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What's really at issue in the Koreatown-Little Bangladesh dispute

The important question is what community stakeholders will do for residents once they claim a neighborhood.

November 17, 2009|By Eileen Ma and Preeti Sharma

Steve Lopez's Nov. 8 column about naming a part of Koreatown "Little Bangladesh" trivializes an important issue for a newer immigrant community struggling for acceptance and recognition in Los Angeles. For Koreatown's Bangladeshi community, which many don't know exists, an official recognition by City Hall and a few well-placed signs help legitimize the community as an important and valued presence in L.A.

Lopez focuses a lot on the pomp, circumstance and provincialism involved in the Koreatown-Little Bangladesh naming debate; he devotes much of his column to City Councilman Tom LaBonge's efforts at mediation. Lopez barely touches on the complexity inherent in community efforts to create and build their own identities, a struggle not unfamiliar to Los Angeles. The focus on limited disagreement between some community stakeholders creates a distorted picture of division among these communities and actually misses the real story here.

Most Koreatown residents we know are very proud of their own respective cultural heritages. They also acknowledge and love that Koreatown is a diverse community where people of various races and ethnicities live and work together. Koreatown is and always has been a multiethnic community and, for a long time, a center for immigrants to Los Angeles (about 70% of the residents here are immigrants). Koreatown's diverse residents coexist there and claim the neighborhood as their home -- immigrants from not only Bangladesh and Korea but also from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and other Latin American nations.

Perhaps not coincidentally, about 70% of Koreatown residents are also working poor, earning less than twice the federal poverty line. These residents share multiple issues in common: an inadequate supply of quality affordable housing, high rents, low wages, too few job opportunities, the threat of gentrification and a fear of displacement. Neighborhood boundaries and labels cannot begin to set aside what Koreatown residents, no matter their ethnicity, have in common. The work the South Asian Network and Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance do together to address affordable housing issues testifies to the high degree of unity among area residents.

The real question is not what you call the neighborhood, but who will be responsible for it. By participating in its naming, you acknowledge your responsibility in its upkeep. Residents will tell you there's plenty to be responsible for in Koreatown. We need more quality affordable housing, parks, libraries, accessible healthcare and so on.

We cherish Koreatown and appreciate the historical legacy of that name. But we also acknowledge the importance of other designations and the fact that others may identify with other names, such as Wilshire Center, Little Bangladesh, even Mid-Wilshire or, in parts, Pico Union. And maybe there ought to be others; Little Oaxaca comes to mind.

But whatever you call the neighborhood, the important question if you claim it is this: What are you doing to address the critical needs of that community and its residents? Studies done by our organizations show the critical need is affordable housing, for without it, low-income Bangladeshis, Koreans and Latinos who live here and make this neighborhood such a dynamic place will no longer be there. In that case, no one would care what you call the neighborhood.

Eileen Ma is campaign director for the Korean Immigrant Workers Alliance. Preeti Sharma is a community advocate with the South Asian Network.

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