Race matters: Los Angeles’s ethnic neighbourhoods & cultural empathy

‘Ethics should walk on one side of the road.’

‘I have noticed interlopers from the Islamic countries sneaking in so I guess the standard of places will fall and crime will increase.’

‘This is Australia, fit in or f*** off.’

Community responses I receive while working on revitalisation projects across multicultural Sydney neighbourhoods vary — from frustrations, hate and prejudices towards people who are different from them; to desires for cultural diversity and intercultural understanding. While racist comments are often omitted in public documents, intercultural conflicts manifest themselves via social media and surveys — a reflection of our society, and too palpable and too deep to brush under the rug.

I also hear comments that are less driven by hate, and more by fear and anxiety. Established residents feel that they are being pushed out of the neighbourhood they have been in for decades, with their identity no longer celebrated in the public realm: ‘Australian influences and English-speaking signs are now the exception or secondary at best. Enclaves breed isolation and exclusion.’ Cafes have changed hands and menus; ethnic supermarkets have moved in selling goods they don’t recognise; the small family-run tool shop is now gone; all of a sudden, their town centre is designated as a cultural precinct, Chinatown or Little Italy, which they don’t’ feel a part of.

How do we help each other see that the celebration of one cultural group does not reduce that of our own? How do we collectively understand that sharing the public realm doesn’t mean melting away of group differences? In the state of New South Wales alone, population growth due to net overseas migration is projected to be 1.74 million (2011-2036). We will need additional infrastructure, social/educational services and amenities, yes, but equally important is building community capacity for all to get along, and to feel a sense of belonging no matter how small their demographic representation.


Long-simmering racial and class conflicts 

I remember seeing the footage of the LA Riots in 1992, when my family was exploring emigrating from Seoul to New Zealand. The riots had broken out of conflicts and injustices that built up over time involving white police officers, Korean immigrants and African-Americans and killed more than 50 people and injured thousands. Shops were torched, destroyed and suffered $1 billion in damage (the riots were the manifestation of a complex series of conflicts as shown here). Perhaps the riots draw a rather grim picture of multiculturalism – but it also teaches us in Australia, with a relatively short immigration history, that intercultural understanding is something that can and must be continually nurtured.

Koreatown today is a safe precinct known for best Korean food outside of Korea.

The current demographics of Los Angeles’s neighbourhoods reflect the racial and class hierarchies established through housing policies in the 30s. In 1939 Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) categorised the neighbourhoods from A to D: A being colour-coded green and the best investment; and D being red and the worst investment. ‘Those communities depicted in “red” usually contained minorities: African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Asian-Americans, and sometimes newly arrived immigrant groups like Slavs, Jews, and Italians’, writes Ryan Reft of KCET. The disinvestment in the redlined neighbourhoods led to a vicious cycle of blights.


The social heritage and authenticity

Today, neighbourhoods in and around downtown serving low-income ethnic groups (see interactive map) including Little Tokyo are having to make way for luxury property developments and chain stores. Little Tokyo’s history dates back to late 1880s, with the first group of Japanese immigrants settling and building businesses there. A poignant public art project, Memories of Little Tokyo, takes visitors through a timeline of small shops that used to line the streets: 1905 Miyagishima, barber; 1914 E. Fukushima Bookstore; 1925 Iseri Pharmacy…During World War II people of Japanese ancestry were forcibly taken to internment camps leaving the vibrant Little Tokyo behind. 1/3 of them returned after the war, and Little Tokyo re-emerged with the rise of community-led organisations including Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC), a community development and housing organisation.

Dean Matsubayashi and Grant Sunoo of LTSC explain that Little Tokyo is one of only three Japantowns left in the US, and faces rapid gentrification. We talk about the many sides of ‘heritage’ – architectural heritage can be somewhat protected by policy, but less tangible social heritage is often overlooked — although it is those local community members that keep their place authentic  and vibrant (see San Francisco’s cultural and social heritage case studies). To support the community with identifying their own assets, a program called Takachizu, or treasure map, was set up. Through a temporary, low key exhibition and an online platform, the locals share images of their cultural assets, including this Evacuation Order for all persons of Japanese ancestry and this light-hearted one about a Korean-Japanese adoptee’s Little Tokyo experience.

1Little Tokyo
Memories of Little Tokyo show what the shops used to be on footpath edges.
2Little Tokyo
“Immigrants wanted to have a community where they could feel comfortable with their native tongue — Archie Miyatake


Inclusive ethnic neighbourhoods 

While the mission of LTSC includes promoting Japanese culture, it is delivered by people of many ancestries, for people of all ancestries, leading to an inclusive celebration of one ethnic group. Shops and restaurants in Little Tokyo transport me to Japan with their manga-inspired products and delicious ramen broth, but well caters for non-Japanese people. Signage and menus are in English, staff speak English, and the businesses are easy to find online. These seem like simple things to do, but still remain a challenge in Australia.

LSTC’s +lab project brought together the unusual mix of Latina teens and senior members of the Little Tokyo community. During Older Americans Appreciation Month, the young women, participants in a photography training program called Las Fotos Project, were invited to take portraits of the older people and aimed to identify the character of Little Tokyo through photography.


Community, culture and self-worth

The Las Fotos Project provides participants, between the ages of 11 and 18, access to equipment and training in photography, storytelling and interviewing. “Why just girls?”, I ask Eric Ibarra, the founder and executive director of Las Fotos Project, to which he explains his prior experience working with girls taught him that young women need their own space that isn’t dominated by men. The program is an opportunity to learn photography and to formally exhibit artworks, but its impact goes beyond obtaining technical skills.

My visit to the Las Fotos gallery coincided with the City Rising exhibit, which is supported by KCET that produced a documentary exploring gentrification with the same title. Gentrification has brought on an additional level of anxiety for the Latino community, especially for those who are undocumented and cannot speak up about substandard housing or other injustices, says Ernesto Espinoza of East LA Community Corporation.

14 girls participated in the City Rising project with photographs they took of communities, people, traditions and cultures of Boyle Heights and south LA, two low-income Latino neighbourhoods under gentrification. One of the goals of the exhibit Eric says, is “for young people to understand what gentrification is…on the individual person scale”. The participants went out and asked for the permission to take portraits, listen to the individuals’ stories of how the change is impacting them. Engaging with the community members was an important part of the process, through which the young participants could learn that “there is value in these traditions and they deserve to be displayed and seen by everybody”, and connect with their self-worth, history and culture.

3Las Fotos
A young woman reads the City Rising exhibit introduction.
4Las Fotos
City Rising exhibit includes photographs of people, traditions and cultures in Boyle Heights and south LA.
5Boyle Heights
A group of older men play cards in Mariachi Plaza, Boyle Heights.
6Boyle Heights
Young men skateboard in Mariachi Plaza.
7Boyle Heights
A bold restaurant mural draws attention in Boyle Heights.


Ultimately cultural precincts or enclaves shouldn’t be just about celebrating one’s own culture. They should connect people of different of backgrounds, and build capacity and empathy to together fight systemic eradication of underrepresented cultures. There is a growing interest in “community placemaking as a new form of activism” in Los Angeles, as Tridib Banerjee of the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy puts it. In this city, ethnic groups are learning to treasure their own and each other’s cultures.

Downtown LA is raw, diverse and authentic; and under gentrification.


9the grove
At the Grove (shopping and entertainment complex), trolleys carry people, a fountain sings, security guards keep shoppers in check, the farmers market sells ‘homemade’ products and hidden speakers play Frank Sinatra from every corner. This is the other face of Los Angeles.


Many thanks to these organisations:


This blog post was made possible by Westpac Social Change Fellowship, during which Julia Suh is visiting 15 cities to learn from their governments, social enterprises, consultants, academics and community organisers about how they are addressing inequality via design and management of the public realm and bringing about positive change. 



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