This blog entry is about the Midtown Los Angeles neighborhood of Little Bangladesh. To vote for more neighborhoods to be the subject of future blog entries, let me know which in the comments.
In recognition of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, out of my love for exploration — and being eager to break in my new bike, Cream Soda — I headed to Los Angeles‘s Little Bangladesh in search of answers, equipped only with my official map of the neighborhood.
Little Bangladesh centered around a short stretch of 3rd Street between Wilton on the west and Vermont on the east. To the west is the neighborhood of St. Andrews Square and to the east is Westlake. To the north and south is greater Wilshire Center, a roughly eight square kilometer neighborhood that also includes Koreatown in its southern portion.
After the arrival of the Spaniards and the resulting devastation to the Tongva, the area remained largely undeveloped until the early 20th century. During the golden age of Hollywood in the 1930s and ’40s (located as it is between and close to Downtown Los Angeles and Hollywood), Wilshire Center was then a very posh and bustling part of the city. However, by the 1950s and ’60s, most of the neighborhood’s residents began flocking to the suburbs. In the 1970s, many of the businesses relocated to the western edge of downtown, to the Westside and the San Fernando Valley. As a result, Wilshire Center went into a steep decline and property values plummeted. Many of the neighborhood’s new arrivals came from Central America and elsewhere.
In the 1960s, most Bangladeshis had come to the US on student visas and many chose to live in the northern portion of Wilshire Center for its cheap rents and its close proximity to LACC. It certainly didn’t hurt to tell relatives back home that they were practically in Hollywood, even if their jobs more often involved driving cabs and working in the fast food industry than rubbing elbows with movie stars.
The Bangladeshi Liberation War broke out in March of 1971, providing another reason to head abroad. That year the Los Angeles Bangladesh Association was created. The following year, South Korea’s right-wing dictator, Park Chung Hee, initiated the Heavy-Chemical Industry Drive and roughly 70,000 Koreans opted to leave the county and settle in and around Olympic Avenue, in the southern portion of Wilshire Center. Immigration of Bangladeshis continued at a relatively slower pace through the ’70s, although relatively better off Bangladeshis began to arrive in the neighborhood, attracted by the neighborhood’s Bangladeshi reputation and education opportunities. Over time, Bangladeshi immigration increased, ultimately peaking in 1991.
In 1980, the stretch of Olympic between Hoover and Wilton was designated Koreatown by the city of Los Angeles. Years later, in 2008, when Bangladeshi Mohammed Akhter H. Miah filed a naming application with the city, he may’ve felt confident that Little Bangladesh would gain official recognition (one year after Cambodia Town, I might add). Instead, the city was hit with a competing request from Korean-American Federation of Los Angeles chairman Chang Y. Lee to extend Koreatown’s borders to include Little Bangladesh and beyond. People (including the Los Angeles TImes) began to characterize Little Bangladesh as being in “the heart of Koreatown,” even though that heart, Olympic Boulevard, is actually almost two kilometers to the south. To look at it another way, it’s a bit like saying Melrose Avenue is “the heart of Thai Town.”
When I spoke to Bangladeshis in the neighborhood, Lee’s name was well-known and his attempts to squash their dreams of a Bangladeshi shopping district were understandably described as “greedy” and “insensitive” by a people who felt there was room in Wilshire Center for Bangladeshis, Koreans and more.
Yes, there is a strong Korean presence in the neighborhood in the form of shop-owners and Hangul signs and advertisements (and even more in Spanish and English), but most people on the street appeared to be either Oaxacan, Salvadoran, Guatemalteca, Honduran, or Bengali.
Just as planting an American flag on the moon doesn’t make it the 51st state, signs in Hangul don’t make a neighborhood part of Koreatown. If it did, Koreatown would not only extend to its neighbors — but also to Cerritos, Chatsworth, Diamond Bar, Gardena, Glendale, Granada Hills, Hacienda Heights, Little Tokyo, Long Beach, Park Mile, Porter Ranch, Rowland Heights, and Wilshire Park. Lee nonetheless described himself as “appalled” by the request for a small stretch of a single street to be granted official status as an ethnic enclave… as happened with Koreatown 28 years earlier… a neighborhood which despite its designation is mostly Latino. Double standard much?
During my exploration, I spotted a notice about a community meeting on the subject of Little Bangladesh on the door of Swadesh. I popped inside the market, which also rents Bangladeshi films and dramas on DVD. Inside, one of the employees introduced me to Ahmed Kabir (proprietor of Salomi Indian and Bangladeshi Restaurant over the hills in North Hollywood), Pavel Rahman (a music promoter), Saifur Rahman Osmani Jeetu (a media figure), and Mominul Haq Baccu (a community leader and figure in the Bangladeshi American Democratic Party). They graciously and happily asked me to sit with them and gave me an animated lesson on the history of Bangladeshis in the area and much of the information in this blog entry.
Since Amoeba is a music store, we didn’t just talk about Bangladeshi immigration history and aspirations — discussion touched upon the music of Bangladesh, in particular Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam. Their enthusiasm about the topic of Bangladeshi culture was obvious, as Nobel prize winner Muhammad Yunus, Bangla satellite channels, and the newspaper Thikana also came up.
Back outside, as is true with so many Los Angeles neighborhoods, bland, interchangeable architectural facades contain staggering and surprising diversity within their grimy, tagged exteriors. From a car, you probably wouldn’t notice the presence of places like Swadesh, Bengal Liquor, Meghna Restaurant, Bhalli Discount Store, or Asian Mart. Just one more reason to get a bike or pound the pavement.
Here’s hoping there’s enough room in this sprawl of over ten million people, the most diverse collection of people on the planet in history, that we can find some space for Little Bangladesh. After all, if there’s going to be an ethnic enclave inside of an ethnic enclave, where else could that happen but in Los Angeles?