Koreatown: America's Hippest Neighborhood
Photo by W. B. Fontenot
Another episode of producer Tyrese Gibson's reality show K-Town is not so much being taped as it is going off with cameras rolling. Watching people get lit up as you remain sober is like trainspotting, except in this case the trains crash in slow motion. The YouTube series has often been described as the Asian Jersey Shore, and the cast of mostly Korean Americans rarely disappoints when it comes to high school drama, hair gel and hook-ups. Just add the vodkalike green-bottle alcohol known as soju and watch what happens.
During production at the Koreatown café Bohemian, the cast is earning its pay. "Mohawk" Steve Kim commands: "Everybody do shots if you're single."
Most of the dozen people at the table go bottom-up, and soju is spilled.
Jowe Lee, the show's BMW-driving player who calls himself "the prince of K-town," notes that it's way too early to be spilling rice wine: "We're only on round one!"
Drinking games ensue and, at one point, Mohawk and fellow cast member Joe Cha, a nightclub promoter, are challenged to kiss each other. Then it's two girls' turn: "Keep your eyes open," they're ordered as the others hoot and holler. More drinking is goaded on by a chant of "suck it, suck it, suck it!"
It's not even 10 p.m. yet. On a Sunday. This is how Koreatown rocks.
K-Town, which returns for a second cycle on YouTube's LOUD channel Nov. 28, has sparked renewed interest, often among Asian young people, in the rituals and bacchanalia of the YouTube series' biggest star, Koreatown itself.
Amid the worst American economy since the Great Depression, Koreatown has emerged as perhaps America's hippest new neighborhood. Its vitality has survived and even thrived, thanks to the emergence of a new pop culture spotlight (K-Town, "Gangnam Style," the Kogi taco truck), a residential hipster invasion, foodies' exploration of its bar eats, and the community's own evolution as a destination for non-Koreans. The nightlife scene has expanded to the point where some community boosters are calling for an official city "entertainment district" designation along the lines of Hollywood.
"Curiosity drew people into Koreatown," says Jimmy Han, co-owner of area hot spot Beer Belly, a gastropub that opened to rave reviews in May 2011. "I think it has a lot to do with how Food Network, the foodie culture, Yelp, and the celebrity chef thing have contributed to people's desire to try Korean food."
In K-Town, food rarely goes without drinking, and vice versa. Former L.A. Weekly food critic Jonathan Gold started to pique foodies' interest in Koreatown more than a decade ago. Since then, Korean-American chefs such as Kogi's Roy Choi and Father's Office's Sang Yoon have risen to national prominence. People often mention "the Yelp effect" when discussing the Koreatown nightlife revival, noting that soju cafés with menus completely in Korean started to be reviewed on the site — translated for non-Koreans— in about 2008.
"That's when things definitely shifted," K-Town co–executive producer Eugene Choi says. "You saw a lot of your non-Asians coming in."
The likes of Beer Belly, Biergarten and R Bar comprise some of the community's newer, more ethnically diverse nightlife destinations, none devoted to Koreatown's old-school, green-bottle drinking. While the area's three main, traditional clubs, Vibe, The Feria (formerly Velvet Room), and KarNak, remain from the last decade and beyond, a slew of newer and revamped spaces, including Gaam, S Bar and Blipsy Barcade now welcome more outsiders. Orchid, a club, restaurant and karaoke-room venue on West Sixth Street and South Oxford Avenue, hosts African-American parties and other events.
"For Beer Belly, I never particularly planned on catering to Koreans to experience and discover craft beer," says Han, who opened the restaurant on Western Avenue near Sixth Street, in the heart of the community, with his wife, Yume. "It was about anyone willing to try new beer and new food: Stop by Beer Belly before you go on your Koreatown crawl, and try some different beer and food and be a part of a discovery."
Korean-American youths have spread out to downtown and to Hollywood celebrity haunts. At the same time, Koreatown has seen an invasion of largely white hipsters priced out of bungalows and condos in Silver Lake and Echo Park. Some of them see the area as a new cultural frontier fueled by the search for cheap urban rent, much like Manhattan's Meatpacking District or London's Stoke Newington.
"I have a lot of white friends moving here," says K-Town's Jasmine Chang, from a table at café Gaam in Chapman Plaza. She grew up at 11th and Fedora streets with a sister, Christine, who is joining the cast this month. "Rent is definitely cheaper" than in neighborhoods her friends are abandoning.
Koreatown's ever-expanding boundaries generally include Olympic Boulevard to the south, Beverly Boulevard to the north, Crenshaw Boulevard to the west, and Hoover Street to the east. While Koreans dominate the bars, restaurants and dense commercial real estate along Wilshire Boulevard, Western Avenue and Olympic, 50 percent of its residents are Latino, and many of them arrived from El Salvador and the Mexican state Oaxaca. It's the birthplace of the reviled gang Mara Salvatrucha, which got its start at Seoul International Park on Olympic Boulevard in the 1980s. The Wilshire-Center Koreatown Neighborhood Council represents about 100,000 denizens, though the area bleeds beyond its borders. Median household income is only $27,483.
Koreatown's Asian population has grown from 27 percent in 2000 to 33 percent in 2010, according to U.S. Census data, and the non-Latino, white population has more than doubled, from 5 percent to 11.5 percent.
K-Town, the reality show, has rankled some within these borders as a crass depiction of what's really unfolding. "The biggest people against us are the Asian Americans," K-Town's Cha says.
Producers are very happy with the show's 10-episode opening cycle, however, telling L.A. Weekly it's attracted more than 70 percent of the traffic to YouTube's LOUD channel, part of Google's attempt to challenge television. (LOUD and K-Town are produced by Electus, the company founded by reality TV titan Ben Silverman.)
Katherine Yungmee Kim, author of Los Angeles's Koreatown, a history of the community, says the area's appeal goes beyond ethnic exoticism. Koreatown is a vital part of the city's historic core, a place where 80-year-old bars are bathed in the surreal because of Korean drinking traditions that emphasize respect and decorum.
"That hipster influx, from what I've seen, a lot of the people are going to kind of kitsch places, the Prince, Bobby London, HMS Bounty — places that have that exotic, this-is-so bizarre feel," she says. "You've got this throwback atmosphere with a full Korean menu. That juxtaposition is fascinating because it seems authentic."
Koreatown is being defined by key forces that aren't always in sync: Is it an Ellis Island–cum–Meatpacking District, with global trends breaking out and rents gradually edging sky-high? Is it a Chamber of Commerce fantasy of a throng of reality-show booze bistros fed by big spenders? Is it a community whose diverse population is beginning to stand up to absentee decision makers who shape it at City Hall? It's a healthy dose of all three.
"In the past the community was afraid of coming out of a shell," says Chang Lee, development chairman of the Korean American Chamber of Commerce. "I don't think we're that community anymore. We want to be involved and engaging."
What some see as L.A.'s version of Manhattan — vertical, dense, urbane and exotic — started humbly enough. Kim's Los Angeles's Koreatown notes that the first Koreans settled on Los Angeles' Bunker Hill in about 1900. Despite the popularized history of the 1992 riots, which painted Korean merchants in South L.A. as carpetbaggers, Koreans settled in South L.A., along Jefferson Boulevard between Vermont and Normandie avenues, in the 1930s.
Yu Eui-Young's 1985 study "Koreatown Los Angeles: Emergence of a New Inner-City Ethnic Community" notes that by the end of that decade Koreans had started to move north to Adams Boulevard.
Some of what is now Koreatown initially locked out minorities by using racial covenants. When they expired after World War II, Japanese families began to move in along the Crenshaw corridor. By the mid 1960s, Jewish families were moving west, and Koreans were home.
"The legend is that the Olympic market opened by Lee Hui Duk in 1969 at the corner of Olympic Boulevard and Hobart Street was the origin of the new Koreatown," writes Eui-Young in his 1985 paper.
Bars, clubs and cafés weren't far behind, since Korean business is often conducted in banquettes over bottles of soju or Crown Royal. Says one Koreatown oldster, "Men getting together with buddies at drinking places after work is an important part of Korean culture. ... I remember going to one of those places on Eighth Street near Vermont with my businessmen friends in the early 1970s."
In the wake of the 1992 riots, which spread north from South L.A. and ravaged Koreatown with looting, storefront-crashing and arson, many Koreans joined the tens of thousands of black residents who fled L.A. for the suburbs. Newly arrived Korean immigrants who before had seen the community as a landing spot instead settled in Orange County and the San Gabriel Valley. But nightlife filled the burned-out heart of Koreatown.
From that era emerged a "dark side" in vice-friendly Koreatown, home of the speakeasy, underage drinking and after-hours partying, says rapper Dumfoundead, aka Jonathan Park, a 20-something born and raised among Central Americans and Koreans in K-Town. He says there are escorts, rave drugs, school-night after-hours festivities and, of course, people who drink "every fucking night. ... The soju intake of Koreatown is absolutely crazy," he says. "Now non-Koreans are getting involved."
The ZIP codes covering Koreatown — 90004, 90005, 90006, 90010 and 90020 — contain 365 drink-serving bars, clubs and restaurants and 118 stores selling alcohol, according to state Alcoholic Beverage Control data. At least 66 "café entertainment" and dance hall permits have also been granted by the L.A. Police Commission.
"There are a lot of cool bars you can only access with a Korean friend," says rapper Park. "You go to those places and the menus are still in Korean. You can try to bring non-Koreans, but they're very exclusive."
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K-Town and its stars take you inside all that. Says "Mohawk" Steve Kim, "It's a ride into Asian-American life that hasn't been experienced before."
The ritual of traditional Korean drinking involves two-handed soju service, the younger person serving the older. Park finds something endearing in the survival of this "subculture" — the idea that younger Korean Americans, some of whom barely know a word of Korean, are not only connecting with their roots but exposing non-Korean friends to their heritage.
"That's a very traditional thing that still goes on, and it trips me out," he says.
Chang Lee, of the Korean American Chamber of Commerce, celebrates the nightlife and says he's lobbying the Los Angeles City Council to give Koreatown the same "entertainment district" designation that has been a part of Hollywood's amazing evolution from a litter-strewn, dowdy street-drug mecca to a weekend-packed celebrity playground.
"What we're trying to promote is what is unique about our community," Lee says. "One of the things we boast about is our cultural experience in the entertainment area. We have more karaoke places than any other community in L.A."
Yet Yusef Robb, spokesman for City Councilmember Eric Garcetti, who represents one chunk of the K-Town community, indicates his boss isn't entirely on board with duplicating the kind of nightlife magnet Garcetti championed in Hollywood. Amidst Hollywood's eat-and-drink transformation, the U.S. Census shows, Hollywood's neighborhoods lost 12,000 residents between 2000 and 2010, an unexpected shock to many, including city planners, and the largest population drop by far in Los Angeles' many distinct mega-neighborhoods.
"A robust nightlife is good for the economy," Robb says. "But too many nightspots in a neighborhood can create dead spots during the day. We are always seeking to facilitate a careful balance that also addresses noise, public safety and other resident concerns."
Richard Kim, an assistant L.A. city attorney and board member on the Wilshire Center-Koreatown Neighborhood Council, says many bar and club applicants have come to the body lately for its blessing. But, he says, they often lie, promising a restaurant when what they're really planning is a drinking "café." He says City Hall needs to encourage nightlife development while also addressing quality of life. "They need to create jobs and be concerned about safety at the same time," Kim says. "It's a balancing act."
Koreatown is lined with high-value, mostly Korean-owned commercial property along Wilshire, Western and Olympic boulevards. But Korean immigrants who built the area's retail district are now retiring, giving way to their sons and daughters — born stateside and raised with whites, Latinos and blacks.
This second-generation, which never moved far from home, is bolstered by young Korean professionals not necessarily raised in the area, who are moving into new condos and high-rises such as the (half-empty) Solair building on Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue and the decidedly urbane Wilshire Vermont Station Apartments above a Metro subway stop, a Nine West shoe store and a deli. Another building nearby, The Vermont, broke ground this spring.
"What you're having is the second generation of Korean-American kids who are college-age and building a very effective bridge, bringing their non-Korean friends into Koreatown," says Edward J.W. Park, director of the Asian Pacific American Studies Program at Loyola Marymount University. "The pop influence of the Korean taco truck and the 'Gangnam Style' video means interest in Korea has been really high from non-Koreans. And it's not just white kids coming into Koreatown."
That goes both ways. The Belasco, a vintage theater that reopened as a 40,000-square-foot dance club last year, is perhaps Koreatown's biggest spot of the moment — even if it's to the east, in downtown Los Angeles. Its Saturday night parties were taken over in March by a crew that includes K-Town's Joe Cha. But it's open to all. "There's eye candy all around," promises Martin Park, co-promoter of the venue's "Premiere Saturdays."
At the same time, a new wave of Korean visitors has been cycling through Los Angeles, encouraged by a 2008 visa-waiver program that requires only passports for South Koreans, who can then legally stay up to 90 days. "The number of South Korean tourists coming to the United States has sort of gone through the roof," says Loyola Marymount's Park.
Young South Koreans with longer-term student visas also flock to K-Town, promising their parents they'll attend one of its numerous English schools as a prelude to a four-year degree. Wink, wink.
"They're supposedly here to study — but they're just here to party," says rapper Park. He sees the Korean students out until 6 a.m. and asks himself, "Do these motherfuckers have jobs?"
L.A. Weekly caught up with Jonathan Park at one of his favorite after-work spots, Beer Belly, just around the corner from his hip-hop studio. He's excited by what he sees as a Koreatown cultural awakening flavored by its Korean and Salvadoran heritage.
Born in Argentina but brought here as a toddler, Park's rap career was a product of the legendary Project Blowed events and Asian-American talent showcases like Kollaboration, which helped spawn the likes of Far East Movement (of "Like a G6" fame).
Park has a "Koreatown" tattoo across his chest and can recite off the top of his head some of Korean L.A.'s biggest pop culture successes, including Ben Baller, the hip-hop jeweler who has a reality show alongside the K-Town crew; electronic music producer Nosaj Thing; Bobby Hundreds of streetwear label The Hundreds; David Choe, the artist who painted Facebook's Silicon Valley offices in exchange for future Facebook stock (for a short time estimated to be worth a half-billion dollars right after its initial public offering) instead of $60,000 cash; and K-Town co–executive producer Eddie Kim, a spoken-word artist who rose through the same talent circuit as Park.
"There's involvement of Koreans in the culture of arts and music outside of Koreatown," Park says. "I would definitely love this community to be more than just drinking — or money."
To that end, Kollaboration founder and comedian Paul Kim is starting an open-mic comedy night on Thursdays at King of New York Pizza, a Korean-owned restaurant on South Western Avenue and West Third Street, starting Dec. 6.
Still, some in Koreatown have long been concerned that there's too much bright-lights-drunk-city and not enough educational and cultural activities for the young people growing up in one of the densest urban areas west of the Mississippi River, a concrete jungle of mostly aging, low- to mid-rise apartment blocks where parks are rare and schools are tough.
"There isn't a lot of support for Koreatown youth," says Park. "There's no arts and music programs. That kind of worries me. I wish there was more for them than being able to get into bars at 19."
What some celebrate as nightlife, others see as a cancer.
One-third of respondents to an informal Koreatown survey by the National Asian Pacific American Families Against Substance Abuse in 2006 admitted to drinking and driving. The study noted that Koreans see themselves as "number one" among Asian groups who drink, and that alcohol abuse is seen as normal, even in business situations. Especially in business situations.
"There are a lot of Mad Men references here," says author Kim, referring to the AMC show about hard-drinking salesmen of 1960s Madison Avenue. "After work, you're required to go out and drink with your bosses. There is the whole Confucian tradition of obeying elders, so you're required. People are drinking soju at lunch."
The Korean Youth and Community Center was founded in 1975 and aims to provide a place for disadvantaged immigrant youth to participate in after-school activities and make the transition to American life. Christine Lee, KYCC's youth services manager, says alcohol abuse among teens is a huge problem in the community, thanks to the sheer number of alcohol establishments and the permissive culture.
"After South L.A.," she says, "Koreatown has the second-highest concentration of alcohol vendors."
As district administrator for the state of California's Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control in Los Angeles, Will Salao has policed Koreatown's businesses and restaurants for 15 years. He keeps busy: "Sales of alcoholic beverages without a license, sales after hours, hostesses or bar girls, where females sit with customers and solicit alcoholic beverages, and restaurants operating as a nightclub."
You would think this might put Los Angeles city leaders on their toes. But of the three City Council offices representing the politically fractured community (whose rising, younger leaders recently began demanding to be represented by a single City Council district), only Councilman Eric Garcetti responded to the Weekly with anything substantive.
By contrast, Edward Johnson, spokesman for City Council President Herb Wesson, who represents the most Koreatown real estate of any councilman, claimed Wesson's office has no say in the number of alcohol establishments. "The state of California has jurisdiction over alcohol licenses," he insisted. "The city does not."
Not quite the whole story. The city grants "conditional-use permits" to establishments that serve or sell alcohol. Powerful L.A. City Council members who have represented Koreatown over the years have been instrumental in Koreatown's evolution as a drinking destination.
"In Koreatown, it feels like there's this sort of neglect," says Park, of Loyola Marymount. "Koreatown activists — none of them is saying, 'We need more bars.' What they're calling for is greater attentiveness from politicians that Koreatown is not just a commercial strip but a place where people are raising their families."
It's perhaps telling that not until 2010 did the city designate Koreatown as an actual community — one bounded roughly by Vermont Avenue and Western Avenue on the east and west and Third Street and Olympic Boulevard on the north and south.
Within those official street boundaries, it's clear, the city fathers downtown are acceding to a live-and-let-live vibe, and maybe even relinquishing control.
Richard Kim of the neighborhood council says nightlife denizens and late-closing venue owners are targeted for street robberies and even rapes. According to LAPD, murder in the department's Olympic Division is up a whopping 225 percent, rape is up 38 percent and assaults are up 16 percent compared to 2010. "It appears that there has been a lot of sexual assaults, robberies and burglaries," Kim says. "We're really concerned about that."
In fact, stabbings and gang fights were more commonplace in Koreatown 10 years ago, when Chinese guys would bar-hop, look for girls and clash with local Asian gangs that are now growing extinct. Gangs and hard drugs are rare in K-Town nightlife these days. But some believe crime has gone underground, with a number of unlucky business owners operating on the turf of the mighty Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street gangs, getting "taxed," or shaken down.
On a recent fall night, an illegal speakeasy smack-dab in the middle of Koreatown was packed with people, except the establishment wasn't Korean. It was in a Spanish-speaking home, populated by fresh-from-the-border immigrant workers and bar girls in every room, eyes tuned to soccer games and telenovelas on the TV screens. Canned beer was just a few bucks.
Another weeknight and another crowd — this time an after-hours Korean restaurant off Wilshire. Beer came in plastic cups and sweet, milk-white makgeolli was served humbly in ceramic bowls. A trio of skinny, long-legged girls in one of the wood-lined, earthy booths appeared to be underage, but a patron insisted, as Koreans often do, that Korean women appear far younger than they are. It was 4 a.m., and the girls remained.
A cottage industry based on the rituals of the dark in K-Town has developed, from bandit cabs whose numbers you'll find on disposable lighters given away at bars, to roving hostesses who freelance at karaoke spots, pouring alcohol and feeding grapes to men as if they were Roman gods. In Korean markets, shelves are lined with herbal-infused hangover beverages.
There's even a dry club, Beverly Boulevard's Gospel House Cafe, dedicated to spiritual music and, apparently, being spiritually sober.
In episode 2 of K-Town, the "rounds of partying" are exposed: 1) il-cha, explained as "happy hour"; 2) ee-cha ("food and drinks"); 3) sam-cha ("pre-game"); and 4) sa-cha ("the main party"). This explains why some Koreans can be such pros, even at school-night partying, and why, by 10 p.m., you can see people completely torn up in Koreatown.
Rapper Park says this ritual comes directly from Korea and proves why L.A.'s immigrants are the champions of the bar scene. The newcomers "are the craziest drinkers of any type of Korean," he says. "No one can hang with them."
"Booking," where women are brought to men's tables for free drinks and possible courtship, still happens at clubs like Vibe and KarNak, but it seems almost juvenile in the new cocktail era. In episode 5 of K-Town, Scarlet Chan, an alleged ex-stripper, says, "Booking is for guys with no game."
There's still an insular side to the community — bars that are said to be "closed" when non-Koreans come knocking, after-hours karaoke spots accessible only to those who come with Korean speakers, hole-in-the-wall cafés with menus only in Korean. K-Town executive producer Mike Le, who's Vietnamese American, says it would have been impossible to shoot the show at genuine Koreatown locations without his Korean-American production partners. Bar owners, he says, "would rather not sign a release," or anything else for that matter.
Yet K-Town has drawn criticism from Asians for exposing the risky adventures and close-to-the-vest traditions of Koreatown nightlife. The show racked up 1.1 million views for its premiere episode and landed an opening ad from Chanel that features Brad Pitt. Even as it has captured the Michael Mann (Collateral) ambience of L.A.'s core, a typical show focuses on drinking and a subsequent social meltdown among friends and ex-lovers.
Episode 3 is a classic in which Violet Kim, who has dated Jowe Lee in the past, gets into it with a girl he was flirting with at S Bar. Kim tosses a drink at the back of her head and gets slapped in return. The girl, Janie, who has her own YouTube response to the fracas, retorts with a drink of her own, but it spills on Scarlet Chan, the tall, ex-stripper, who responds with a solid push. Kim and Janie trade fashion insults, with Kim accusing Janie of wearing Steve Madden (how déclassé), and Janie saying, "Asian bitches are supposed to be skinny, you fat bitch."
Commenters on YouTube were just as cruel to Kim, who has normal American curves. Nonetheless, in cycle two of the show, she'll reappear having lost lots of weight.
And they say these shows are not about "reality."
Online, people are downright mean to the cast, hacking out YouTube comments like this: "These people are a BAD representation of Korean people and Korean culture. You should make friends with traditional Korean people and really learn about Korean society and the culture. Koreans are beautiful people and you would learn a lot. These people here are the typical American bitches/douches/tools we see in society today. Only difference is ... they are Korean. This is really no different from Jersey Shore."
Producer Le notes an irony here — that fans of the web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl have come to the defense of the K-Town cast. Folks who support the right of an African-American girl to be outwardly smart and geeky, he says, are supporting the right of Asian Americans to be mindless party people. He says they're "defending the cool Asians!"
"We're not saying we're going to be the model minority," says "Mohawk" Steve Kim.
The show's backers say with some confidence that it's headed for television soon, and that editors are recutting the 12-minute episodes to fit the 22-minute holes required by networks. "We're guns ablaze and ready for TV," Tyrese Gibson says.
Koreatown, he declares, is "going global."