Blog Post

Los Angeles Koreatown

Washington, DC - in our nation's capital, blogging about a New York Times article about Los Angeles. Isn't technology wonderful?

The Times almost never gets LA right. They cover it like an alien planet, populated by strange, non-New Yorkers who also seem kinda hip (so what's up with that?). Usually, every NYT story about LA begins with the same implicit lead sentence that their coverage of Japan used to: "These freakin' people, you wouldn't believe what they're up to now."

And then comes this story (reg. req'd). Same coverage of LA as a foreign bureau, but within it the fundamental realization that the after-hours action in LA right now is, apparently, in Koreatown, just a few blocks from where I grew up.

Salient bits:

Few areas in Los Angeles, if any, have as lively a night life, as many after-hours spots or as much energy in the wee hours as this ethnic enclave between Hancock Park and Echo Park, not far from Hollywood and downtown Los Angeles. Police officials estimate there are more than 500 night-life establishments within the loosely defined boundaries of Koreatown, the highest such concentration in the city.

The district, which encompasses roughly a 20-by-20-block area, has the feel of a mini-Seoul: it is dotted with all-Korean signs and menus with no translations; smoking is tolerated everywhere - outdoors, indoors, sometimes right under the "No Smoking" sign. Though it is against the law, a sizable number of businesses serve liquor after 2 a.m. A visitor gets the impression that in Koreatown, after dark, different rules apply.

Although it is dominated by Korean-Americans, the night life is increasingly attracting non-Asians, who seek fun and socializing after much of Los Angeles has grown quiet.

What's critical about this is the understanding that urban recreational zones are often the places where the poor and/or ethnic minorities live -- and they don't have to overlap with a city's Central Business District. New York's Harlem in the 1920s. Los Angeles Calle Negro in the 1890s. Boston's North End even today. New Orleans' French Quarter. Yokohama's Chinese district, for a century the only place in Japan where foreigners were allowed to trade.

These are the souks and medinas, the forum, the barrio. Downtown. And, as the article says (and the headline alludes to), these are zones where the rules of ordinary life do not apply. "Forget about it, Jake," like the movie says. "It's Chinatown."

So certainly Interzones, to ref William Burroughs, are places where interesting things happen. This is true in science, in history, and in urban theory. The interfaces between things are where the action is.

American culture tends to segregate its Interzones geographically. Europeans and South Americans -- places touched by Catholicism, I think -- set aside one week a year where all bets are off, where rules for polite behavior and socialization get dumped. It's called Carnival or Mardi Gras. But in the US, we do it all year round, but only in certain places: New Orleans. Las Vegas. But distinctly not Central Business Districts, where tall buildings full of white men in suits move capital. Economic and cultural vibrance are functions of diversity, of trading in taboo, and of -- nobody panic -- fun.

Nice to see the NYT figure out that Interzones don't have to have tall buildings to be interesting.


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