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Historic Filipinotown, in the Present Tense

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Jeepney operated by Pilipino Workers Center | Photo: Justin Cram
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A segment based on this story was produced for KCET's award-winning TV show "SoCal Connected." Watch it here now.

The large, blue 20-letter signs mounted on streetlight poles that bear the name of the community should say it all.

After all, they were placed there just over a decade ago when the City of Los Angeles formally designated the 2.1 square-mile zone between Glendale Boulevard and Hoover Street as "Historic Filipinotown," in recognition of the Filipino American cultural, commercial, religious, political, and social institutions that have been in the area since the 1940s.

But despite the signage, Angelenos who traverse the Temple Street or Beverly Boulevard corridors just west of downtown Los Angeles are more likely seeking a rapid respite from the constantly congested 101 Freeway (or an Original Tommy's chiliburger) than a cultural experience.

It may be that the first eight letters of those community signs have had a tendency to throw some visitors off: What is being touted as "Historic" might lead some to come to the conclusion that the neighborhood has a past, but lacks a present, much less a future.

But in a very L.A. way, like the city as a whole, there's more to "HiFi" than meets the eye, and despite the adjective that prefaces the community's name, there's a lot of "current" happening now in Historic Filipinotown.

One of the heralds of an ethnic enclave is the abundance of eateries serving cuisine from that particular community's cultural origin. For the past few decades, Historic Filipinotown has lacked decent sit-down restaurants serving Philippine fare, and the eateries that did exist in the neighborhood were relegated to uninviting fast-food turo-turo joints where customers pointed to pre-made dishes that sat for hours (or perhaps days) under heat lamps. But recently notable establishments, such as Kapistahan Grill on Temple Street and My Mom's Bakeshop on Rampart Avenue, have finally put better Filipino restaurants on the map.

Even more significantly, the influence of food lifestyle television shows, foodie blogs, and social media within the past few years have also thrusted Historic Filipinotown's non-traditional Filipino eateries into the spotlight. The uniquely-flavored shortribs and coconut beef dishes of The Park's Finest barbecue restaurant on Temple Street have gotten raves from everyone from Food Network host Guy Fieri to celebrities like Stevie Wonder. Filipino staples like pancit and adobo are nowhere to be found in this restaurant's menu, but rather, a Filipino take on American barbecue. Their popular cornbread bibingka item here is Filipino American food in every sense of the word, fusing the traditional Philippine rice cake with the classic baked good from the American South.

And as food trucks, bacon-wrapped hot dog carts, and L.A.'s traditional taco culture sparked the increased acceptance of street food in Southern California, Historic Filipinotown has contributed to the scene in the form of Filipino street food pop-ups along Temple Street. Just one mile due west of The Park's Finest is another kind of barbecue joint, where large grilles are set up in the parking lot outside Temple Seafood Market on weekend nights and crowds converge to enjoy barbecued Filipino meat and seafood skewers for just one dollar a piece. Known as Dollar Hits, the pop-up transforms a staid L.A. minimall into a scene straight from the streets of Metro Manila. And not to be outdone, just a block to the east, traditional turo-turo restaurant Bahay Kubo sets up its own Filipino skewer barbecue pop-up right on the sidewalk as well.

A minimall parking lot on Temple Street in Historic Filipinotown transforms into a weekend street food bazaar as crowds gather for $1 Filipino barbecue skewers. | Photo: Elson Trinidad
A minimall parking lot on Temple Street in Historic Filipinotown transforms into a weekend street food bazaar as crowds gather for $1 Filipino barbecue skewers. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

Filipino food can also be found at cultural festivals like the annual Festival of Philippine Arts and Culture (known colloquially as "FPAC"), which recently left its seaside home of 20 years in San Pedro in favor of a decidedly more urban setting. In October, the 23rd iteration of the festival, which attracts Filipino Americans from all over Southern California, settled into its new home at downtown L.A.'s Grand Park, undoubtedly to be in closer proximity to Historic Filipinotown, just one mile to the west.

While Historic Filipinotown lacks considerably-sized parks to host an FPAC, the small ones that do exist are no less significant to the community. Lake Street Park, nestled in a residential block between Beverly and Temple, is home to a monument to Filipino American World War II veterans, who fought valiantly both on the battlefield and years after the war, to gain the promised veteran's benefits and dignity that they were denied after battle. And just a few blocks away stands Unidad Park, a modest open space known for Eliseo Art Silva's 150-foot-wide Filipino American history mural, painted nearly 20 years ago as the most visible Filipino American cultural landmark in Historic Filipinotown. On October 18, an interpretive signage display in front of the mural was formally dedicated, educating Filipino, and especially non-Filipino visitors alike, on the historic figures depicted in the mural, from Philippine national hero Jose Rizal and former president Corazon Aquino, to Filipino American labor organizer Larry Itliong and Broadway songstress Lea Salonga.

In a densely-populated district such as Historic Filipinotown, space, namely community space, comes at a premium. At the western end of the community, the nonprofit organization Search to Involve Pilipino Americans, known by its acronym SIPA, actively serves the neighborhood's youth, parents, and businesses through its myriad social service programs, all in the name of community empowerment. A community institution for over four decades, SIPA was instrumental in virtually eliminating the Filipino American gang violence rampant in the '70s and '80s, years before "gang intervention" became a social service buzzword. Today, their Temple Street headquarters serves as a de facto community center for HiFi, hosting community meetings, workshops, classes, concerts, poetry readings, film screenings, theatrical plays, and arts programs such as the Music Center's "Encounters" community engagement series. When the devastating Typhoon Haiyan pummeled the central Philippines last year, community leaders convened at SIPA to strategize the Southern California Filipino American community's response to the disaster.

"Our building is an important part of our mission and purpose," said Joel Jacinto, Executive Director of SIPA. "Space equals power, you're able to do the activities and events and programs that you want, you're not limited, you have the access, you have the ability to offer something, the ability to bring people together, to work together. It's about empowerment. If we want to service the community, we need to do it in facilities we control or have access to."

Jacinto added that SIPA plans to convert their single-story headquarters on Temple into a multi-story mixed-use complex featuring affordable housing units, office space, and a state-of-the-art community center venue within the next few years.

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Eliseo Art Silva's mural depicts historic figures in Filipino American history | Photo: Kenny Chang/Flickr/Creative Commons

On the opposite side of the district, along Glendale Boulevard, The Pilipino Workers Center, another nonprofit serving the community, has already established their own mixed-use facility, known as Larry Itliong Village, featuring 44 units of affordable housing. Just up the street, two large market-rate housing developments are currently being constructed -- and concerns about gentrification already loom large in the neighborhood.

"It's important that there's a balance in the community where you have affordable housing along with market rate development," said Aquilina Soriano-Versoza, Executive Director of Pilipino Workers Center. "We want to improve the community, there should be space for everyone, no matter what income level."

The organization is also known for its ownership of a working Philippine jeepney. Originally developed by modifying leftover American military jeeps after World War II, they are an iconic form of mass transportation back in the islands. The Pilipino Workers Center uses it -- quite literally -- as an outreach vehicle for the organization's voter registration, workers' rights, and immigrant rights campaigns, not just in Historic Filipinotown, but to other Filipino enclaves such as Artesia, Carson, East Hollywood, and Panorama City.

"It's a fun way to connect with people," said Soriano-Versoza. "They're nostalgic for it, and they're also happy to know about what we're doing."

Back in the neighborhood, concerned locals are already driving community engagement. A group informally known as the HiFi Community Forum, made up of community leaders and concerned stakeholders, has been convening since February with the goal of enacting a number of improvements and goals for the neighborhood. They have identified such issues as access to healthy food, establishing community gardens, business development, increasing affordable housing stock, infrastructure improvements, preserving historical landmarks, neighborhood branding, and renter's issues as priorities for the area.

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Local resident Michael Nailat, one of the HiFi Community Forum's organizers, helped bring the community leaders and stakeholders together, based on the fact that many of them were young Filipino American professionals who were already well-versed in the government, nonprofit, and community organizing fields. Many of the objectives were spit up into committees for participants to focus on their respective goals and projects.

"Even as small as Historic Filipinotown can feel, there are many communities within it that don't really connect or communicate," he said. "We wanted the forum to help bridge that in whatever way we could. So, in essence, the forum was meant to bring the community together and let it create its own voice and vision."

Though there's much work left to be done in improving the Historic Filipinotown community, there is a general feeling of optimism regarding the current state of the area.

"I think our identity as a community is finally being cemented, but there are political opportunities we are missing," said Nailat, citing the community's ties to the current L.A. city government. "Overall, I feel good about Filipinotown. There's a lot of new energy, and a lot of opportunity with it ... I can't imagine living anywhere else."