We used to worry about the "Disneyland-ing" of Little Tokyo.
Shortly after 3D Investments purchased The New Otani Hotel and its accompanying Weller Court parcel, a community meeting was called in the basement of Centenary Church. This was an overdue meeting after months of back-room conversations at local non-profit offices and living room get togethers. The room felt tense. There had not been many community meetings like this in recent history; the last notable one around a proposed art park had ended in a shouting match.
Breaking into smaller groups, we discussed our personal visions for Little Tokyo. Depending on who sat at your table you would hear hopes for eco-friendly sidewalks and street-level lighting, more Japanese art and less cherry blossom trees, so on and so forth.
Still new to Little Tokyo at the time, I just listened. I had nothing to contribute beyond abstract ideas of what Little Tokyo could mean. My limited experience in the local art scene notwithstanding, I wasn't bringing much and I wasn't retaining much of it either, though I remember an overarching fear that Little Tokyo might end up like Chinatown.
The Chinatown we know today was not the original settling place for the founding Chinese population. Originally an enclave of former railroad workers in the 1800s, the initial cadre of men faced extreme oppression that took the form of displacement and, in 1871, a massacre. Though originally located where Union Station/Olvera Street currently reside, the "New" Chinatown was moved to its current location in the 1930s, originally Little Italy.
In order to brand the area, the New Chinatown was designed by Hollywood set designers to create a blended "East meets West" visual identity that exudes an in-your-face, hyper-exotified caricature of what an Asian enclave represents. It's the Disneyland version of Asian American identity.
So when we went into this process of visioning for the future of Little Tokyo, we were worried that a) these new developers could potentially raze everything and leave Little Tokyo dead (an anxiety long since established after decades of decline) or that conversely b) we could end up looking like a caricature of ourselves, void of any context or reference to our history as a multi-ethnic, active, community that has provided space for movement building.
A few years after these conversations, the city was looking to create more prominent visual branding which eventually hit JTown in the form of crosswalks embossed with fans and street pole medallions featuring symbols like a temaneki neko, a daruma, and a kokeshi. This project, thankfully, was mediated by the Little Tokyo Community Council which has provided a medium ground between JTown community organizers, developers, and the city since 1999. A "manga girl" was originally drafted for the medallions, but got removed after a number of community folks shut it down real quick -- I just found an unnecessarily heated email I personally sent in during the LTCC and LTBA (Little Tokyo Business Association)-facilitated comment period.
JTown and Chinatown both have a strong history of community building and mobilization, and the exotification of these neighborhoods runs counter to the very forces that have allowed them to survive. Chinatown has not only been home to numerous strong youth organizing and arts programs, but recently has become home to the Chinatown Collective for Equitable Development, an amazing organization that seeks to disrupt the gentrification that has started to trickle in through rent hikes, businesses like the upcoming LA branch of Pok Pok, and the increasing number of folks who come into these neighborhoods and love the vibe but ignore the people. Which leads me to The Bold Italic.
I'm one of the last people in the world to have heard of The Bold Italic. The blog, based in San Francisco, explores the cities it inhabits through listicles and consumer guides. It seems like a generally good slice of the city, offering categorized opportunities to explore the microchasms that make cities like SF and Oakland structurally sound. Earlier this week with some downtime at work, I took a look through the Los Angeles site and gravitated towards an article titled What To Do On Your Koreatown Staycation. Being a Koreatown resident and not as familiar with my surroundings as I'd like to be (though I have figured out the correct secret elevator to get to my nearby open-until-dawn noraebang spot), naturally I clicked.
The first paragraph is as follows:
As one might expect, there are tons of Korean BBQ joints and large food court malls in the area just east of Hollywood, but the face of K-Town is changing rapidly thanks to the renaissance on the corner of Wilshire and Normandie. Sprawling LA also lends itself well to staycations – not just because Uber is getting expensive and unreliable, but sometimes it just takes more than a few hours to conquer an area and soak it all in.
I side-eyed the page, then Googled the author. She didn't appear, at least on the surface, to be a KTown native or a Korean speaker. How could someone conquer the width between Han Bat, Bud Namu, and Pocha in a few hours when logistically that would take you from the hangover to doing Friday night all over again?
It got worse.
I expected the usuals, perhaps an unnecessary BCD shoutout or a reference to the toppings at Mr. Pizza (you either know these spots or you don't, not even going to bother linking to these). I expected easy references to Cafe Mak with a comparison to Iota (hint: neither of them are great), or even a directive to "try the duck fat fries!" at Beer Belly. Perhaps she would have gone deep enough to get Tohmi on paper. If she really needed to fill column space she might stretch her words with the instructions to stop in at Daiso before checking the latest import movie at CGV. This article pretty much writes itself, KTown is full of spots that are easy recommendations and even easier finds once you know the right people. She had an easy assignment that could have easily become a quick-start guide to an infamously distraction-heavy part of LA.
Instead, it became my new case study when explaining gentrification to people.
This article went on to list a new spot at the Hotel Normandie, the generic offerings at EMC seafood, and a restaurant that describes itself by saying that "Chef Nick Erven is cooking Modern American cuisine rooted in European tradition." The only name on the list worth salvaging was Roy Choi's Line Hotel which understands the responsibility that comes with entering an area like Koreatown because of Choi's own upbringing in the neighborhood. One of Line's main draws also lies in their dope Saturday night DJ who she neglected to give a shout out, but hey it seems like she's only taking a cursory glance before retreating to the usuals. Maybe she didn't have a lot of time and chose a very specific angle after being unsure how to tackle a blur of restaurants and bars that may or may not be easy to figure out.
But then she lists LACMA as a thing to do.
As a business district, KTown exists because of the strong Korean restaurant culture and the actual residents who patronize them. It's the kalbi jjim dinner at Seong Buk Dong followed by patbingsoo a block west at Ice Kiss (which Yelp is saying is closed) followed by two hours at Recital Noraebang a further block west. These businesses and the people who visit them are what make the neon jungle between Vermont and Wilton so tantalizing. There is a whole community of elders and young folks who support the economy of Koreatown whether at the cafes or the clubs. When business owners come into KTown and create distractions from the actual reality of the neighborhood, this brings in a clientele interested only in these distractions coupled with the "exotic" ambience. They are not interested in participating in the existing economy of the neighborhood, and thus the existing clientele are forced out and the neighborhood culture dies.
Koreatown is only Koreatown when we support the businesses and the self-determination of the residents. By disrupting the existing vibe, we are slowly killing these neighborhoods.
It is a fine line between being exotified until unrecognizable and gentrified until dead. Little Tokyo, in response to rapid development and the encroaching Arts District, created the LTCC to specifically address the needs of the neighborhood and provide a unified front. Chinatown and Koreatown do not necessarily have the luxury of historic organizing bases and business owner-buy-in. It's on Los Angeles to be collectively conscious of the changing tides. We are not so far away from San Francisco-levels of destruction.
I spent this past Friday night in Chinatown at Grand Star Jazz Club with some friends, lone Asian faces in a sea of White people. Wandering out to get some air I came across two White guys taking photos of Hop Louie long after it had been closed for the evening. My immediately thought was how silly it was. This must be that Disneyland-ing in the back of my head, that love for the ambiance but no desire to buy in.
But perhaps I was not being as trusting as I can be. Perhaps I gave too many driving privileges to the anxieties I grew up with as a kid bringing seaweed to school. Perhaps they didn't think of it as exotic or foreign.
Perhaps, as Angelenos, they felt equal investment and responsibility. Perhaps, like many of us who claim ownership of these neighborhoods, they are looking to create a Los Angeles that is in a perpetual state of beautiful, curated chaos.