A Neighborhood Just West of Downtown 

Wednesday, Apr 24 2002

May 7, 1992 -- It is 8 o’clock, and the light has started to fade as I sit on the floor of my apartment staring at the spot where the rain not so much dripped as oozed from the doorjamb a couple of months ago, swelling the wood and leaving a rust-yellow stain on the wall. Downstairs, a baby cries out in Spanish; in the distance, the Geto Boys boom from a passing truck. For the fifth time in about an hour, I think about the other parts of town, the ones with croissant shops on the street corners and air-conditioned shopping malls and neighbors who look like me. I slap in the new DJ Quik tape and crank up the juice.

For the last 10 years, I have lived in a small apartment building, probably nice in its day, that is located where Koreatown thrusts into the Central American community, and where Salvadoran children startle their grandmothers by leaping out of shadows with toy Uzis and Mac-10s. Nobody has really bothered to give this area a name, though in the news reports that have dominated local television for the last week, the anchors have been calling it ”just west of downtown.“

Half a mile north, the neighborhood consolidates, takes on weight and a Latin flair, and is clearly part of Hollywood. A couple of blocks south begin the stucco condominium complexes of Wilshire Center -- brand-new but already peeling around the edges -- that provide underground parking and security codes for pink-collar office workers who cannot yet afford Encino or Baldwin Hills. The last time I bothered to count, there were restaurants of 14 ethnicities within a five-minute walk of my front door. The local supermarkets, big as soccer fields, are famous for their selection of multinational goods. Guatemalan women walk home from the Ralphs with bags of groceries balanced expertly on their heads.

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My neighborhood has always been transient, a brief stopping place for Thais and Nicaraguans and pale, gaunt poets before they move on to single-family homes in greener parts of town. But to my Korean landlords, this neighborhood is home. When they came into my apartment a couple of years ago to inspect the building they had just bought, they removed their shoes on the landing in the polite Korean manner and promptly drenched their socks on the freshly mopped kitchen floor. I have been awakened before dawn by the rhythmic thud of garlic being pounded into paste on the back porch. I have stumbled out the door with an armful of wet laundry, only to find most of the clothesline taken up by drying fish. I have also come home from work to find the backstairs spread with leaves of cabbage curing in the hot sun. Even when their son was murdered a half-mile south of here, there was no questioning that they belonged. The landlords keep to themselves and so do I, but I sometimes wish that they would invite me over for dinner.

Last Thursday, the intricate framework of the neighborhood collapsed for a few hours. Drawn out onto the streets by a particularly nasty bit of apartment-house arson -- not by any means a rarity around here -- a crowd coalesced, moved to the supermarkets and, barred from there, into the strip malls that line Vermont Avenue. From the stoop of my building, it seemed like a giant block party, a looters‘ bacchanalia of new tennis rackets and boom boxes, then of liberated rental tapes from the video store, plastic-wrapped clothes from the dry cleaner and fake palm trees from the furniture store. On Vermont itself, I saw thousands of people out on an illegal shopping spree, cheerfully helping one another maneuver a sofa or a heavy Barcalounger across the busy street. One tired-looking cop drank a cup of coffee and tried not to look anyone directly in the eye. And then the fires started in the liquor stores and some of the chain mini-mall clothing outlets, only a few yards away from densely inhabited apartment buildings. That night, men stood rooftop sentry with Uzis, outlined against the orange sky. It was the first time I can remember being comforted by the sight of armed drug dealers.

This is some of what is burned and gone, just within walking distance of my apartment: the Halal Pakistani restaurant Bundoo Khan; the Bangkok-style buffet restaurant Renoo’s Kitchen (noted, ironically, for its incendiary Thai curries); the Filipino fish joint Bahay Bangusan; the Third Street branch of the excellent Salvadoran place Atlacatl, which was home to some of my favorite pupusas; a brand-new country Korean restaurant that was around too briefly for me to remember its name; and the Latin nightclub Mexican Village, whose groovy, Mayan-style gargoyles loom grinning over smoldering heaps of ash. In one mall, newscasters have been lining up for standups against scenes of picturesque devastation the way that 747s sometimes circle over O‘Hare.

And yet the neighborhood survives, mango vendors and paleta carts flourishing in the morning-after calm like the cheerful green shoots that sprout from a newly charred forest floor, noodle shops and dumpling houses, doughnut stands and taquerias that swept away the broken glass and were running again the morning after the troubled afternoon. A lone, well-lighted Salvadoran restaurant in a blocklong burned-out mall stands improbable sentinel, churning out pupusas and carne asada although surrounded on either side by ruined stores, smoking rubble and military patrols.

Most of the supermarkets are open again -- my neighborhood was luckier than those a few miles south -- and shoppers no longer fistfight in the aisles over chickens. The restaurants are mostly open again too -- the several that burned tended to be unluckily close to liquor stores or discount outlets -- though the atmosphere these days is far from merry. Monday night I went to one of my favorite Korean restaurants, Yee Joh, close to the burned-out complexes on Hoover and Alvarado. (The mall it anchors sports a professionally lettered, though misspelled, sign that says ”We Support Rodeney King.“) Yee Joh was emptier than usual, brightly lit and fairly grim: The Korean-American community doesn’t have much to smile about this week. The food was good as ever, but I almost felt like crying, and they seemed relieved to see us go.

A version of this story originally ran in the Los Angeles Times.

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