North Los Angeles
An Introduction to North Los Angeles
For hundreds of years the region we will call North L.A. in this book has been the historic core of Los Angeles. When the Tongva, the local indigenous people, dominated the region, one of their largest settlements was Yang-Na (near the current L.A. City Hall). Spanish and Mexican settlers also concentrated nearby, at the plaza. In the U.S. period, the central business district and political infrastructure, too, developed in this area. Starting in the 1900s, however, following the rail, Los Angeles grew in a leapfrog fashion, with multiple urban centers spread across the landscape. Since then, many observers have claimed that L.A. has no "real" downtown. This claim, however, is untrue. This part of the metropolis continues to be crucially important in structuring relationships of power and inequality that affect life not only here but also across the entire Los Angeles metropolitan area and beyond.
The linked processes of urban development, displacement, and resistance have fundamentally shaped life and landscape in North L.A. These dynamics began when Yang-Na was sold to a German investor who evicted the native residents. During the twentieth century, city leaders and capitalists consistently tried to lure people and investors downtown through a range of cultural, political, and economic inducements. Often they used eminent domain and other techniques to eradicate "blighted" areas (and their inhabitants), thereby making way for development projects. Episodes of displacement include the eviction of Chinese residents from Chinatown in the early 1930s to accommodate Union Station; the forced evacuation of Japanese Americans from Little Tokyo during World War II; the eviction of Mexican residents from Chavez Ravine in the early 1950s to acquire land for public housing that was never constructed, land on which Dodger Stadium was later built; and the complete destruction of Bunker Hill, beginning in the 1950s and continuing in the present (thus constituting the longest redevelopment project in L.A. history), to make way for upscale office buildings as well as a music and performance complex intended, according to city boosters, to turn Los Angeles into a "world class city."
Nowadays, it is in North L.A. that the most concrete efforts to reinvent the central city as an engine of growth, an investment opportunity, and a playground for the rich and upwardly mobile are occurring; all of these processes are part of a neoliberal economic regime that rests on largely unregulated (and therefore often exploitative) private market forces to generate urban growth and provide services. The development projects that have been changing the southern edge of downtown in recent years-for example, the Staples Center, the L.A. Live entertainment complex, and countless loft apartments-continue the linked trends of urban development and displacement into the twenty-first century. Although the area is experiencing higher and higher densities, there is less and less space for the poor and working class, who struggle to make a life amid the visions and decisions of the metropolis's political and social elite. These conflicts are apparent in the area's contemporary landscapes. Here are the governmental buildings and informal social settings where political and economic leaders plan the region's future. The sleek, postmodern skyscrapers where they work cast a shadow on tenement buildings owned by absentee landlords who refuse to make repairs while anxiously awaiting the condemnation of their properties for urban redevelopment. Garment factories-cum-sweatshops, which constitute a major part of L.A.'s manufacturing economy, are clustered in downtown industrial buildings, discreet except for the telltale clatter of sewing machines emanating from small windows. Skid Row and Pershing Square, two (forced) gathering places of the homeless, are also in this area.
Yet the tradition of resistance to displacement and exploitation is as strong and old in this part of the city as the history of urban development. This region's neighborhoods have long been a cultural and political crossroads, where people from different backgrounds have converged, shared, and created new ideas and movements. Some of the region's most vital and groundbreaking progressive social movements were formed in North L.A.'s neighborhoods, often led by immigrants and oriented to the needs and demands of the working class and poor. Among other things, a revitalized labor movement, led by Justice for Janitors and the former Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union, has demanded workers' right to unionize and to be paid a living wage; the Bus Riders Union has mobilized for an efficient, clean, and affordable mass transit system; and immigrants, homeless people, and LGBT people have organized against harassment and police brutality. Indeed, the very diversity of North L.A., as well as the leftist traditions that have developed within it, have made this part of the city particularly attractive to all kinds of marginalized people. Notably, in this part of the city there has always been a large cluster of sites important to LGBT people, who have found in the bookstores, bars, and clubs a safe place for the expression of their identities and the formation of queer communities. In these same places, people have often developed politicized gay identities and worked collectively for sexual justice. Through all of these struggles, marginalized people have consistently demanded their "right to the city" while articulating alternative visions of urban life and community that we find inspiring.
As any Angeleno knows, there is no such place actually called "North L.A." Instead, mainstream tour guides and other purveyors of cultural representation, as well as many inhabitants, identify and celebrate the area's distinct neighborhoods associated with past and present immigrant ethnic groups-Koreatown, Thai Town, Little Tokyo, Chinatown, the Greek-Byzantine Corridor, Olvera Street-oftenpresenting these neighborhoods as worthwhile places to consume food, art, and other cultural artifacts of "exotic" people and distant lands. Absent a structural analysis, such patterns of geographic representation feed into dominant ideologies of immigrant upward mobility, including the "model minority" myth, while pathologizing Black people and the poor. Furthermore, such representations reinforce damaging stereotypes of immigrants (particularly Asians) as "perpetually foreign." Since one of our goals in the People's Guide is to encourage reflection on the power of place-names and the ideological "work" they do, we felt it was useful to name this broad area "North L.A.," partly in recognition of the shared structural and ideological processes that have shaped all of these neighborhoods precisely because of their immigrant and ethnic origins, and partly as a response to the highly politicized and racialized place-name "South L.A.," which glosses over and ignores the distinctiveness of individual neighborhoods as well as the diversity of the people who live there.
The other reason we felt the need to name this collection of places in broader terms is the tremendous influence this area has on the larger metropolitan region. This is where the power of the state-local and national-is wielded: L.A. City Hall, L.A. County Hall of Administration, and numerous federal buildings, courthouses, and jails are located in this sector. In addition, many corporations and key cultural and political institutions have their headquarters here. And just as power is not distributed equally among people, the same is true of places. North L.A. exercises a disproportionate influence over the entire region. In sum, it is here where the aspirations of the city's power brokers meet and collide most visibly with its laborers, poor, and homeless.
North Los Angeles Sites
1.1 Biddy Mason Park
333 S. Spring St., Los Angeles 90013 (between W. 3rd St. and W. 4th St.)
Bridget "Biddy" Mason was born a slave in Georgia in 1818. In 1836, she was purchased by Robert and Rebecca Smith, who later became Mormons and moved to Utah. In 1851, the Smiths relocated to San Bernardino, California, to start a new Mormon community. Fortunately for Mason, California had been admitted to the union as a free state in 1850. Technically speaking, this meant that all the Smith slaves were free. However, a few years later, when Mason's owner tried to convince her and the other slaves that moving to Texas-a slave state-would not imperil their freedom, she sought assistance from free African Americans. A lawsuit ensued, and the judge affirmed that Mason was a free person. The ruling was just in time, because the very next year, in 1857, the Dred Scott decision would have affirmed her status as property.
Mason was a skilled midwife, and as a free woman, she invested all her savings in real estate, beginning with her first house at 331 Spring Street. Her home eventually became the site of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, which she helped found, as well as Los Angeles' first child care center. Mason used much of her wealth to assist other African Americans, particularly recent arrivals, and the poor of all races. Mason died in 1891 and is buried in Evergreen Cemetery.
Biddy Mason Park features a mural dedicated to Mason and a time line tracing key events in her life. The park itself was developed in 1989 as part of a project called The Power of Place, spearheaded by Dolores Hayden, which was an effort to begin documenting and preserving important sites in Los Angeles that were not associated with great white men and their buildings.
Personal reflection by Dolores Hayden, urban historian and author of The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History
Biddy Mason's life and work inspired many Los Angeles residents in the nineteenth century. Researching and writing her story in the 1980s, presenting a public history workshop about her, and organizing the subsequent artists' projects all provided a strong focus for the downtown itinerary of The Power of Place, which I based on the lives of working women, men, and children. Ultimately my 1995 book, The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History, brought Biddy Mason's life to people far from Southern California as part of a commitment to urban history. More than two decades later, the project lives on in many forms and many places.
Nearby Site of Interest
304 S. Broadway, Los Angeles 90013 (213) 626-1893
Architecturally significant office building designed by George Wyman and built in 1893. Featured in many films, including Blade Runner. Visitors welcome.
Favorite Neighborhood Restaurants
130 W. Bruno St., Los Angeles 90012 (213) 617-0380 (homegirlcafe.org and www.homeboy-industries.org)
A project of Father Greg Boyle's Homeboy Industries, which provides youth with an alternative to gangs, the Homegirl Café is staffed by young women who receive training in the food service industry. Boasting "Latina flavors with a contemporary twist," the café's menu includes roasted pineapple guacamole and carne asada tacos with peanut chipotle sauce. Recipes are made with ingredients grown in Homegirl's own organic garden.
Philippe's the Original
1001 N. Alameda St., Los Angeles 90012 (213) 628-3781 (www.philippes.com)
Established in 1908, Philippe's is an L.A. landmark and the original home of the French-dip sandwich, which remains the house specialty.
1.2 Black Cat Bar
3909 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles 90029 (between Sanborn Ave. and Hyperion Ave.)
In 1967, a police conflict at the Black Cat Bar led to Los Angeles' first known public protest for LGBT rights-two years before New York's better-known Stonewall Riot. A few minutes into New Year's Day 1967, after seeing customers kiss at midnight, undercover LAPD officers began beating patrons of two gay bars on Sunset Boulevard. Raiding first the Black Cat and then New Faces, police severely injured several people and arrested sixteen (for more on police abuse of LGBT folk, see entry 1.28 Pershing Square). Officers charged thirteen people with lewd conduct, two with drunkenness, and one with assault on an officer. Six weeks later, on February 11, approximately 200 people gathered in front of the Black Cat to protest police harassment of queer people. The event helped to mark Silver Lake as a gay neighborhood and establish connections between the emerging gay liberation movement and other radical movements at the time, including the antiwar, Black liberation, and Chicana/o movements. It was coordinated to coincide with similar protests planned in Watts by African American activists, in East Los Angeles and Pacoima by Chicana/o activists, and in Venice and on the Sunset Strip by hippies. Collectively, these protests challenged police abuse and drew links between racial and sexual oppression and the development of radical activism. Unfortunately, the Black Cat's proposed alliances between Black, Chicana/o, and gay liberation implicitly designated "gay" as white. Subsequently, neighborhood activists attempted to counter this assumption, for example by organizing the Sunset Junction street festival and forming Gay and Lesbian Latinos Unidos. This address is currently the site of Le Barcito, a gay bar. (Courtesy of Emily Hobson)
Nearby Site of Interest
Metropolitan Community Church
4953 Franklin Ave., Los Angeles 90027 (323) 669-3434 (www.mccla.org)
The founding MCC church, which explicitly welcomes LGBT people.
Favorite Neighborhood Restaurants
Alegria on Sunset
3510 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles 90026 (323) 913-1422 (www.alegriaonsunset.com)
Popular Mexican restaurant in a Silver Lake strip mall. Try the dobladitas de mole (corn tortillas folded around melted cheese and smothered in rich mole sauce) or pollo en mole.
2900 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles 90026 (323) 661-8391
Cuban bakery. Customer favorites include fresh-pressed café con leche and guava cheese pie.
To Learn More
Moira Kenney, Mapping Gay L.A.: The Intersection of Place and Politics (Temple University Press, 2001).
1.3 Bus Riders Union and Labor/Community Strategy Center
3780 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1200, Los Angeles 90010 (at Western Avenue) (213) 387-2800 (www.thestrategycenter.org)
Despite Los Angeles' reputation as an autopia, it also has the largest mass transit system in the United States and therefore has become a prime site for struggles over transit equity. During the 1980s and 1990s, the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) became locked in a fierce battle over how best to meet the city's public transportation needs-should it expand and empower its old, run-down bus fleet, or build a new light rail system? Political and transit leaders clearly favored rail, and their decisions to fund massive, expensive light rail projects that catered to suburbanites ignited protests among working-class bus riders, who saw the issue as a matter of transportation equity. At the time, 88 percent of Los Angeles bus riders were people of color, more than 50 percent had annual family incomes under $12,000, and 57 percent were women. Although buses carried 94 percent of the system's ridership, they received only 30 percent of MTA subsidies. Conversely, MTA rail projects served only about 6 percent of all riders (a disproportionate percentage of whom were white), but received more than 70 percent of public transit dollars.
The Bus Riders Union (BRU), a project of the Labor/Community Strategy Center, emerged in the early 1990s to challenge these conditions (for more on the origins of the Labor/Community Strategy Center, see entry 6.4 General Motors Van Nuys). The BRU is a good example of what has been called the "new organizing" in Los Angeles. Unlike traditional labor unions that organize workers within a specific workplace or industry, the Bus Riders Union organizes literally on the city's buses, where a broad spectrum of the working class converges daily. The Bus Riders Union embraces an explicitly multicultural, multilingual approach, bringing together Black, white, Latina/o, and Asian (especially Korean) transit users. The BRU recognizes that, despite their ethnic, linguistic, and national differences, bus riders are linked by their dependence on a public transit system that is inadequate, undependable, and expensive.
Pairing up with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the BRU charged the MTA with establishing a separate and unequal mass transit system in violation of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits agencies that receive federal funds from spending those funds in a racially discriminatory way. In 1996, the BRU won a consent decree that obligated the MTA to reduce overcrowding, maintain equitable fares, expand bus service, replace old diesel buses with cleaner ones, and generate a plan to dismantle the city's two-tier system of transit segregation. During the next ten years, implementation of the decree was uneven and the BRU had to fight the MTA at every step. The consent decree was not renewed when it expired in 2006, even though the MTA had not carried out the court's mandates. However, the BRU has continued its organizing work on the buses, leading people in resisting the MTA's persistent proposals to cut bus service and increase fares even while it approves millions of dollars for light rail. The BRU is now the nation's largest grassroots mass transit advocacy group and has been a model for transit organizing work in other cities. The Labor/Community Strategy Center and the BRU are housed in the Wiltern Theatre, a beautiful art deco concert venue.
Personal reflection by Grace Summers, BRU member
Early in 1997 ... I read about a hearing that involved some [bus] lines I used. I didn't make it to the meeting, so I called the MTA headquarters. ... And after three phone calls netted no one who would speak to me, I [called] the Bus Riders Union.... I got ... a hearty greeting from Della Bonner, who told me that I had a right to good public transportation. She gave me a summary of the hearing in question, ... and [I] felt great goodwill for this Bus Riders Union.
Meetings were in two languages-three if you count the food-and we who spoke only English were properly humbled by the experience of listening through headsets to the simultaneous translations from Spanish.
My job at the time was as a substitute aide in the Burbank Schools. I could take a day off any time I wished. Counting standees on buses sounded constructive. I donated my Tuesdays to standing at the corner of San Fernando Road and Fletcher from 6 to 9 A.M. and 3 to 6 P.M. I knew this was a check on whether the MTA was meeting its agreement for the consent decree. I felt useful.
Nearby Sites of Interest
Petersen Automotive Museum
6060 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles 90036 (323) 930-2277 (www.petersen.org/)
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles 90036 (323) 857-6000 (www.lacma.org)
Architecture and Design Museum
6032 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles 90036 (323) 932-9393 (www.aplusd.org)
La Brea Tar Pits/Page Museum
5801 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles 90036 (323) 934-7243 (www.tarpits.org)
Famous fossil collection preserved in tar.
Ambassador Hotel (former)
3400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles 90010
The Ambassador was a famous Los Angeles hotel and the site of Robert F. Kennedy's assassination. The Los Angeles Unified School District acquired the land and razed the hotel in 2006-despite the fierce opposition of preservationists. The Robert F. Kennedy Inspiration Park and Community Schools now occupy the space.
Favorite Neighborhood Restaurants
Papa Cristo's Taverna
2771 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles 90006 (323) 737-2970 (www.papacristos.com)
Family-owned Greek restaurant and market. Try the roasted lamb-and-feta sandwich, or take some fresh-baked spanakopita and baba ghanoush to go. Their baklava is considered to be among the best in the city.
Ma Dang Gook Soo
869 S. Western Ave., Suite 1, Los Angeles 90005 (213) 487-6008
Korean restaurant specializing in noodles. Customer favorites include the chicken noodle soup with hand-cut noodles and mountain vegetable bibimbap. The chilled noodles in soybean broth is a refreshing meal on a hot day.
To Learn More
Drop in to the Labor/Community Strategy Center.
Check out the film Bus Rider's Union, directed by Haskell Wexler (1996).
Eric Mann, L.A.'s Lethal Air (Labor/Community Strategy Center, 1991).
1.4 Caballeros de Dimas-Alang and Philippines Review
126-128 Astronaut Onizuka St., Los Angeles 90012 (between E. 1st St. and E. 2nd St.)
This address on Onizuka Street was once home to the offices of the Caballeros de Dimas-Alang, a Pilipino fraternal order, and the organization's newspaper, the Philippines Review. The building was a centerpiece of a thriving Pilipina/o immigrant community known as Little Manila during the 1920s and 1930s. The district, which housed restaurants, barbershops, tailors, and boardinghouses, was roughly bounded by San Pedro Street on the east, Sixth Street on the south, Figueroa Avenue on the west, and Sunset Boulevard on the north. These businesses catered to an almost exclusively male population of migratory Pilipino agricultural workers who traversed the Pacific Coast from Seattle to San Diego, as well as a much smaller population of urban Pilipina/o domestic workers and students.
Because the Philippines was a colony of the United States, Pilipina/o migrants were not subject to the immigration restrictions that excluded most other Asian immigrant groups during this period, and they could enter the United States freely. However, like other Asians, they were considered "aliens ineligible for citizenship" and so were unable to own property, apply for naturalized citizenship, or live outside the city's central districts. Although the neighborhood was formed largely through exclusion and restriction, Little Manila nonetheless thrived as a multiracial center of working-class recreation