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A Blossoming Bohemia

Lured by good rents and a kicky nightlife, artsy types are moving to Koreatown. But low-income residents are being forced out.

January 20, 2002|GINA PICCALO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two and a half years ago, Jason Lucas, who had moved to Los Angeles from Ohio to pursue a career as a furniture designer, was looking for a place to live. He wanted a reasonably priced apartment with lots of space in which to craft his unusual pieces--tables and chairs suspended by cables from the ceiling. He checked out the artsy enclaves of Silverlake and Los Feliz but found them "a little too trendy."

Lucas, 26, ended up in Koreatown. He pays $1,050 a month for a one-bedroom apartment in a building called the DuBarry, one of many refurbished Art Deco-style apartment buildings in the bustling multi-ethnic neighborhood near downtown. It wasn't just the affordable rent that appealed to Lucas. Koreatown's diversity was a big selling point. "I would kill myself if I lived in the suburbs," he said.

Here, few signs advertise in English, most businesses cater to Korean and Central American tastes. Although street crime is a drawback and the population density rivals that of Manhattan, Lucas loves his neighborhood. And just a few months ago, his sister, 24, and his musician brother, 22, rented places nearby.

A new bohemia is just beginning to take root in Koreatown. Lured by the area's affordable rents and architecturally grand apartment buildings, the starving artist set is moving in and signs of gentrification are emerging. Rents in the area are climbing, in some buildings as much as 200% in three years. Two Starbucks and a Wal-Mart recently moved in. And beyond the vibrant Korean American nightlife, there is a young singles scene anchored by the Wiltern Theatre, a few Internet cafes and several low-profile bars with generous drinks and late-night hours.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Wednesday January 23, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Walgreens--An article on Koreatown that ran in Southern California Living on Jan. 20 incorrectly identified a store in the neighborhood as Wal-Mart. The store, on Vermont Avenue, is Walgreens.

With more than 100,000 residents and thousands more commuters occupying about 21/2 square miles, Koreatown is one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in the nation. Most of the area's residents are immigrants from Korea, Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua. In 1990, according to census figures, Koreatown's population was 27.5% Asian, 51.1% Latino, 11.2% white and 6.4% black. Ten years later, the breakdown was 29.9% Asian, 51.7% Latino, 6.6% white and 4.7% black. Roughly, its geographical boundaries are Beverly Boulevard on the north, San Marino Street on the south, Western Avenue on the west and Hoover Street on the east.

But while Koreatown's growing cachet may be good news for business owners who are struggling to keep the area commercially viable, many low-income families in Koreatown are being pushed out of a neighborhood that in recent years has offered immigrants a toehold in a new land. About three years ago, a handful of developers began to sniff out bargains with the area's Art Deco apartment buildings. That's when San Francisco developer Andrew Meieran of Albion Pacific and his partner, the Michigan-based real estate company Seligman Western Enterprises, bought 16 apartment buildings clustered around the Ambassador Hotel for $50 million. Since then, Meieran, who is passionate about preserving the area's signature architecture, has acquired 22 more. Some of the buildings had fallen into such disrepair that city officials were threatening to condemn them. Now, Meieran, 34, and his partners are renovating them slowly with hopes of drawing more young professionals to Koreatown.

In the process, Meieran admits that some low-income families have been displaced. As units are vacated, he refurbishes them and hikes the rents, typically out-pricing the tenants who had previously lived there. "We want a changing demographic," Meieran said. "It comes about entirely naturally. We don't do very heavy advertising." Instead, he said, he relies on word of mouth to attract new tenants.

That's how singer-songwriter Linda Mark found her place in Koreatown. A year ago, the 26-year-old Boston transplant moved to an old building on South Hobart Boulevard because she wanted a cheap apartment that wasn't one of the "new generic dentist office-looking buildings," she said. And she likes living "in a part of town where it's not all about money and looks."

She pays $500 a month for a studio apartment, utilities included. During the last year, her landlord has evicted troublesome tenants, repainted the units and decorated the place with plants. "The thing about this building is that there are a lot of creative types in here, and everyone has different careers, and they all kind of work with each other a bit," she said. One of her neighbors is a fashion designer and has helped Mark put together clothes for her performances.

The city's original Koreatown existed south of where it is today, spread along Jefferson Boulevard in the 1930s. But by the early 1970s, the population moved north to Olympic and Harvard boulevards after a large Korean market opened there. Signs designating that area Koreatown went up a few years later.

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