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Finding the Heart of L.A.’s Koreatown

Kay Kyung-Sook Song, assistant vice president of USC Civic and Community Relations, at the Korean-American Museum in the mid-Wilshire district, which Song argues has become the new heart of Los Angeles’ Koreatown.

Photo by Irene Fertik

If you ask most Angelenos where to find Koreatown, they would probably steer you to Vermont Avenue and Olympic Boulevard and the surrounding area.

After all, that’s where you can see the annual Koreatown parade. That’s where rows of restaurants offer Korean cuisine. That’s where the largest shopping center is called Seoul Plaza. And where sign after sign is written in Korean, calling attention to Korean restaurants, markets, barbers, beauty salons, travel services, medical services and other businesses.

But the heart of Koreatown has changed – moved west – to the mid-Wilshire district, where the concentration of Korean businesses and Korean residents has surpassed that in the community’s historic core at Olympic and Vermont, said Kay Kyung-Sook Song, assistant vice president and executive director of the Office of Civic and Community Relations.

Song’s conclusion is based on research by Civic and Community Relations’ Neighborhood Infor-mation and Research Group on the population distribution of Koreans in Los Angeles, and a survey of Korean businesses by the Korea Times.

The Korean-language daily newspaper found the heaviest concentration of Korean businesses on Western Avenue, extending south to Pico Boulevard and north to Santa Monica boulevard, Song said. The Korea Times located more than 3,200 Korean-owned businesses within a two-mile radius of the intersection at Western and Wilshire.

To learn whether this area had become the true heart of the Korean community, Song worked with the Neighborhood Information and Research Group, supervised by geography professor Curtis Roseman and School of Social Work associate professor Robert Nishimoto, to determine the population distributions of Koreans. The effort was part of Civic and Community Relations’ strategy for fostering relations with ethnic communities near USC, Song said.

Using a geographic information system to analyze 1990 U.S. Census figures, Song and geography graduate students J. Dallas Dishman and Geoffrey DeVerteuil drew a circle with a 1.5-mile radius from the intersection of Third Street and Western Avenue. Within this circle, about 26 percent of Koreans in Los Angeles County currently make their homes, Song said.

The Census counts 143,672 Korean Americans in Los Angeles County, Song said, while the Korean community’s own estimate is actually much larger – between 250,000 and 500,000.

“I was excited by findings that showed pockets of Koreans heavily concentrated in areas such as Third Street and Western Avenue,” where Korean Americans make up 40 percent of the population, Song said.

Based on the data, Song concluded that “Koreatown is probably much larger, more heavily developed in the northwest than most people thought, and probably has moved from its traditional center along Olympic Boulevard.”

As a result, Song is advocating redefining Koreatown borders as Santa Monica Boulevard to the north, Hoover Boulevard to the east, Washington Boulevard to the south and La Brea Avenue to the west. This area represents about 12 square miles.

She contends that the findings contradict several long-held beliefs about Los Angeles’ Koreatown. In addition to disputing old assumptions about Koreatown’s center, the findings challenge the view of Koreatown as a business area only, Song said.

“In examining and analyzing the 1990 U.S. Census data, it is clear that Koreans are not only doing business in town, but are also living in town,” Song said.

The findings also dispute the contention that among residents, Latinos dominate the Korean community; with Wilshire/Western at the center, Koreatown is actually very diverse, Song said.

There is still a large percentage of Hispanic residents, but there is also strong representation of Koreans, Asian/Pacific Islanders, non-Hispanic whites, and non-Hispanic black residents.

In an Aug. 19 article for the Korea Times, Song said that redefining the boundaries of Koreatown with Wilshire/ Western as the center could empower the community. She noted that the mid-Wilshire area – which now has Metro Rail stations at Wilshire and Vermont, Wilshire and Normandie, and Wilshire and Western – is ripe for redevelopment.

“You gain a lot of political power when you redefine the community as a place where Koreans live and work,” said Song, who is a native of Korea and has been active in the Korean American community for the past 10 years.

Song began investigating the issue while a regular guest on “Home Sweet Home,” an FM-SEOUL (KFOX-FM 93.5) Korean radio show, where she talks about Koreatown development.

After Song mapped the Koreatown population with Dishman and DeVerteuil using Census data, she was approached by the Korea Times to write the article, “Where Is the Center of Koreatown?” based on their research.

Through her article, radio show and presentations to the Korean community, Song has been talking about changing the perception of Koreatown and emphasizing the benefits for Koreans who live in Koreatown. She has also written a series of articles about perceptions of Los Angeles in an international Korean magazine called Kwang Ya.

She noted that the Korean community has been economically depressed since the 1992 Los Angeles riots. “A lot of Korean businesses are not doing too well. Even Koreans are not coming to Koreatown in Los Angeles,” she said. Song said Los Angeles has suffered from a decline in visits from Korean tourists who prefer other parts of the country.

“But we have a lot of good opportunities coming in. Los Angeles city has targeted Koreatown for redevelopment. We have the three Metro Rail stations open, and more investment from Korea and more tourists due to the globalization of Korea,” she said.

In addition, the National Tourist Association is including Koreatown in its promotion of international communities as attractions. “We don’t want L.A.’s Koreatown to get lost and not have its own identity,” Song said.

Finding the Heart of L.A.’s Koreatown

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