What Makes a L.A. Neighborhood?

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South L.A. Westside/Eastside

Eric Brightwell is a writer, map maker, and an explorer of neighborhoods. He writes at Amoeblog, and his maps can be viewed at Pendersleigh & Sons Cartography. His men's boutique Brightwell recently opened in Silver Lake. He also contributed an excellent map to our Power of Place: Map Your L.A. contest.

Neighborhoods, it should go without saying, can arouse great passion and feeling. For much of history, gangs have fought life and death battles not over ideological differences, but more often over territorial pride (among other things). Popular projects like Mapping LA, Nabewise, Hand Drawn Map Association, LAist's Neighborhood Project and KCET's Departures show how interested we are in something that, in some ways, seems trivial and arbitrary. We argue, sometimes quite furiously, about borders - passionately claim ownership of one block and just as angrily disassociating their neighborhood from another fairly identical one.

Maybe part of the reason neighborhoods are so interesting to me is because I didn't grow up in one. I spent most of my formative years in rural Missouri's Little Dixie region. Besides two houses within five miles, our neighbors were animals that inhabited the meadows, prairies and woods around us.

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When I first visited L.A. in 1999, I had media-informed (mis-informed) notions of what Beverly Hills, Compton, Long Beach, Pasadena, Watts and other high profile communities were like. It didn't take long to realize that the L.A. of my imagination had little to do with reality, which I found much more appealing. Which is why I came back to stay not long after the visit.

I've often encountered snobs from centralized, skyscraper forested cities like New York, Chicago or San Francisco tell me that L.A. isn't a real city because of its vast, sprawling nature. To me they're yesteryear's "Cities of Tomorrow." If L.A. doesn't look like their antiquated notions of a city, it's because it isn't one. To me, the Southland is an amusement park and the neighborhoods and communities within it are all different rides.

In L.A. it can be difficult to distinguish neighborhoods from incorporated communities. Towns are annexed and become neighborhoods, cities disincorporate, CDP (census designated places) exist in some kind of limbo. A neighborhood like Van Nuys is home to over 130,000 people but is still a neighborhood. On the other hand, a tiny place like Hawaiian Gardens is its own city. There are neighborhoods within neighborhoods (like Elysian Heights in Echo Park or Westdale in Mar Vista) and there are groupings of neighborhoods like the Eastside, the Westside, Midtown, Hollywood, etc.

Little Saigon

Some neighborhoods grow organically, such as the ethnic enclaves that pop up in all big cities. For example, people's definitions of Koreatown, Little Saigon and South Central have grown to include territory far beyond their original designation. Neighborhoods also die, often as ethnicities assimilate into the larger population. L.A. used to have a Little Italy and a Greek Town, whose populations are now largely Chinese and Latino, respectively. Others are absorbed into newer neighborhoods, like Edendale into Echo Park (the former hub of West Coast film production) or Ivanhoe, now part of Silver Lake.

Some neighborhoods are established. A real estate developer buys a tract of land, subdivides and establishes a neighborhood overnight. They can die just as quickly too. Once prosperous Bunker Hill, later home to many working class Native Americans and Filipinos, was condemned as a slum, razed, lowered and subsequently populated with skyscrapers.

Historic Filipinotown

Some neighborhoods are contested. Little Bangladesh for example, whose official designation was opposed by several powerful Korean-American business owners. Others, like Little Central America (The Byzantine-Latino Quarter, Pico-Union and Westlake) are widely recognized but have no official designation. On the other hand, after the Eighth District Empowerment Congress's Naming Neighborhoods Project gained official recognition for new neighborhoods around South L.A., many residents remained unaware and in some cases dismissive of their new designations.

There are bedroom neighborhoods like Historic Filipinotown, which is home to 30,000 Filipinos but few Filipino businesses. There are commercial districts like Little Ethiopia, where many Ethiopian-Americans shop and eat but few live. Industrial neighborhoods like Vernon and City of Industry bustle with activity during the week, but are home to few residents and are dead quiet on weekends. Some are specialized by their commercial character: The Arts District, the Flower District, the Electronics District, the Seafood District, the Fashion District, the Toy District, the Financial District, the Produce District, etc.

When it comes to neighborhoods, there's a difference between pride and nationalism. They're organic and somewhat subjective - don't get mad if someone's definition is different from yours! Forget all the media sensationalizing and your preconceptions. L.A. neighborhoods can look deceptively uniform from a moving vehicle, so get out and explore on foot. Open your mind, scratch the surface and enjoy this great city!

About the Author

Eric Brightwell is a writer, map maker, and an explorer of neighborhoods. He writes at Amoeblog, and his maps can be viewed at Pendersleigh & Sons Cartography.
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