Jane Martin came all the way from Texas to shop along this four-block avenue of restaurants and stores featuring Indian saris, spices and sweets on Pioneer Boulevard in downtown Artesia. By midday during a visit this week, Martin and her two cousins had already eaten an Indian lunch, purchased Indian fabric and were hunting for Indian soaps to give as Christmas presents.
Even in Houston, Martin said, this area of southeast Los Angeles County is known as Little India.
Maybe so, but it won't be called that on freeway signs scheduled to be placed soon on the 91 Freeway. After years of controversy, the Artesia City Council has directed Caltrans to designate the area as the Artesia International and Cultural Shopping District.
Council members say their decision is meant to embrace all ethnicities in their downtown area, which also includes Chinese seafood markets, Vietnamese restaurants, Korean beauty salons and a historic Portuguese cultural center.
"How can we sell ourselves short by designating one ethnic identity, when we have such diversity in our city?" Councilwoman Sally Flowers asked. "We're here to serve everyone."
Many Indian merchants, however, take a different view.
"It won't serve anyone's purpose," said Dave Kerai, owner of Pioneer Cash & Carry market, who regards the council's chosen moniker as clumsy and bland. "No one will be happy."
The Artesia dispute illustrates a classic Southern California struggle over how to negotiate competing claims to a neighborhood's ethnic identity as it shifts over time. This polyglot region boasts "little" or "town" designations for almost every major ethnic group represented, including Chinatown, Little Tokyo, Little Saigon, Koreatown, Historic Filipinotown, Little Armenia, Little Ethiopia, Thaitown, Little Phnom Penh, Little Tehran and Little Arabia.
Sometimes, neighborhood transitions are smooth. In Los Angeles, for instance, there was "not a peep" of protest over a City Council decision three years ago to designate a historically Jewish stretch of Fairfax Avenue as Little Ethiopia, according to Avak Keotahian, a city legislative analyst. Nor were there objections over similar actions officially recognizing Historic Filipinotown in the south Hollywood area, he said.
Other times, the actions have brought conflict. A few years ago, a move by Filipino merchants to declare a strip of Eagle Rock Boulevard as Philippine Village sparked an uproar -- and a near fistfight -- among the community's residents. In a 2002 compromise, the L.A. City Council approved a municipal sign in front of the Philippine Village Center in Eagle Rock to recognize its contributions to the local Filipino community.
About five years ago, Armenians and Thais wanted to claim the same stretch of Hollywood Boulevard. The groups eventually compromised; now that stretch, from Western to Normandie avenues, is both Little Armenia and Thaitown, Keotahian said.
Keotahian said such designations often benefit neighborhoods by giving them a distinctive selling point. Indeed, so successful has Little Saigon become as a tourist draw in Orange County that the cities of Westminster and Garden Grove have fought over claiming rights.
"It's good for business," Keotahian said. "It brings in tourism. Why would anyone object?"
In Artesia, however, some people did -- vociferously. In what turned into a bitter power struggle between the Artesia area's state and local officials, Assemblyman Rudy Bermudez (D-Norwalk) won approval last year for Little India directional signs to be placed on the Pioneer Boulevard exits off the 91 Freeway. Bermudez said he acted after requests to do so from the Indian community and because the state had jurisdiction over freeway signs.
But the move provoked outrage from four of the five City Council members, two of whom say Bermudez never consulted with city officials about it. The argument has become nasty at times, with Bermudez publicly accusing opposing council members of bias against Indian Americans. He said his own phone polling and three public meetings on the subject indicated most people either supported the Little India moniker or didn't care.
"You can make a million and one excuses, but the bottom line is that it's ethnic bias," he said of the council's opposition.
But Artesia Mayor Larry Nelson responded that the issue was local control -- and that Bermudez's style had destroyed any chance of compromise. "If I try to shove something down your throat, you'll rebel," he said. "It's natural."
Nelson also said Indian Americans constituted less than 1% of the city's population, and that East Asian markets outnumber Indian ones 3 to 1.
The council appears to have won the last word on the matter. Just weeks before Bermudez's Little India resolution passed, the governor signed a bill backed by Artesia officials and written by Assemblyman John Benoit (R-Palm Desert) requiring local approval of proposed freeway sign designations.