown. Want to catch up on some Korean cinema? Or maybe you want to sample some bull penis or silkworm pupae? K-Town's got you covered.

If there's one thing that's scarce in the neighborhood, however, it's park space. Koreatown is regarded as one of the most "park poor" neighborhoods in the county. In a recent report, the Department Of Parks And Recreation said that Koreatown had 0.1 acres of park space for every 1,000 residents; it scored lower than historically park poor neighborhoods like Van Nuys and South L.A.. By comparison, the L.A. County as a whole averages about 3.3 acres per 1,000 people. Park planners told the L.A. Times that the situation is even more dire. They believe that the figure is closer to 0.7 acres per 1,000 people in Koreatown. The Times notes that, for each person, this space amounts to something smaller than a coffin (kind of a morbid observation, no?).

There is reason for optimism, however. Councilman Herb Wesson has proposed turning a lot by the Pio Pico library into a park. Also, county supervisors approved in August a plan that will bring a 12,550 square-foot community center to Vermont Ave.

You Can Find Traditional Korean Architecture At...A Oaxacan Restaurant?

Hi-Duk Lee, dubbed the "Father of Koreatown," was among the first to ply his wares by the intersection of Olympic and Normandie, which is regarded as the birthplace of contemporary Koreatown. He opened up Olympic Market in 1971 on the corner of Olympic and Harvard. Then, in 1975, he started a restaurant and nightclub called VIP Palace, which the L.A. Times described as "the center of community life" for the neighborhood. Lee envisioned a Koreatown stamped with the architectural stylings of his homeland. So, when he built VIP Palace, he decorated it with more than 10,000 traditionally-made (and very blue) roof tiles that were shipped from Korea. Those tiles represented some of Koreatown's earliest attempts at traditional architecture.

What became of VIP Palace? It's now Guelaguetza. That's right, that Oaxacan joint that's famed for their exceptional moles (and for being one of Jonathan Gold's favorites). The new owners may have redecorated the interior, and they'd added some neat artwork to the exterior walls, but those blue roof tiles have remained.

Also of note: In 2006 Koreatown celebrated its birthplace by unveiling a pavilion (replete with its own garden) near the intersection of Olympic and Normandie. The pavilion was named Da Wool Jung, meaning a harmonious gathering space. Craftsmen from South Korea were actually flown in to make sure the structure was built to traditional standards. In total, the structure cost $695,000 and took five years to erect.

Nearly Half Of Property Damage During The 1992 Riots Happened To Korean-Owned Businesses

The 1992 riots was a watershed moment for Koreatown. Koreans, once an overlooked presence in L.A.'s cultural fabric, now found themselves tossed into the national spotlight. The riots exposed the growing tension between the Korean and African-American communities. It also led many Koreans to believe that authorities had little interest in safe-guarding their neighborhood.

According to estimates, damages to Korean-owned businesses in L.A. amounted to more than $350 million during the riots. This accounts for nearly half of the property damage that had happened during the riots (several outlets report that, in total, rioting had cost about $735 million). And, according to a survey done by the Korean American Inter-Agency Council, less than 25% of the 2,100 burned or looted Korean businesses had reopened two years after the incident. While these reports don't say how many of these Korean-owned businesses were in Koreatown (some of those stores were in South L.A.), it's clear that the neighborhood was among the most battered by the riots.

The destruction was massive. But while the Watts riots may have (indirectly) sent the area into an economic depression (see above), the 1992 riots failed to suppress Koreatown. Development is now booming in the neighborhood. Not everyone's a fan, however. Detractors say that K-Town is way too crowded as is already.

It's Home To A Skateboarder's Paradise

Formally, the building at 3700 Wilshire is the home of Radio Korea, the JKwon Orthodontic Center, and several other businesses. Informally, the area outside the building is one of L.A.'s most iconic spots for skateboarders. This is largely because of the open space, as well as the various quirks of the plaza, which is abundant with stairs, slightly concave walls, and a number of raised platforms. The space is like a level of "Tony Hawk's Pro Skater" brought to life.

As noted at Street League, a website for skateboarders, the plaza is regarded as hallowed grounds for both professionals and hobbyists:

JKwon has a long history in the skate community and has developed as a staple spot for LA skaters. Local businesses operate during the week, making it almost impossible to skate, unless you're willing to skate at the crack of dawn. Once the weekend rolls around, skaters flock to the infamous ledges and skate all day.

It Can Save You A Lot Of Gas (Depending On How You Look At It)

Driving in Koreatown can be awful. Parking can be doubly awful. But, according to Forbes in 2008, Koreatown is the 8th most fuel-efficient big neighborhood in the country.

How so? It's because everything's in close proximity in Koreatown (and in fact it has the highest population density in the L.A. County). This means that you can do almost everything on foot in the neighborhood. Forbes estimated that residents in walkable neighborhoods save nearly $5,000 a year on gas expenses alone. For Koreatown, it's estimated that each household spends $658 per month on transportation costs, which is relatively low. What Forbes failed to mention is that Koreatown has connections to both the Purple and Red Lines. There are plans to extend the Purple Line beyond the stop at Western and Wilshire, and we may be able to take it all the way to Westwood in the future.

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