Posts tagged Koreatown

 Chapman Park Market Building — 3451 W. 6th Street, Mid-Wilshire district, Los Angeles, California. Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument #386. Creative Commons photo by Downtowngal.

Chapman Park Market Building — 3451 W. 6th Street, Mid-Wilshire district, Los Angeles, California. Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument #386. Creative Commons photo by Downtowngal.

I’ve been thinking about the concept of reimagining Los Angeles lately. There’s been an explosion of development and change happening throughout the city, with new ideas and projects shifting existing spaces into culturally diverse hubs for their communities. From projects that focus on large open space parks such as the new Pershing Square redevelopment in Downtown Los Angeles, to more transit orientated mixed-use open spaces such as the Ivy Station project in Culver City, numerous public projects around the city seem to be thriving and growing alongside new developments.

But there is an area of Los Angeles that hits closer to home…one still fighting for much needed open spaces and recreational park projects to serve its community.

Creative Commons photo: Friscocali.

Creative Commons photo: Friscocali.

The neighborhood I am referring to is Koreatown, an area filled with a rich and diverse history, and also known to be one of the most dense populated districts by population in Los Angeles County. In fact, Los Angeles is home to the largest Korean population in America, beating even other large metropolitan cities such as New York. This immigrant population has infused Los Angeles with a distinct and influential presence, from Korean cuisine to the types of storefronts and developments that characterize Koreatown’s urban landscape.

Korean Fish Roe Rice Bowl (Al Bap/알 밥) in Koreatown. Photo: Gregory Han

Korean Fish Roe Rice Bowl (Al Bap/알 밥) in Koreatown. Photo: Gregory Han

Coming from a Korean background myself and growing up in Los Angeles County, Koreatown has always been a familiar neighborhood. I still visit the same traditional Korean restaurants and see the same store owner and servers I’ve known since I was a kid accompanying my parents. (Tip: I recommend the traditional menu at Yong Su San).

Koreatown's population would benefit by integrating pocket parks – like this one in Mexico City's Colonia Roma neighborhood – throughout its new development corridors. CC BY-SA 3.0 photo: keizers.

Koreatown’s population would benefit by integrating pocket parks – like this one in Mexico City’s Colonia Roma neighborhood – throughout its new development corridors. CC BY-SA 3.0 photo: keizers.

Koreatown is characterized by several shopping plazas and countless storefronts that have remained virtually unchanged since my childhood. Unfortunately, one aspect that I’ve also noted as a constant throughout the years is the lack of open green spaces for the community’s residents and visitors.

The only two major parks that Koreatown currently can claim are the Seoul International Park on the intersection of Normandie and Olympic Ave, and the Shatto Recreation Center on Shatto Place and 5th Street. Those two parks need to serve over 12,000 residents in Koreatown, a population desperate for community green spaces to accompany new development, but sorely lacking.

As I reimagine Koreatown, I envision a new park-friendly neighborhood, one utilizing urban infrastructures to create creative public open spaces. Pocket parks could fill in vacant lots or connecting underutilized corridors between buildings; empty or neglected parking lots would be turned into green spaces. Because as much as the community needs places to shop and eat, current and future residents of Koreatown also need open, community spaces to connect and unwind.

“Why can’t we have an ecology for the rest of us, the ones who don’t want to jump into a pair of shorts and hike up a mountain yodeling?”

This quote from an interview with Timothy Morton, a contemporary philosopher and dark ecologist, has really stuck with me. Looking for ecology in the city can help us redefine our perceptions about nature and what it means to be ecologically aware. Sometimes finding ecology is about scale and looking more closely to see what is already there.

Vacant Lot, Koreatown, Los Angeles, CA_1

While looking out at the city of Los Angeles from a friend’s rooftop in Koreatown, the scale of ecology was vast and somewhat impersonal. Nature seemed far away:  mountains in the distance with clouds slowly drifting overhead, networks of cars in motion, a stationary parade of billboards with palm trees poking out above the buildings in between, and a vacant lot below.

Vacant Lot, Koreatown, Los Angeles, CA_3

Vacant Lot, Koreatown, Los Angeles, CA_2

But zoomed in for a closer look and the gap between nature and me diminishes. A lot that appeared vacant from a distance became full of life, with bees moving from one flower to the next. I guess the distance between nature and me can be as near or far as I am willing to perceive.

Coffee Hyanggee (커피향기) a Korean coffee shop on Olympic Blvd in Koreatown, Los Angeles CA serves espresso coffee preparations such as cappuccino (카푸치노) and caffe latte (카페라떼) as well as iced coffee (아이스커피) and various flavors of the shaved ice dessert known as patbingsu / bingsoo (팥빙수). Creative Common photo by Nathan Gray.

Coffee Hyanggee (커피향기) a Korean coffee shop on Olympic Blvd in Koreatown, Los Angeles CA serves espresso coffee preparations such as cappuccino (카푸치노) and caffe latte (카페라떼) as well as iced coffee (아이스커피) and various flavors of the shaved ice dessert known as patbingsu / bingsoo (팥빙수). Creative Common photo by Nathan Gray.


“Because I’m closer to so many restaurants…”

That’s the explanation I’ve offered friends when they’ve asked me why I decided to move to the San Gabriel Valley, the biggest Chinese ethno-burb in Los Angeles County. It wasn’t just the food that influenced my decision to move, but San Gabriel’s dining and shopping landscape was a very important influence in determining where I wanted to call home. The 626 has developed into a unique combination of immigrant tastes and Los Angeles infrastructure, a neighborhood that looks like a 1950s suburb, yet smells like an enticing Sichuan hotpot.

One big plus of living in Los Angeles is this proximity and diversity of authentic cuisines available all within the sprawl of our city’s county lines. So, instead of thinking of our urban landscape in relation to infrastructure or traffic, I began thinking about Los Angeles in relation to where we eat and how we get there. The San Gabriel Valley, Little Tokyo, and Koreatown specifically.

COFFEE BENE PEOPLE
Koreatown
Although I personally prefer tea to coffee, I alway enjoy going out to cafes in KoreaTown. These coffee drinking spots, both small and big, are a perfect example of what Claes Oldenburg once described as the “third place” in urban context: a lively semi-private/semi-public social space outside of the home or office. People come to these Koreatown cafes both day and night – meeting friends, studying, working, or even just to people watch. Similar to Korea, Los Angeles’ K-town cafes offer tons of menu options compared to American chains.

Coffee isn’t the singular focus at a Korean cafe; the furniture setting, interior design, background music, backyard/loft seating, are all highly valued features that distinguish a Korean cafe from its American counterparts. Moreover, as Instagram has become a powerful grassroots marketing tool, the presentation of food and drinks at these K-town establishments are designed to garner Instagrams and followers’ “likes”.

Little Tokyo Village Plaza in Los Angeles - Creative Commons photo by Justefrain

Little Tokyo Village Plaza in Los Angeles – Creative Commons photo by Justefrain.

Little Tokyo
Speaking of appetizing looking food, the Japanese are famous for their presentation, from the traditional kaiseki dining experience to ramen houses and to enticing street snacks. In the northeast section of Downtown LA is the historical district known as Little Tokyo, a  cultural landmark neighborhood that exists like a vignette of the Los Angeles’ larger and longstanding Japanese-American community. Differing from the Koreatown “coffee-scape”, which focuses more on an interior experience, the Japanese “snack-scape” blurs the boundaries of interior and exterior with alternative outdoor seating, pedestrian-friendly avenues, big shop and restaurant windows for peering in, and comfortable pedestrian shading with pleasant landscaping…basically everything William Whyte proposed that made for a vibrant social life in urban spaces.

99 RANCH FRESH FISH

San Gabriel Valley
Finally, let’s talk about the Chinese “foodscape”. It should be no surprise food is deeply ingrained into Chinese culture. Every festival seems to revolve around a specific type of dish or ingredient. In China, we have something similar to the late night beverage and dining options of Korea’s “coffeescape” and the Japanese “snackscape”, the tea house. However here in Los Angeles, and even more so in the San Gabriel Valley area, I noticed something I’d refer to as the Chinese “supermarket-scape”.

Chinese supermarkets are noticeably different in both size and scope of groceries sold, offering an abundance of live fish and shellfish. The quality of produce is highly prized in Chinese cuisine, and the markets here reflect this attention to freshness. In many Asian countries, people still prefer to go to poultry markets than purchase their fowl prepackaged.

99 RANCH FLOWER BOOTH
Another uniquely Chinese practice is supermarket shopping as a group activity. In the last decade China’s economic prosperity fueled middle class growth, and with it, the popularity of supermarkets. Thus, friends and family have come to congregate at the supermarket as a social activity, where purchasing goods might come secondary to just “hanging out”. This might have changed how Chinese shop, but the cuisine still remains a family-style experience, with shared dishes and large portions the norm. Because of this communal nature of dining, shopping for food is usually a serious weekly errand, requiring a plethora of different kinds of vegetables, meats, tofu, condiments, and spices to feed appetites. In many ways the supermarket plaza in the San Gabriel Valley is an extension of this cultural shift, with shopping centers becoming the communities unofficial center.

SHUN FAT FESTIVAL GOODS
Back within Chinese households the ingredients, cooking tools, and cooking techniques have all shaped the suburban landscape in subtle ways. For example, a Chinese kitchen has to have a suitable ventilation system, since traditionally a great deal of dishes cooked require stir-frying or boiling, thus producing a plentitude of steam and smoke. As a controversial 2014 LA Times piece about the influx of Chinese into the San Gabriel suburb of Arcadia noted, “Nearly all of [the homes on sae] have a second ‘wok kitchen’ next to a larger and showier main kitchen. Some of the Asian cooking requires a lot of BTUs for the burner, and it gets oily and messy, so that’s a must-have.”

This Sunday will be the Lunar New Year. Many Chinese people start shopping for their big new year’s eve dinner. The decorations, music, and food displays in supermarkets at this time will all reflect the importance of this special festival to the Chinese community (alongside other Asian communities who recognize the date).

If you’ve never stepped foot inside a Chinese supermarket, I’d say now is the best time to visit and experience something much different from your Ralph’s, Whole Foods, or Trader Joes. These ethnic supermarkets, restaurants, and snacking/refreshment spots dotting Los Angeles are all what make Los Angeles an ever evolving landscape of flavors.

Olympic-signage

When our office was located in Culver City, my daily commute would often take me down Olympic Boulevard (shhh! it’s quicker than the 10!). Along the way to work there was always a momentary pause in Koreatown at the corner of Olympic Boulevard and Western Avenue. Sitting at the stoplight, dwelling on the built environment – including the street signage – I noticed a discrepancy: the typeface for Western was consistent with the City of Los Angeles standard, but the typeface for Olympic did not match. This hinted at something more elusive, sinister even. Why the difference? This short film attempts to answer this question.