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Photo: Tanveer Badal

The Beginning Of The End Of Koreatown Los Angeles

Johnny Byul Lee
May 9, 2018 · 6 min read

On this particular Tuesday night in one of the most popular strip malls in Koreatown, we dodge valet cars, window shop our taste buds to sweet and savory pastries, take in the glorious fumes of Korean BBQ while our stomachs make competing rebuttals and of course we wait…and we wait some more. I blame Anthony Bourdain.

It’s no secret that Koreatown has exploded thanks to South Korean exports, popular night life spots, Conan O’brien’s televised full monty spa stints and of course the incredible sometimes complex offerings of Koreatown’s immigrant restaurant scene. Or maybe I have that wrong; Korean food has gotten so popular and that has made Koreatown LA a destination like no other around.

Like South Korea’s economic boom, Koreatown Los Angeles is in the thick of its own major boom. That might be an odd juxtaposition but I thought it worked. What was once a haven for immigrants, then a war zone during the LA Riots, and back to a haven, has now become an even denser sub-neighborhood with an overwhelming (read insane) amount of development.

“Koreatown is way cheaper!,” my colleague exclaimed when comparing current rent prices in cool and/or upcoming neighborhoods in our fair city. In just a few short years, Hipsters or Millenials or whatever the current term is, have favored Koreatown’s rents and “city amenities” over their typical and seemingly much more expensive Silverlake, Echopark, Westside rental choices.

I see it through the store fronts; craft beer well stocked at liquor stores made for after work retreats, elevated cuisines and cocktail culture at predominately non Korean owned restaurants, and a massive influx of specialty coffee shops (seriously count them) at anywhere a La Marzocco Linea 3 will fit.

Target Billboard in Koreatown Los Angeles, CA

In my 6 years living in Los Angeles, I never thought there’d be a Target in Koreatown. That’s kind of what Kim’s Home Center is for. I mean where would they even build one. And yet the geniuses at Target figured it out; just make a smaller one. And you already know it’s taking business away from others because…well it’s Target and they’re quite intimate with my credit card number especially before I walkout, bags in hands.

According to Curbed LA, there are currently 52 In-development projects in Koreatown! A large majority of these developments contain retail spaces if they aren’t already a full blown retail center. There’s been a major shift from commercial to residential developments as well. At first glance, I was really excited for these developments. How could I not be? More apartments with amenities, new retail that would pave the way for the Shake Shacks, Blue Bottles, and dang it, can I just get one Best Buy to buy an HDMI cable to replace the one my dog just chewed up? Yes I’ve heard of Prime Now. And no I don’t actually own a dog.

In the city of Los Angeles, development is in our highway sized veins. We love it and hate it and it tugs at our heart strings in all directions. And seemingly we can’t really stop it anyway so what gives? Sure, developments can really help a neighborhood but we’ve got a pretty bad streak of just causing sky rocketing rents, small businesses going out of business from tilted playing fields and traffic. (Don’t even get me started on traffic. I’ll stop there.)

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With residential zones magically turning into commercial zones, the faint glimmers of hope are far and too few in between. It looks like Koreatown will be re-tooled into a playground for people like us but don’t be fooled. Large developments aren’t created to benefit neighborhoods. They are meant to benefit the developer and build them new closets to fit more meticulously leather trimmed wallets. Yes a closet full of wallets. Just imagine it.
They won’t stop at nothing until their pockets are deeper than the roots of the trees that line Normandie Ave. Just imagine it. Yep. Deep.

Let’s forget about the deep fears of the lower income immigrants, even the so-called middle class will get a run for their money. The demographics will be forcibly shifted and with slightly cheaper leases for commercial space then say Culver City or Downtown, Koreatown is and will continue to be the most attractive hot spot for the would-be chains of today and tomorrow. Hey I’d love to have a Shake Shack in Koreatown, but at the same time I don’t and I wouldn’t be sad if there ever wasn’t…but we already know there’s one coming. It’s only a matter of time until the beginning.

If history has anything to say about it, landlords next to new centers will begin to gobble down higher rents. When your favorite legendary Koreatown restaurant’s lease is up in a few years, they will be forced to make incredibly difficult decisions. Try to stay in business with a higher rent but more competition than ever? Those memorable soju infused nights that you can’t actually remember? Nope, that favorite bar will not be succeptible.

Koreatown has a homeless problem like never before, and can you imagine how many we will add to those numbers in the name of making Koreatown great. See a pattern there? I’m going to get off that subject cause it’ll get me too fired up. Moving on.

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A typical start to a night in Koreatown Los Angeles

My wife was born and raised in Koreatown, an expert not by choice but welcomed. With it’s deep complexities, it was still the only place to call home and a haven for a people who were trying to make a community they could survive in. It’s not that I don’t want to share Koreatown or the intensely fond memories I’ve had here; it’s that I’m afraid what I love about it will no longer be and the diverse, deep layers of culture and history will slowly fade as the immigrant businesses and people that make it what it is right now are wrung out. Change is great folks, but preservation is key.

During the riots, some immigrants represented the rest on one extreme, gun holstered, ready to die to defend their land. With blood red fists, they clenched through it. There’s a strong sense of ownership and now we will soon see one of our own squeeze it for every penny that it’s worth to them. Culture will be destroyed in the name of making profit. Seriously, do we need 10 more hotels? (There seriously are 10 in development or construction).

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I often boast to my co-workers what a night in Koreatown should entail. They are captivated with the possibilities of something becoming lost in translation, the consumable drinking adventures, and the opportunity to become the next American Idol of one of Koreatown’s finest karaoke joints.

If it wasn’t already obvious, I love Koreatown Los Angeles and I don’t want to look back on this one day and feel that I was right. Change is coming in a vast whirlwind of jack hammers, shiny new metal and street clogging closures. Not with the intention of sounding like something is doomed, but this will be the beginning of the end of it. Embrace what we have today for it may not be there tomorrow. This community has come such a long way. Maybe too far.

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……..and then you have Sun Nong Dan, my favorite place for spicy Galbi Jjim. Your pals, the Bourdains, made us wait on a Tuesday night. It was my birthday. I guess I’d rather wait here while I still can.

Thanks for Reading. Thoughts? You may have some feedback or questions and I’d love to dialogue and see what you think. You can hit me up on Instagram @waltzinthestreet. I will be writing a few more Koreatown centric pieces in the future. For now, keep grindin’ out there!

UPDATE: RIP to the Legends: Jonathan Gold and Anthony Bourdain.

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