Making Space: Does Internal Immigration Warrant Cultural Neighborhood Names?

Little Saigon has turned 25. The Vietnamese enclave in Westminster has done very well, taken a previously nondescript neighborhood of Southern California and made it a thriving and distinct hub of immigrant life that's still going. Not merely a tourist stop, Little Saigon is a core place for Vietnamese businesses and services -- first and foremost a place for the Vietnamese themselves.

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It is a true community in the way that Chinatown and Little Tokyo and Koreatown are, and even Little Ethiopia, which is only a couple of blocks on the south end of Fairfax Avenue but which lives and grows by the same vision of cultural solidarity-in-a-strange-land as those bigger places. And all of these areas enlarge the reputation of Southern California, and L.A. especially, as a place that can be made by any group into anything it needs or wants it to be; Little Saigon and its ilk are triumphs of the local ethos of reinvention that gives all of us something new and lets all of us keep believing in the West Coast as polyglot America at its most workable.

The happy anniversary in Orange County made me wonder about the space black Angelenos occupy, or don't, and how we as an ethnic group seem not to be reinventing or enlarging, but doing something quite the opposite. It's a complicated subject because blacks are neither fish nor fowl, or fish and fowl: descendants of immigrants who fled the South and the hostile restrictions not of another country, but of their own. Internal immigrants to the West Coast whose American roots are hundred of years deep but who for much of that time have not enjoyed the basic American freedom of moving where they want and being comfortable in their own space. California was the last place black people sought for that core freedom, and the stakes were big because, for starters, there was simply nowhere else left on the continent to go.

Things in the Golden State were indeed better, but not ideal, and in any case not good or free enough to plant a flag or a freeway sign that could advertise, "Little African America," or "Black Heaven." Instead, where blacks have settled are mostly California versions of Mudtown -- Watts, Compton, South Central -- that generic name for black parts of town everywhere that are by definition distressed.

Spaces that are not claimed and then built up by residents, but accepted as the only space available, often secondhand space that was quickly and fearfully abandoned by white inhabitants and neglected after that. Building up a culturally distinct and self-sufficient enclave a la Little Saigon was really never possible for blacks, partly because Mudtown was never going to be anybody's idea of a tourist attraction, partly because blacks themselves came here -- immigrated, if you will -- to finally blend in, not stand out. They'd been standing out for much too long and wanted the luxury of anonymity and self-creation that Southern California seemed to offer. It did in one way, but didn't in another. The negotiation continues.

About the Author

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in L.A., with an eye toward the city's African American community, appear weekly on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.
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"Iowa-by-the-sea" (aka, Long Beach) is perhaps a good example
of a neighborhood (well, a city) being named for internal migration. But nobody really calls it that anymore.