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STEVE LOPEZ

Bangladeshis, Koreans stake out their pieces of L.A.

A yearlong border skirmish comes to an end as the two ethnic groups agree to the boundaries of Little Bangladesh, a four-block stretch within Koreatown.

November 08, 2009|STEVE LOPEZ

There was no telling how many people would show up Tuesday morning to discuss, one last time, how much of Koreatown should be surrendered to the Bangladeshi community.

At the previous meeting in this yearlong border skirmish, L.A. City Councilman Tom LaBonge had asked each side to bring three representatives.

"The Koreans cheated," he said. "They brought seven. But the Bangladeshis cheated more. They brought 37."

And so it has gone since Oct. 23, 2008, when the Bangladeshis filed a petition with the city clerk's office asking for a Little Bangladesh designation. Initially, they wanted the sprawling area between 3rd Street on the north, Wilshire Boulevard on the south, and Vermont and Western avenues on the east and west.

As you may imagine, the neighborhood's Koreans snapped to attention. LaBonge staffer Nikki Ezhari recalls their unanimous and immediate reaction:

"That's Koreatown."

Technically, there is no official "Koreatown" designation, a problem the Korean community quickly addressed by filing its own petition early this year. Since then, the two sides have been negotiating a compromise.

In Los Angeles, where it goes without saying that we've got a little of everything, I'm not sure we need Little Bangladesh signs any more than we needed Thai Town, Little Armenia, Little Tokyo, Little Ethiopia or Historic Filipinotown signs. It's not as if those populations are confined to any one place.

There is, of course, the commercial aspect: Shop and dine in Koreatown. Don't miss Little Bangladesh. Really, though, this rivalry seemed powered more by ethnic pride than money, two distinct groups staking out their islands in the great melting pot.

The staging area Tuesday was the Ralphs parking lot at 3rd Street and Vermont Avenue. Early on, it was clear the Bangladeshis would win the numbers game again. A dozen had already assembled and more were arriving.

Chang Lee, chairman of the Korean American Federation, was the lone representative on his side, unless you count a reporter from the Korea Daily. Lee said there was finally an agreement in principle on the table, so he didn't need an army behind him.

LaBonge's plan was to walk the entire group west, so there could be no doubt about the precise boundaries of Little Bangladesh. The councilman, who never stops celebrating Los Angeles, said a few words about the diverse people who make the city such a grand experiment. Then, like a football coach leading the charge, he walked the assemblage across Vermont, with the Bangladeshi representation having grown to 16.

LaBonge ducked into a variety store called Lucky to ask the proprietor whether she considered the area Koreatown or Little Bangladesh.

"This one's Koreatown," the councilman announced before entering a second shop.

"One to one," he said on the way back out. "One Koreatown, one Little Bangladesh."

The councilman was deftly making clear to both sides that their identities would be intact, no matter the designation. He also explained that Little Bangladesh would be a sub-district within Koreatown.

Outside Bengal Liquor at 3rd and Berendo streets, LaBonge reiterated the plan: Little Bangladesh would run four blocks, from New Hampshire Avenue to Alexandria.

"Everybody agree?"

There was some noticeable disappointment among the Bangladeshis, whose hope of a 50-square-block area had been scaled back considerably. But no one dissented.

Next up, where should the Little Bangladesh sign be on the eastern side? If it was above the New Hampshire sign, that might look odd, LaBonge said, pointing out that New Hampshire is a state.

The Bangladeshis were OK with that.

From Berendo, looking west, an indisputable reality became all the more obvious: Little Bangladesh will be dominated by Latino- and Korean-owned businesses.

"Guatemalan, Salvadoran, Mexican, Armenian, Spanish, Spanish, Spanish," a Bangladeshi conceded, looking west along the north side of 3rd Street. The south side was much the same, with Korean businesses sprinkled in.

The Bangladeshis say their population is growing fast, but LaBonge staffers said the neighborhood today is roughly 30% Korean, 10% Bangladeshi and 60% Latino. It makes you wonder why there's no call for a Little Guatemala or a Little El Salvador.

At Alexandria, near the Bangladesh Cultural Center, LaBonge established the western boundary.

"All agree?"

Only one person did not respond.

"Chang Lee," LaBonge said. "Chang Lee?"

Lee uttered a begrudging, "Yeah."

I couldn't help but notice that the Bangladesh Assn. was above a Oaxacan restaurant and a Salvadoran furniture shop, and next door to a Guatemalan mail service. Also nearby, in the same building, was a Peruvian smoke shop and a Korean American cellphone shop owned by a Korean national who speaks Spanish, but not Bengali.

When I later returned, those merchants said a Little Bangladesh designation didn't seem fair, complaining that the Bangladeshis patronize only stores run by their own.

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