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Katherine Yungmee Kim: Los Angeles’ Koreatown

You see these thin, sepia-toned “Images of America” books for sale everywhere in Los Angeles. Each one covers a different corner of the city: Bel-Air, Little Tokyo, Chinatown, Boyle Heights, Palms, Historic Filipinotown, etc. I’ve even flipped through more than one volume on the old Pacific Electric streetcar system that would eventually become an integral piece of the plot Who Framed Roger Rabbit? With their sub-200 page counts and abundance of pictures, these books give off a definite gift-item vibe, like they belong on the almost-bare shelves of people who don’t actually read books, but they nevertheless strike me as a convenient place to start building a knowledge base about individual Los Angeles neighborhoods. Which else to read about first but my home, Koreatown?

Imagine a hip hangout for sloshed celebrities from the thirties. Now imagine a mass celebrity exodus from the neighborhood. Now imagine Koreans immigrants taking over the very same structures these thirties celebrities vacate, keeping most intact and even restoring many but always repurposing them toward culturally hybrid ends. That’s Koreatown, the most elegant explanation of which I’ve read comes from famed food critic Jonathan Gold, who lived in Koreatown before it became Koreatown:

My neighbors then were mostly elderly white people who had lived in the neighborhood since the ’30s, when the old ballroom around the corner hosted big bands, when a romantic night out in the neighborhood might have involved a show at the Cocoanut Grove, big steaks at the Brown Derby, maybe cocktails afterward at the Town House or the Cove. The neighborhood had become slightly shabby since then — the big insurance houses down on Wilshire seemed to be all that was keeping the area alive — but it was a genteel shabbiness, and something of the old rhythms were still alive.

Not long after, the Koreans started moving in: a few families at a time at first, then into most of the block. [ … ] When I went to a Wilshire high-rise to sign [my new apartment lease], one wall of their agent’s conference room was covered with a large-scale map of the Mid-Wilshire area on which each Korean-owned property was marked with a pushpin. Entire swaths of the city, including much of Hancock Park, Country Club Park, the Ambassador district and the Pico-Union area, were paved with the pins, solid, shiny surfaces pebbled like the skin of a basketball — neighborhoods where the fire escapes now were blanketed with cabbage leaves in the fall, clotheslines (like mine) bristled with drying fish, the silence of dawn punctuated with the steady, rhythmic pounding of garlic in wooden mortars. I came to love that sound. In a way that I neither had been nor could be, my Korean neighbors were at home.

In Los Angeles’ Koreatown, Katherine Yungmee Kim tells the neighborhood’s story from 1895, with a photo of some dandies on slightly old-timey bicycles hanging out on what looks like an endless, featureless plain of dirt — which turns out to be Pico and Western. By 1915, the place had some alive with buildings and motorcars. The area’s rapid growth bestowed upon it a few Guinness-type distinctions that seem almost hard to believe: the first neon sign in America, the first all-electric building in America, the first Korean restaurant in California (less of a surprise, admittedly), the two longest escalators in America. (Actually, they built those more recently. They’re the ones to the lower platform at the Wilshire-Vermont subway station. I can confirm: long.)

The very first Koreans in Los Angeles arrived in 1903 or so. Students and labors followed them over the next couple decades, just as midcentury icons like the Ambassador Hotel and the Brown Derby opened their doors. (People actually used to call the specific place I live the “Ambassador District.” As for the Brown Derby, I still wish I could eat in the hat, but it’s a Korean plaza now.) Later in the thirties, the Koreans moved from the Bunker Hill-ish area this book has so many group photos of their social clubs taken in to an area just south of modern Koreatown, in what most of us still call South Central.

World War II and the Korean War brought further waves of Korean immigration. Somewhere in the late sixties to mid-seventies, Koreatown began a geographical shift north to its current location. Some of this must owe to a fellow named Hi Duk Lee, who came to the States in 1968 by way of Germany, filled for some reason with ideas about how to build up and legitimize the Korean presence in Los Angeles. Kim doesn’t give this much mention, but Lee seems to have dreamed of an architecturally traditional Koreatown, but what with the American economy of the late seventies, it didn’t quite happen.

Lee did get a lot done to realize the Koreatown project in general, though, and the traditional edifice he built to house his restaurant the VIP Plaza still stands — except it now contains a popular Oaxacan eatery, La Guelaguetza. You could call this a shame, but isn’t it more interesting when you can find the bright colors and distinctive moles of southern Mexico in an elaborately old-school Korean shell in one of the biggest cities in the United States? And how about when that lays walking distance from vintage Los Angeliana like the Gaylord (with its H.M.S. Bounty), the Wiltern, the Chapman Market, and mainstays of the photographed landscape like the Sterling Ambassador Tower, which I just saw once again in Zabriskie Point?

And ah, The Prince: a bar I live two blocks from, a shooting location Mad Men has found rather useful, and an ideal synecdoche for the special kind of commercial miscegenation that makes me want to live nowhere but Koreatown. Take it away, J-Gold:

Imagine a Korean pub shoehorned into the fanciest restaurant in Los Angeles circa 1953, complete with the lawn jockeys at the top of the stairs and oil paintings of earls above the oxblood leather banquettes. The food, you understand, is not exactly the point at the Prince, which seems to specialize in sugary stir-fries and American dishes that might have been inspired by Quad Cities Rotary banquet menus. The basic unit of currency here is the kimchi pancake, a thin mass of egg batter laced with fermented cabbage, lashed together with scallions, then fried to an exquisite, oily crispness. Kimchi pancakes come free with your drinks, which makes sense, because the greasy heat of the things is enough to power you through an entire double-size bottle of Korean Hite beer.

Since he wrote that, the Prince has added Korean fried chicken to their menu in a big way, and boy, do I dig it.

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