Korean immigration to Los Angeles surged against a larger wave of post-1965 immigration that followed major legislative reform. During the 1970s and 1980s, immigration, globalization, and urban life profoundly altered daily life in the city and resulted in a newfound prominence for the growing Korean community. With the rest of the nation, Angelenos struggled with social malaise and economic stagnation and entered the late twentieth century committed to a neoliberal economic and ideological order in which they extolled racial and ethnic diversity, acceded the existence of class inequality, and pledged allegiance to the private sector. The Korean immigrants settling in Los Angeles seemed remarkably well-suited to the challenges of these times, contributing to the diversity evoked in discussions about the "changing face of LA" and showing a knack for entrepreneurship and an abiding belief in the "American Dream."
The 1970s and 1980s saw the birth and aggressive development of Koreatown, Los Angeles, led by immigrant entrepreneurs wishing to make their mark and create a place for Koreans to call their own. They promoted Koreatown as a vehicle for ethnic representation, shrine to property ownership, and emotional beacon for Korean Americans. In turn, a narrative emerged that credited the Korean influx for saving and rejuvenating a "deteriorating area" that had been "forgotten by the rest of the city." However, the description of Koreatown as "one of LA's newest neighborhoods" elided the presence of non-Korean residents and misleadingly suggested that Koreans filled a blank space with only blight to be erased. Such perceptions gave business leaders, developers, and architects the freedom to envision and build Koreatown how it suited them, and they did so with the guiding principles of improving property values and "selling" Korean culture to Los Angeles.
This chapter considers Korean immigration from the point of view of the BK (before Koreatown) immigrants, Americanized Koreans who felt distanced from the newcomers but were otherwise profoundly transformed by their presence. This chapter explores how, against the backdrop of increasing immigration, Korean Americans grappled with their identities, assessed their relationship to Korean-ness, and formulated new conceptions of belonging as ethnic minorities in America. It foregrounds the perspectives of 1.5-, second-, and third-generation Korean Americans, who on the one hand distinguished themselves from the newcomers but on the other were drawn to them to connect with their own lost or unformed sense of Korean-ness. They wrote copiously and dedicated themselves to organizing, doing so with a sense of urgency to meet and make sense of the historic moment of change, both in their ethnic community and in the nation, due to the transformative forces of immigration.
Los Angeles's bid for renown as a global city gave South Korea a pivotal position and created opportunities for Korean Americans. Not only did Korean residents symbolize the city's increasingly diverse population but they were also positioned as linchpins for Los Angeles's international linkages across the Pacific. While the push to brand LA as a global metropolis was economically driven and outward looking, it also entailed highlighting the city's diverse population and progressive ethos regarding race and ethnicity. This marriage of globalization and multiculturalism was a central pillar of the mayorship of Tom Bradley (1973–1993), who saw his efforts to build relationships with South Korea and the local Korean American community as related pieces in the reinvention of Los Angeles.
This chapter examines Korean-Black relations in South Central, the escalating of anti-Korean sentiment, and the destruction of Koreatown and Korean-owned businesses in the 1992 unrest. The relations between the communities captured public interest as a subplot of the larger saga of the struggling inner city. While common legacies of discrimination, migration, and socioeconomic struggle might have nurtured affinity and solidarity among Koreans and Blacks, countervailing forces that engendered suspicion and ill will frustrated and derailed progress toward developing a foundation of interethnic understanding and the belief that they shared a common fate. As incidents of theft, harassment, assault, or interpersonal awkwardness accumulated, the reactions of journalists, politicians, and activists eventually crystallized the idea that animus between Koreans and Blacks was innate and insurmountable, which in turn shaped daily life, social interactions, and responses to subsequent incidents.
In the wake of the 1992 uprising, Korean Americans resolutely moved on by rebuilding Koreatown and leaving South Central. The departure of Korean business owners from South Central was part of the symbolic unlinking of the fates of Korean America and Black America. Their dedication to rebuilding Koreatown entailed dependence on Latino immigrants, who were a majority of residents and the post-uprising economy's backbone. As a result, by the end of the 1990s, two disconnected Koreatowns emerged; the profitable ethnic playground on the one hand and the multiethnic, working poor community on the other, contradictions that have only grown sharper into the twenty-first century.