Planting the Flag: Naming Black Los Angeles' Neighborhoods (or Not)

A mural in Leimert Park. | Photo: ATOMIC Hot Links/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The official roster of ethnic enclaves in L.A. and SoCal that range from Koreatown to Little Saigon in Orange County has just gotten bigger with the addition of the El Salvador Community Corridor, a ten-block stretch of Vermont Avenue between 11th Street and Adams Boulevard. The designation comes at the behest of Salvadoran community and business advocates who want to band together to do two things simultaneously: embrace their roots and create an economic engine for a somewhat overlooked and still impoverished Latino demographic in a city in which the dominant Latino group is Mexican. The idea is to make the Salvadoran scene visible and also an attraction for people who want to visit ethnically distinct but tourist-friendly (i.e., non-white) parts of the city that give us our well-deserved reputation of being the most diverse city in America.

"Diverse" is a word that gets under my skin -- excuse the expression -- because it's one of those post-'92 terms that's based on the idea of black inclusion but never seems to achieve it.

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Nor is anyone really looking to achieve it anymore; increasingly, diversity seems directed at immigrant and religious groups, not blacks who in many ways are still living as marginally as Salvadorans who fled the civil wars of their native country back in the '80s. I get the shift. The immigrant narrative is clear and distinct, the move from there to here easy to trace. Most importantly, Americans see immigrant history as separate from their own (however flawed that view is), a simple story of people under duress seeking freedom and opportunity in a land built on that notion. However much we grumble about "illegals" and undocumenteds, immigration as a concept bolsters our positive self-image of being good, expansive, and worthy.

The black narrative is the opposite of that and always has been. It is complicated, tortured, unresolved, and an integral part of the American narrative that doesn't exactly make anybody feel good, including blacks themselves. And yet we do consider black culture -- soul food and such -- as ethnic because of its undeniable African roots. Even the ubiquity of hip-hop and other thoroughly commodified aspects of black culture haven't entirely erased that sense of ethnic specificness. Indeed, that is hip-hop's appeal.

It's a strange position to be in. The newly christened Salvadoran corridor reminded me of similar but ill-fated efforts undertaken by some African Americans in the aftermath of 1992, when blacks were casting about for the best ways to rebuild a community that had frankly been in decline for decades. Then came a proposal to re-name Leimert Park Village, a one-block collection of shops, music, food, arts and so forth, as African-American Village. The argument went that Korea had Koreatown, Thais had Thai Town -- it was high time blacks had something like that for themselves, something to boost their own visibility and economic potential. On the surface, it was a no-brainer.

The idea never went anywhere. There were many reasons why, but I think at bottom there was a reluctance among everyone, black and otherwise, to admit that blacks in L.A. were, after many generations, more like immigrants than we care to admit. Declaring our cultural distinctiveness with a special district or corridor would also declare to the world our enduring isolation in cities like Los Angeles that have always kept us at more than arm's length. When it comes to the modern idea of diversity, blacks are still on the outside looking in.

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. Read all her posts here.

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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This seems like a peculiar argument to make: You'd like to distinguish a Los Angeles neighborhood for blacks by name? Seems like, once upon a time, plenty of American towns and cities used just such a designation to refer to neighborhoods where African-Americans predominated as a way to ghettoize them and distinguish them from so-called "good neighborhoods": Black Town and worse. Much worse. It seems misguided to equate such terms as Little Saigon and Koreatown with any neighborhood designation based on race. Doesn't L.A. have a Little Ethiopia section? I can buy the argument of ID'ing neighborhoods of African-Americans in that way: Little Gambia, etc. But that would make as much sense as ID'ing neighborhoods of whites as "Little Lithuania." I guess I don't understand the argument.

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Ethnic communities are actually named so more due to nationality and linguistics than solely ethnicity per se -- it's only because for the most part, nationality and ethnicity are interchangeable terms when it comes to immigrant groups.

Case in point: Los Angeles does have a designated "Little Ethiopia" district; Ethiopians of course are Africans and technically (though not traditionally of course) they would be considered African Americans. But because they came from a specific country and speak (a) certain language(s), their community is celebrated with a geographical designation.

Has there been a precedent for an African American neighborhood in an American city to be named specifically as such? That might be the main reason why there's resistance in the community to have such a designation. Obviously here are well known communities (Harlem for example) that are known for being African American, simply because their community history is so ingrained with American history anyway.

African Americans, after all, are already Americans.

What's more important, in my opinion, is to have landmarks, institutions, a healthy business sector and an involved population that serves and represents the community - A community like Leimert Park already seems to fulfill those criteria.