Keeping L.A.'s Thai Town Thai

A pair of bronze apsonsi Thai angel gateway statues stand guard at opposite sides of Hollywood Boulevard
in L.A.'s Thai Town. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

Hollywood Boulevard is arguably the most famous street in the world. A nine-letter name that, whether represented on a street sign, a neon marquee or the side of a mountain, conjures up the notion of "Dreams" and "Making It Big."

Since 1999, a half-mile stretch of the thoroughfare's eastern end has likewise represented those same notions in a different way for the Thai immigrant community. It is Los Angeles' designated Thai Town district, a bustling commercial strip of silk clothiers, massage spas and the best selection of Thai cuisine outside of Bangkok -- a city known in its long-form Thai name, coincidentally, also as "The City of Angels."

On any given night, restaurant tables are filled, cash registers ring, and empty street parking spaces are nonexistent. But Thai Town still faces some big challenges.

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In Historic Filipinotown just three miles away, the built environment is relatively lacking in the Philippine cultural aesthetic, yet the Filipino community makes an active presence through cultural events, churches, and community-based organizations. In contrast, Thai Town looks undeniably Thai, but its actual Thai population is only around three percent of a community comprised mostly of Latino and Armenian residents. Because most are recent immigrants, voter registration is low. And because most of them work long hours in low-wage jobs, there is also very low participation in community activities, much less time for social life. Major cultural institutions, like the nearest Buddhist temple, are some 12 miles away in North Hollywood.

With the East Hollywood area being a port of entry for many immigrant communities, people first arrive from their home country, settle in, and then leave once they have amassed enough income to live in greener pastures. For the Thai community, those greener pastures are the San Fernando Valley, the Westside, the San Gabriel Valley, or Orange County. So there are few, if any, who remain in the community to pass on neighborhood knowledge, traditions, or ownership.

Gentrification, at least in the form of rising rents for both storefronts and apartments, has been a major issue in the community. A number of well-known restaurants have contemplated either selling ownership or going out of business due to surging commercial lease rates. The Thai alphabet might be ubiquitous around here, but land titles held by Thais aren't. Only two property parcels in Thai Town are Thai-owned, and more than several times has the local business community contemplated what Thai Town would be like if it were less Thai. So far, gentrification hasn't eroded the look or local culture of the community. But will it still be that way tomorrow?

Thailand Plaza at night, one of only two Thai-owned properties in L.A.'s Thai Town. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

Another important element in maintaining the cultural integrity and identity of Thai Town is giving the younger generation access and ownership of the community. Koreatown and Little Tokyo have set great examples of younger 20- and 30-something-aged entrepreneurs setting up shop in their respective communities -- running both traditional and non-traditional businesses and guaranteeing the viability and vibrancy of those neighborhoods.

By no means are things in Thai Town stagnant. This Sunday, the 20th Annual Thai Cultural Day festival goes on in nearby Barnsdall Art Park, the second largest celebration in the Thai community next to the immense Songkran New Year festival each April. Arts, crafts, music, and dance are the focus of this weekend's event.

Four years ago at the very same festival, Thai Town was given a federal "Preserve America" designation, which has raised the profile of the neighborhood. A streetscape project funded by the now-defunct Community Redevelopment Agency has improved sidewalks and street aesthetics. And come next April, the long-awaited Thai Town Public Market, a social enterprise project in the form of an international food court and crafts bazaar, will open next to the Metro subway station on Hollywood and Western.

Thai Town isn't going away anytime soon, but it's of utmost importance for the local Thai community to keep the district sustained and growing through increased community involvement and participation, more property ownership and handing over the reins to the next generation -- the keys to "making it" in Hollywood... at least on this end of the boulevard.

About the Author

Elson Trinidad is the Managing Editor of KCET's 50th Anniversary website and writes the "Transpacific Routes" and "Concrete and Chaparral" columns on KCET's blogs.
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