The Future of L.A.'s Thai Town and Koreatown Communities Ride on a 'Promise'

Thai Town is part of the federally-designated 'Promise Zone' in central Los Angeles, a White House initiative designed to combat urban poverty.
Thai Town is part of the federally-designated 'Promise Zone' in central Los Angeles, a White House initiative designed to combat urban poverty. Photo: Elson Trinidad

Earlier this month, President Obama announced the first five recipient areas of his Promise Zone Initiative, a formal partnership between the federal government, local communities, and businesses intended to help shrink poverty and expand the rosters of the middle class. The initiative enables those areas to receive a share of a $500 million investment in existing federal funding, addressing the areas of job growth, economic stability, education, affordable housing, and public safety.

Aside from San Antonio, Philadelphia, Southeastern Kentucky, and the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma, Los Angeles was named, specifically a swath of the densely-populated central part of the city, which includes the communities of Hollywood, East Hollywood, Koreatown, Westlake, and Pico-Union.

L.A.'s Promise Zone, which encompasses an irregular-shaped area stretching from Franklin Avenue to Pico Boulevard, and between Highland and Union avenues, includes a predominantly low-income, yet culturally rich section of urban L.A.; though with a majority Latino population, it also includes two of the city's designated Asian enclaves: Thai Town and Koreatown. Both share well-patronized and well-acclaimed ethnic eateries (many of which are open well into the late night hours), spas, and dense, pedestrian-oriented, transit-accessible corridors. The zone also includes pockets of other Asian immigrant groups, namely Filipinos (in East Hollywood and the Historic Filipinotown-adjacent parts of Koreatown and Westlake) and Bangladeshis (among the already-diverse immigrant multitudes residing in Koreatown).

The Promise Zone designation struck me with great interest -- not only do I live there, but I'm a homegrown product of the area as well.

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Though the Promise Zone Initiative addresses a distinctly 21st Century issue, the composition of the neighborhoods in the zone date back to the 1970s, during the tail end of suburban white flight. Affordable single-family housing stock and even cheaper apartment rents, attracted immigrants from Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America to the now-designated zone. They likely found their first home address in the United States in this area. Likewise, affordable commercial leases and the rise of the mini-mall gave the entrepreneurially-inclined a business base, and favorable conditions to grow actual communities. Koreatown initially germinated around the Western Avenue corridor, while the Thai community was originally centered along Melrose Avenue, just east of Western (a concentration of Thai-owned businesses still operate there today).

L.A.'s Promise Zone region was also devastated by the Riots of 1992; looting and fires ravaged most especially the Hoover Street and Vermont and Western avenue corridors during the middle and final days of civil unrest, causing the now upwardly-mobile immigrant families to flee to the suburbs themselves. But this time, in many cases, they maintained ownership of their old homes and rented them out as income property, creating the residentially-transient profile of the area today, where the percentage of home ownership dips to as low as single-digit figures in the neighborhoods within the Promise Zone area.

For those with a superficial knowledge of Los Angeles, the idea of a Promise Zone combatting poverty in a town popularly known for fame, fortune, glitz, and glamour makes little sense. But urban reality has pitched a different script: The median family income in the Promise Zone area is $29,500, and socioeconomic factors have driven some 13,000 residents from the area in the past decade.

Some have criticized the designation as overlooking more impoverished areas in the city, such as South Los Angeles, and others have accused mayor Eric Garcetti for favoring an area he once represented as a city councilmember. But apparently South L.A. community leaders did apply for the Promise Zone Initiative, though their effort was fraught with a lack of organizational coordination.

Strategies for L.A.'s Promise Zone include affordable housing, education, career and technical training, private business investment, improving and growing transit infrastructure, and eliminating waste and duplication in government programs. But what will it really mean to the zone's communities, specifically the Thai Town and Koreatown communities?

L.A.'s Koreatown, one of the most densely-populated neighborhoods in the county, is also part of the recently-designated 'Promise Zone.'
L.A.'s Koreatown, one of the most densely-populated neighborhoods in the county, is also part of the recently-designated 'Promise Zone.' Photo: Elson Trinidad

I queried active and involved leaders from both communities to share their thoughts on the Promise Zone.

"We'll benefit in multiple ways," said Chancee Martorell, executive director of Thai Community Development Center (Full disclosure: I serve on the organization's Board of Directors), a nonprofit that led the establishment of the Thai-themed six-block stretch of Hollywood Boulevard. "We will see more resources go towards the building and preservation of affordable housing stock, and increasing stock for low-income individuals or families ... Thais are living in overcrowded conditions, with housing being not affordable."

Martorell also would like to see improved educational outcomes and more resources dedicated to enriching youth and children. "The only hope is in the children; they can move on and really get the higher education their parents want them to receive. But if children cannot advance, then it creates a permanent underclass," she added.

Like Koreatown, Thai Town is served by a Metro Rail subway line and several bus routes. But Martorell also believes the Promise Zone should improve transit access even further to benefit the community. "Thai Town is in a transit-rich area, but we don't reap the benefits of transit," she said.

Three miles to the south, sandwiched between affluent Hancock Park towards the west and the lower-income Westlake and Pico-Union towards the east, the community of Koreatown faces similar issues and concerns.

Alexandra Suh, executive director of Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance, an organization that serves Korean and Latino immigrant laborers alike, also sees benefits coming to the Promise Zone. "What we hope and expect to see is investment that transforms and improves the lives of everyone in the community," she said. "We need to make sure that improvements do not displace low-income workers and residents, but create better jobs, homes, and neighborhoods for everyone here, as well as inviting newcomers."

Suh also pointed out that Koreatown has a working poverty rate of 17 percent, nearly triple that of L.A. County as a whole, and is Los Angeles' most densely-populated neighborhood. She expects outcomes from the Promise Zone Initiative to address workforce development, affordable housing and the rehabilitation of existing rent-controlled apartments, public parks and open space, support for community services, support and compliance training for business owners, and environmentally sustainable infrastructural improvements that encourage biking, walking, and social interaction.

The "Promise" of better communities has led critics of the initiative to believe that it will just lead to more gentrification and defeat the purpose of helping low-income residents.

"The Promise Zone will be an investment in resources that will come to aid of the poor, and also be of benefit to those struggling and in poverty,' said Martorell. "It's really hard to see how it's going to gentrify," adding that affordable low-income housing, educational opportunities, and enhancement of transit, of which 75 percent of riders are working poor, will not create the same gentrification conditions that are evident in other central L.A. communities.

"Gentrification is a mixed bag, you want to encourage development and investment, but you need to make it balanced ... a mixed-income neighborhood is always healthier than communities of affluence or poverty. We have to start that balance, not warehouse the poor, but integrate them into a larger community," Martorell added.

Part of Suh's vision for Koreatown and the Promise Zone also lies in the mixing and collaboration of different demographic groups. "We'd love to see support for community centers, cultural expression, and inter-ethnic and inter-generational and inter-faith joint projects," she said.

Will the Promise Zone Initiative work? As someone who remembers when the corner of Hollywood and Western was known more for the level of crime than the spiciness of its food, I believe it will, though the level of success remains to be seen. Ultimately, the success of L.A.'s Promise Zone lies in emphasizing the unique cultural traits of its neighborhoods -- specifically the ethnically-designated ones, strengthening the cooperation and coordination of its institutions and stakeholder groups (as South L.A.'s missed Promise Zone opportunity has demonstrated), and the ability for community members to own their own residential or commercial property. The Promise Zone Initiative just might be the catalyst to help fulfill it all.

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