Koreatown Leaders Push To Consolidate Voting Power During Redistricting
As Los Angeles redraws its electoral maps, Korean American leaders have revived a campaign to move Koreatown from four council districts into one, arguing the change would bring the strong political representation the neighborhood has sought for decades.
A coalition led by Koreatown organizations is pushing for a single district as the city’s redistricting commission races over the next few weeks to adjust political boundaries to reflect 2020 census numbers that were released months late because of the pandemic.
For decades, Koreatown leaders have maintained the neighborhood lacks cohesive leadership, pointing to the paltry green space and rising homelessness as evidence. When constituents have a problem, they’re not sure where to turn for help. Should they dial up District 1, District 4, District 10 or District 13?
It’s particularly confusing for monolingual immigrants, says Steve Kang of the Koreatown Youth & Community Center. He co-chairs the grassroots coalition with leaders from the Korean American Coalition and the Korean American Federation of Los Angeles. Kang envisions a council office with multiple bilingual staff members.
“I think in-language constituent services would be huge for engagement, and also for homeless services, beautification services. There's a lot of blight in this community. So we really want to revitalize this entire neighborhood,” Kang says.
Koreatown — roughly three square miles in the center of L.A., bisected by Wilshire Boulevard — isn't the only neighborhood where residents don't want to be split into different districts. But it is the focus of perhaps the most organized campaign of its kind, with supporters signing a petition, attending online workshops and testifying by the dozens during Zoom meetings that the redistricting commission has held since the summer.
Koreatown also happens to be one of the toughest neighborhoods to locate in just one district.
Paul Mitchell, a political consultant to the city’s redistricting commission, said during a panel meeting Monday that Koreatown’s central location means changes to its political boundaries will have a major domino effect in the city.
Each of the council districts must have around the same number of people — roughly 260,000 — so putting Koreatown in one district means less room there for other neighborhoods.
“When you say we're going to take this area of roughly 100,000 people and we're going to construct districts in a way that makes it whole, you're going to have a lot of impacts throughout the region,” Mitchell said.
The maps finalized by the redistricting commission next month must then be approved by the City Council. Commissioners have expressed support for keeping Koreatown united. But even if that were feasible, in which district would it go?
The map proposed by the Koreatown coalition labels Beverly Boulevard as the northern boundary and 11th St. — one block below Olympic Boulevard — as the southern boundary. The eastern boundary would fall primarily along Vermont Avenue, with Wilton Place demarcating most of the western boundary.
Kang says one possible scenario is to group Koreatown with Thai Town and Historic Filipinotown, which are in Council District 13, currently represented by Mitch O’Farrell.
“There is a chance that if you unify some of the major Asian corridors in the city, then you would create sort of a pan-Asian district,” Kang says.
The Korean American Federation of LA helped to organize an informational session on redistricting in July.
The political ramifications of consolidating Koreatown concern Kirsten Albrecht, a lawyer from Lafayette Square in Council District 10 — another possible home for a unified Koreatown. CD 10, now represented by Mark Ridley-Thomas, has elected Black councilmembers since the 1960s. Albrecht says redistricting could end that tradition.
“By diluting the African American vote within a particular district, it may be more challenging for an African American politician to win,” Albrecht says.
Albrecht says this could slow the pipeline of new Black political talent in the city.
“Also, people may not participate in the process as much if they don't feel as if they are likely to have their perspectives heard and acted upon,” Albrecht adds.
Korean American leaders have voiced similar concerns for their community. During the redistricting process a decade ago, they made their first large-scale effort to unify Koreatown.
Korean Americans showed up at hearings then by the hundreds. They're not the biggest group of residents in Koreatown — Asian Americans are the second-largest population after Latinos — but the neighborhood is where many Korean Americans work, shop, worship and treasure as a cultural hub, especially since it was rebuilt after the riots.
When the 2010 maps divided Koreatown again, hearing-goers accused city leaders of back door dealings and corruption. Some residents later unsuccessfully sued the city over the maps.
Connie Chung Joe was one of the community leaders calling for a unified Koreatown 10 years ago.
“We saw the feeling within Koreatown and the stakeholders there and the bad taste the experience left in their mouth that their voice didn't really matter,” Joe says.
Koreatown started to take shape in the early 20th Century, with Korean immigrants moving there in part because racist housing covenants limited where they could live in the city. Koreatown’s growth picked up rapidly after the mid-1960s when immigration quotas from Asia were lifted.
The new waves of Korean immigrants were focused on community-building and entrepreneurship rather than civic engagement. But many Korean Americans experienced a political awakening after the 1992 riots, when Koreatown was hit with fires and looting. In the absence of police, armed shopkeepers guarded their businesses from rooftops.
“There was this feeling that Korean Americans have had since the riots, that they were abandoned by their elected officials,” Joe says. “For Koreans, that is a very sensitive topic.”
Joe says redistricting battles trigger memories from ‘92. Today, as the executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-LA, she continues to support moving Koreatown into a single district. The region’s largest Asian American civil rights group is helping map out what that would look like by providing demographic assistance to the redistricting coalition.
Lack of representation came up as an issue in 2018 when then-Council President Herb Wesson proposed building homeless housing in the part of Koreatown that fell under his purview in Council District 10.
Thousands protested in the streets, and the project was eventually relocated to neighboring Westlake. Kang maintains that it wasn’t because people necessarily opposed the project.
“We didn't get a say in how this would unfold," Kang says. "Whether it's the timeline or the size or how it's going to be operated."
Kang says the protests showed the growing civic involvement of Korean Americans, as did the election of two Korean Americans to city council since 2015 — David Ryu in Council District 4 and John Lee in Council District 12. Ryu has since been unseated by the first Asian American woman to join the council, Nithya Raman.
Meanwhile, a neighborhood council election in 2018 broke city records for participation. Voters came out to reject a plan to spin off a second Koreatown neighborhood council by leaders in the Little Bangladesh area. The Bangladeshi American leaders argued that a place as populous as Koreatown could only benefit from more representation. But because the proposal would reduce the jurisdiction of the existing Koreatown neighborhood council, critics feared it would also weaken the political clout of Korean Americans in the area.
The election created tensions that leaders from both communities say have since ebbed. The Koreatown redistricting coalition says it has reached out to the Bangladeshi American community, as well as members of the Latino and Jewish communities, to build support for its proposal. Dr. Abul Hashem, a founding member of the Bangladesh Unity Federation of Los Angeles, says he doesn't know details about the proposal and expressed neutrality on the matter.
“Whatever the Korean people want to do, they can do it,” Hashem says. “It doesn't bother us and we're not going to be resistant.”
Meanwhile, members of the grassroots Latino Coalition say in principle that they support moving Koreatown into one district, but want to ensure that it stays with neighborhoods that have similar demographics and interests.
"That district office should also represent the lived experience that could be accounted for: Latinos, Korean, Bangladeshis, undocumented people," says Alan Antonio, a Latino Coalition leader who lives in Koreatown. "All that is a super important for those people to be represented."
But other residents worry the Koreatown coalition's plan could end up disadvantaging other neighborhoods. The Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council says it backs a single council district for Koreatown — as it does for the neighborhoods it represents that are currently spread between council districts 4 and 5.
But the Greater Wilshire group’s president, Conrad Starr, takes issue with the map used by the Koreatown coalition because it incorporates areas represented by his council, such as Country Club Heights and St. Andrew’s Square, on city matters such as homelessness and historic buildings.
“That's a problem for our neighborhood council because the effect of it would essentially be to add another council district,” Starr says. "Frankly, we don't have the relationships right now. We'd be starting from scratch."
At a redistricting commission meeting last month, Starr and other members of the neighborhood council faulted the Koreatown coalition for not alerting their group earlier about the plan.
Kang, of the Koreatown coalition, said it was an “oversight” not to reach out to the neighborhood council sooner. But Kang disputed Starr's view that the Koreatown group was using the redistricting process to essentially expand the neighborhood’s boundaries.
Kang says the group's goal is to keep together as many important community points of interest, such as churches, shopping plazas and civic organizations, as it could.
KPCC/LAist reporter Carla Javier contributed to this story.