LA Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, artist and winner Roel Punzalan and L.A. Public Works board member Joel Jacinto at the Project HiFi Highlight award ceremony in June
LA Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, artist and winner Roel Punzalan and L.A. Public Works board member Joel Jacinto at the Project HiFi Highlight award ceremony in June
Roel Punzalan

Historic Filipinotown's New Lights Illuminate L.A.'s Vibrant Filipino Community

Historic Filipinotown is getting a makeover this month with the unveiling of newly designed street lights. The project is part of an effort to improve pedestrian safety and highlight the neighborhood’s cultural heritage.

The pedestrian street lights will be officially unveiled at a ceremony in late October, but Angelenos can get a preview at the 25th annual Festival of Philippine Arts and Culture (FPAC) at Echo Park Lake on Oct. 8. Samples of the new light posts will be on display at the festival, which is one of several events taking place throughout Los Angeles and Southern California to commemorate Filipino-American History Month.

L.A. is home to the largest population of Filipino-Americans in the country, according to census figures. Despite the numbers, L.A. Public Works board member Joel Jacinto said many people remain unfamiliar with the city’s Filipino history.

“The neighborhood is called Historic Filipinotown because historically it holds a lot of Filipino assets including residents, organizations and activities,” said Jacinto. “The goal is to acknowledge and identify that there is something there, that it’s not just a name.”

Mural Gintong Kasaysayan, Gintong Pamana (A Glorious History, A Golden Legacy) depicts Filipino-American history in Unidad Park in L.A.'s Historic Filipinotown. The neighborhood will light up with newly designed street lights in October.
Mural Gintong Kasaysayan, Gintong Pamana (A Glorious History, A Golden Legacy) depicts Filipino-American history in Unidad Park in L.A.'s Historic Filipinotown. The neighborhood will light up with newly designed street lights in October.
Paola Mardo

Historic Filipinotown was officially designated by then–City Councilman Eric Garcetti in 2002. The neighborhood is also known as “HiFi,” a nickname Jacinto credits to Mayor Garcetti, who sponsored a streetscape master plan to revamp Historic Filipinotown during his tenure as District 13 councilman. The street light project is a major development from that plan.

“There are other aspects of the plan that have yet to be realized, but this street light project is in line with that dream and is a step in the right direction,” said Joselyn Geaga-Rosenthal, a Historic Filipinotown resident and community leader who served on the master plan committee.

The 54 pedestrian street lights will be located at bus stops along Temple Street from Robinson Street to Union Street. The light posts will feature designs selected through Project HiFi Highlight, a design competition held in March. Local artists created street light designs to reflect Filipino cultural themes: kapwa (shared humanity or togetherness), lakbay (journey) and kapayapaan (peace).

In May, three finalists were selected and their work was voted on by the public through an online survey. A committee of stakeholders including Geaga-Rosenthal and other Historic Filipinotown residents and community leaders took the public’s votes into consideration and chose Roel Punzalan as the winner.

A mockup of one of the light post designs by artist Roel Punzalan, reflecting the Filipino cultural theme of kappa (shared humanity or togetherness), shaped in the form of the sun found on the Philippine flag
A mockup of one of the light post designs by artist Roel Punzalan, reflecting the Filipino cultural theme of kappa (shared humanity or togetherness), shaped in the form of the sun found on the Philippine flag
Roel Punzalan

Punzalan, a product designer, said he is excited to see his designs come to life. While the themes of the competition were based on Filipino constructs, he said his designs reflect the constantly evolving demographics of Historic Filipinotown.

“It may have been mostly Filipinos in the past and a mix of cultures in the present, but we don’t know what’s going be there in the future,” said Punzalan. “The constant isn’t the type of culture, it’s the people, so all the (design) concepts are made of people. I hope everyone who sees them takes the time to find that part of the story.”

Filipinos began migrating to the United States as early as 1587 when a group arrived in Morro Bay on the Central California coast. The first significant wave of Filipino immigrants landed in the early 1900s when Filipino men immigrated to various parts of California as farm laborers.

This first wave of Filipinos, known as “manongs” or “uncles,” came to the United States in search of the American Dream but often were met with racism and antimiscegenation laws instead. In L.A., they banded together in “bachelor societies” and congregated in Little Manila, a downtown area now known as Little Tokyo.

Filipinos moved to the Bunker Hill area in the 1930s and 1940s, with many Filipino businesses centered around Figueroa and Temple. Women and families started arriving following the War Brides Act of 1946. New freeways and redevelopment projects pushed many Filipinos to the area now designated as Historic Filipinotown.

A dance rehearsal for Kayamanan ng Lahi Philippine Folk Arts at Search to Involve Pilipino Americans (SIPA), a nonprofit community center serving Historic Filipinotown since 1972; SIPA is located on Temple Street and Robinson Street, where newly designed street lights will light up in October.
A dance rehearsal for Kayamanan ng Lahi Philippine Folk Arts at Search to Involve Pilipino Americans (SIPA), a nonprofit community center serving Historic Filipinotown since 1972; SIPA is located on Temple Street and Robinson Street, where newly designed street lights will light up in October.
Paola Mardo

Though Historic Filipinotown has become home to many Latino families over the years, the neighborhood continues to serve as a central hub for Filipino culture and activity in L.A. Filipino nonprofit organizations continue to serve the community, among them Search to Involve Pilipino Americans (SIPA), which provides youth programs and services, and Pilipino Workers Center (PWC), which advocates for workers’ rights and runs the “Hidden HiFi” jeepney tour.

Locals and visitors frequent the neighborhood for Filipino restaurants such as Park’s Finest and the Filipino street-food truck Dollar Hits. Genever, a Filipino female-owned cocktail bar funded through Kickstarter, is set to open there soon.

“When I talk to young Filipino-Americans, there’s this joy that there’s a place called Historic Filipinotown. I mean, who’d think there was such a place?” said Geaga-Rosenthal. “It resonates with a lot of young people, and I think that’s enough reason to continue to preserve and improve the community and also reach out and build bridges across different cultures.”

The street light project is budgeted at $625,000, with funding secured by the Bureau of Street Lighting and Councilman Mitch O’Farrell of Council District 13. The Board of Public Works is overseeing the project. Joel Jacinto said other community projects are underway, including turning SIPA into mixed-use affordable housing for seniors and veterans and a sister river project between the L.A. River and the Philippines’ Pasig River.

The Historic Filipinotown street lights will be previewed at the 25th annual Festival of Philippine Arts and Culture (FPAC) at Echo Park Lake, 751 Echo Park Ave., on Sunday, Oct. 8. filamarts.org.

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