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Amid redistricting, L.A. Koreatown looks to consolidate political power

Community advocates have long fought for a unified City Council district, which they say would lead to reinvestment in the city's most densely populated neighborhood.
Image: LA's Koreatown
Shuttered businesses outside the trendy section of Koreatown in Los Angeles in 2006. David McNew / Getty Images file

As states scramble to finalize election maps for the next decade, some Asian American communities are pushing for — and are poised to see — more political representation on a local level.

In Los Angeles, Korean American leaders have long campaigned for Koreatown, a beloved cultural and tourist hub, to be united under a single City Council district. Over the past year, while awaiting the 2020 census data, a network of community groups has mobilized hundreds of residents, getting them to sign petitions and speak at redistricting hearings. 

In the draft map the city’s redistricting commissioners released Oct. 1, the entire neighborhood of Koreatown is, for the first time in decades, represented by one council member instead of four. A final vote will happen later this year.

Activists say the result is a reflection of years of grassroots organizing against a redistricting process they feel is shrouded in corruption and favoritism. 

“Our goal of keeping Koreatown unified in one district is a 20-year-old wishlist,” Eunice Song, executive director of the Korean American Coalition, a national civic engagement group that’s been serving Koreatown since 1983, told NBC Asian America.

The neighborhood, which is home to more than 120,000 people, is currently split into four of L.A.’s 15 council districts. This fragmented structure, Song said, forces Koreatown residents to compete for the attention and resources of multiple elected officials. 

“When accountability is diffused among four council members,” she said, “it has a direct impact on the needs of Koreatown being deprioritized and therefore neglected.”

Many chronic issues in the community, as a result, remain unaddressed. As the most densely populated area in the city, Koreatown has the least amount of green spaces. One in 5 residents live below the federal poverty line, nearly double the rate in California, according to the 2019 American Community Survey. The proliferation of homeless encampments has created sanitation concerns for business owners. 

Despite its name, Koreatown is a majority-Latino neighborhood. Asian Americans are the second-largest racial group. But it’s Korean immigrants, who began settling in the area in the 1960s after the nation's immigrant quota system was lifted, who built a sprawling business district with world-renowned restaurants and nightclubs.  

Having a single council member represent Koreatown, Song said, would mean that tax dollars generated by the neighborhood’s thriving businesses would be reinvested back into the community. The money could be used to clean up streets and graffiti, invest in public safety initiatives, and build more parks and cultural centers. It could also go to staffing the council office with more Korean and Spanish speakers who can better serve low-income monolingual residents. 

Earlier this year, a group of 10 long-standing nonprofits in Koreatown, including the Korean American Coalition, formed the Koreatown Redistricting Task Force to rally community support for their campaign. The coalition organized three town halls and several online workshops — in Spanish, Korean and English — to inform constituents about the benefits of a consolidated council district.

The draft map places Koreatown in Council District 10, an area encompassing much of South and Central L.A. The 21-member redistricting commission will release a final map at the end of the month, which will be advanced to the City Council for a final vote before the end of the year.

During redistricting hearings, other neighborhood leaders have expressed concern about a unified Koreatown. Since each council district must include roughly a quarter of a million people, keeping Koreatown whole means other districts will lose constituents. Some residents in Council District 10, which boasts a large Black population, said that making Koreatown one district could dilute their political voice and weaken their ability to continue electing Black council members, a tradition that stretches back to the 1960s.  

But Korean American organizers say past electoral maps have deprived them of any political agency.

“The issue of redistricting is important both to Koreatown residents and the Korean American community,” said Connie Chung Joe, the chief executive of Asian Americans Advancing Justice — L.A. and former executive director of Korean American Family Services.

Every decade, following the completion of the U.S. census, all states must redraw district boundaries for congressional, legislative and local elections to reflect population changes.

It’s not just L.A.; political participation is growing in Asian enclaves across the country. In Chicago’s Chinatown and the Detroit suburb of Hamtramck, where 1 in 4 residents is Asian, community leaders have been fighting for months to preserve or consolidate their voting bloc in the redistricting process. 

L.A.’s Korean American community, Joe said, was deeply scarred by the redistricting process in 2010. Despite overwhelming public demand for a consolidated neighborhood, redistricting commissioners still decided to carve up Koreatown into four districts. Five Koreatown residents, in turn, sued the city for engaging in gerrymandering. 

“People were marching on the streets, flooding hearings to call for a unified Koreatown,” Joe said. “And that was met with deaf ears. That has been a sore spot for the community.”

(In contrast to the boundaries for City Council, Koreatown is kept together in one district in California’s congressional, state senate and state assembly maps.)

The redistricting process, community leaders say, has become a sensitive subject for the Korean diaspora because it brings back memories of the 1992 L.A. riots. In the days of unrest that followed the Rodney King verdict, more than 2,200 Korean businesses were looted, burned or destroyed, causing some $400 million in damages. Despite pleas for help, the police were nowhere to be seen.  

The crisis became a moment of political awakening that fueled the campaign to unify Koreatown.

“We felt we were always an afterthought,” said Steven Kang, the director of external affairs at the Koreatown Youth & Community Center. “So we started advocating every 10 years to unify because we felt that the stakeholders in L.A. didn’t care about us.”

After analyzing the 2020 census data, the Koreatown Redistricting Task Force estimated the demographic breakdown of Koreatown to be 42 percent Latino, 40 percent Asian, 10 percent white and 6 percent Black.

Kang said the biggest lesson Korean American organizers learned from the 2010 campaign is to work more collaboratively with their Latino and Bangladeshi neighbors.

“We knew we needed to create a very diverse coalition of stakeholders,” he said. “Yes, Korean Americans make up a significant percent of our community, but recognize that our brothers and sisters in the Latino community also reside and work here.”