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L.A.'s Historic Filipinotown Turns Ten: What's Changed?

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Eliseo Art Silva's Filipino American history mural at Unidad Park in L.A.'s Historic Filipinotown. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

Exactly ten years ago today, members of Los Angeles' Filipino community packed City Hall's council chambers to witness a long-awaited milestone: the City's official designation of its Historic Filipinotown district.

I still remember that day rather clearly: 13th District Councilmember Eric Garcetti reciting his motion, local community leaders offering testimony, Filipino American World War II veterans standing proud in uniform, traditional Philippine dance performances in the Spring Street courtyard, then-Mayor James K. Hahn decked out in a barong tagalog -- and of course all that free Filipino food.

The 20 character-long community designation sign was unveiled, marking the culmination of the dreams of an ethnic community that had sought for years to be recognized.

L.A. City Councilmember Eric Garcetti and community leaders unveil the Historic Filipinotown sign at City Hall on August 2, 2002. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

But what has actually changed in the past 10 years?

The signs were put up. Streetscape improvements were implemented. Decorative crosswalks evoking Philippine craft designs have been stamped onto intersections. Three parks were built. A handful of new Filipino restaurants featuring sit-down dining were established in the area. New organizations were created to serve the community and existing ones strengthened their dedication to it. And earlier this year, the area was designated as a federally-recognized Preserve America neighborhood.

Yet the community -- located just west of Downtown L.A. along the Temple and Beverly corridors between Hoover Street on the west and Glendale Blvd on the east -- still faces much of the same issues it did even before the City's designation.

Though the population of Historic Filipinotown, or "Hi-Fi" (Garcetti's preferred shorthand moniker), is roughly 25 percent Filipino, it still boasts a higher ratio of Filipinos than nearby Koreatown has Koreans (15 percent) and Thai Town has Thais (less than 5 percent). Still, many visitors and even residents lament the community's lack of "there" there; Hi-Fi still doesn't quite have the visible cultural impact that its fellow Asian designated communities possess.

The Filipino community in Los Angeles was never really concentrated; Filipinos also live in adjacent communities like Westlake, Koreatown, East Hollywood, Silver Lake, and Echo Park. Other large concentrations of Filipinos can be found in Panorama City and Eagle Rock. And even larger concentrations exist in suburbs like Carson, West Covina, or Cerritos.

But many of L.A.'s 400,000-plus Filipinos can still trace some sort of connection to the neighborhood. My own parents, who emigrated from the Philippines as young professionals in the late 1960s, met each other in Historic Filipinotown. My siblings were all baptized at St. Columban Church, whose hall was, and still is, the annual Christmas party venue for my mother's provincial association. As a child, I recalled family dine-ins at long-gone restaurants like The Bayanihan. I've even worked in -- and for -- the community for a number of years.

I never visit or pass through the neighborhood without a, "Wouldn't it be cool if Historic Filipinotown had..." thought running through my mind. But the community still faces many obstacles.

The usual symptoms of urban blight -- graffiti, litter, abandoned bulky items sitting on the curbs, and absentee landlords -- still plague Hi-Fi just as much today as it did in '02. A recycling center on Temple Street is a constant source of neighborhood complaints and concerns. Directly across the street is a vacant dirt lot. There's been some potential interest in developing the parcel, but the locals tell me the property owner refuses to develop or sell it. And just blocks away, the former LAPD Rampart Station stands forlorn, boarded-up and overgrown with weeds.

Though some new businesses have sprung up in the past decade, development and economic investment has been slow; popular Filipino chains like Jollibee, Red Ribbon bakeshop, and Seafood City market only exist outside the Hi-Fi periphery, about a mile away on Koreatown's Vermont Avenue corridor.

Unlike Koreatown's large overseas financing or Chinatown's benevolent associations, there are no financial institutions here. There are hardly any banks.

The community still lacks other basics: There are no supermarkets, scant entertainment/arts venues and a dearth of public gathering spaces. The neighborhood is not yet served by a weekly farmer's market. There is a noticeable lack of consistent pedestrian activity.

Though the Downtown L.A. skyline looms nearby, it lacks direct access to the Metro Rail system, something that has definitely benefited other ethnic enclaves such as Koreatown, Thai Town, Little Armenia, Little Tokyo, and Chinatown. Pedestrian-oriented districts are challenging here due to the hilly topography of the Temple and Beverly corridors, and many industrial-zoned parcels create pedestrian-unfriendly "dead zones." And with a large percentage of its Filipino population being elderly, walking long distances, especially uphill, is not ideal. Though many of its older residents are transit-dependent, Hi-Fi is still pretty much an auto-centric community -- residents and businesses regularly clamor for more parking spaces.

But all is not a lost cause, either. Attempts at gentrification have not eroded the neighborhood's Filipino and Latino cultural identities, and don't seem to pose a viable threat to them. Years ago, a theatre company which sprang up along Beverly had tried to brand the area as "South Silver Lake," only to end up moving to the Westside not long after.


Historic Filipinotown's western boundary at Temple and Hoover. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

Ultimately what's needed is a solid vision for Historic Filipinotown. There are millions of wishes, thousands of recommendations, yet not one consistent vision. The community's identity focuses on the "what was here" and "what's been here," (Hence the "Historic" in the name) but "what is here now" is still sort of ambiguous. Cultural tourism has long been sought as the panacea for our City's ethnic neighborhoods. Koreatown and Thai Town have their late-night dining and entertainment, Chinatown and Little Tokyo have their retail districts and cultural monuments. What will Historic Filipinotown boast?

Hi-Fi needs to strike the perfect balance of satisfying the Filipino community's cultural vision and the majority Latino community's everyday needs. It needs to simultaneously celebrate its past, deal with the issues of the present, and plan for its future.

This Saturday, August 4, the Historic Filipinotown community will observe its 10th anniversary with a daylong street festival, neighborhood tours, and a 5K walk/run at Temple Street and Union Avenue. There will be a "there" there -- at least for the day. Here's hoping that 10 years from now, there will be much more "there" to celebrate every day.

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