YOU’RE MY LOVE SONG IN THE FLOWERS — LITTLE INDIA
Little India is a small neighborhood within Artesia centered on Pioneer Blvd. However, since the population of Artesia surrounding Little India is more Mexican, Filipino and Chinese (not to mention home to smaller but significant number of Koreans and Vietnamese), the city council and mayor rather lamely compromised, officially designating it the “International and Cultural Shopping District.” Catchy, huh? That silliness suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of what a designated ethnic enclave is… that is, a community that retains a cultural distinction from the larger community. Oh well, everyone knows it as Little India, whether it’s official or not.
EARLY ARTESIA – DAIRYLAND
Artesia, named after the area’s artesian wells, was primarily developed in the 1920s and ’30s by mostly Portuguese and Dutch dairy farmers. Later came Dutch-colonized Indonesians. The character of Southeast Los Angeles became increasingly suburban after World War II and most of the homes in the immediate area date from the mid-1940s to the early ’50s.
As development increased, so did the value of the land and most of the local farmers sold and began moving away to Chino or the Central Valley to continue farming. The Portuguese-Brazilian Portazil Bakery, the Portuguese restaurant The Navigator and the Dutch Artesia Bakery have all closed in recent decades after many years of operation.
There are still vestiges of Artesia’s ethnic past with organizations like the Artesia Portuguese DES, Portugal Imports, Artesia Drive-In Dairy and California Dairies. In addition, the Portuguese Festa do Espirito Santo still occurs annually.
In the 1970s, the first Indian-American merchants began to move into the older buildings along the boulevard (some which date back to the 1920s — their architecture and sign shapes give hints to their original purposes). As Little India grew, new mini-malls were built. Most of the newer shopping buildings date back to the 1990s and are ugly, bland, nondescript and vaguely Mexican-looking strip malls so common throughout the region.
Pendersleigh & Sons‘ Official Map of Little India
As with many ethnic enclaves in Los Angeles, the exteriors of Little India give little hint as to what lies beneath the faded stucco surface. Roll down the windows, however, and the unmistakable smell of Indian food and spices wafts pleasantly through the air. Peek inside the buildings to find crowded, cluttered markets and restaurants that tend to look more like dingy cafeterias or, alternately, garish nightclubs. But before we delve into Little India, allow me to elaborate on the much older history of Indians in America.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF INDIAN-AMERICANS
The history of Indian-Americans is older than that of the USA itself. It began in the 1600s, when the East India Company brought Indian servants to the American colonies, where they were treated, essentially, as slaves. In fact, in 1680, an Indian man and Irish woman gave birth to a baby girl. Being “mixed-race,” she was classified as “mulatto,” taken from her parents and promptly sold into slavery. After the US achieved freedom from the British Empire, the first recorded Indian immigrants arrived in the 1790s, to work in the maritime industry.
Larger numbers of Indians, mostly Punjabi Sikhs, began immigrating to America and Canada‘s west coast in the early 20th century, mostly to work in lumber mills and on the railroads. There they faced considerable hostility and in Live Oak, California and Bellingham, Washington, they were driven from town by angry white mobs.
Left: A.K. Mozumdar (second from right) Right: the Asiatic Barred Zone
To make matters worse, the 1913 passage of the California Alien Land Law made non-citizen Asians ineligible to own property. A few months later, even leasing land became off-limits to Indians. The same year, Indian-American religious figure A.K. Mozumdar became the first to earn US citizenship after successfully arguing before a district judge that he was “Caucasian” and therefore eligible under the naturalization law that restricted citizenship to free white people. In 1917, the Asiatic Barred Zone Act banned Asians from a large part of the continent from immigrating to the US.
Bhagat Singh Thind
In 1923, the case of United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind (a World War I veteran who’d fought for the US) results with Indians’ being ineligible for citizenship because, though classified as Caucasian, they’re also determined to be “not white.” A.K. Mozumdar, along with all naturalized Indian-Americans that followed him, had his citizenship revoked as a result.
In 1946, Missourian President Harry Truman signed into law the Luce-Celler Act of 1946, returning the right of immigration and naturalization to a limited number of Indians and Filipinos. In 1965, Texan President Lyndon Johnson signed the INS Act into law, eliminating per-country immigration quotas.
In the 1980s, as more Indians were able to move to the US, they met increased hostility. Gangs like The Dotbusters formed in New Jersey to target Indians with violence and harassment. In 1987, one of their victims, Kaushal Sharan, was beaten with a baseball bat and suffered brain damage. Navroze Mody wasn’t so lucky and was beaten to death by the same gang, also in 1987.
Balbir Singh Sodhi Frank Roque Saurabh Bhalerao recovering from his attack
After the 9/11 Arab Terrorist Attacks, non-Arab South Asians in several cases bore the brunt of inflamed racist hatred. Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh gas station attendant, was shot five times and killed by Frank Roque in Los Angeles. Roque was picked up after boasting at a bar, “They’re investigating the murder of a turban-head down the street.” In 2002 a Hindu pizza deliverer, Saurabh Bhalerao, was mugged and beaten in Massachusetts for “being Muslim.” His attackers, after telling him to go back to Iraq, stuffed him in the trunk of their car. Bhalerao escaped and took a hammer to one of his cowardly assailants before being stabbed as he fled.
Indophobia isn’t limited to completely uneducated street thugs, however. In 2006 Virginia Senator George Allen, a UVA graduate with a B.A. with a distinction in history as well as a law degree, without provocation mocked an Indian-American political staffer, S.R. Siddarth. On camera, he was caught smugly and sarcastically welcoming him to America and twice addressing him as “macaca,” a term derived from “macaque.”
As jobs are increasingly outsourced to India, Indians and Indian-Americans are increasingly at risk for misplaced anger. At the same time, comedies like Outsourced, comedians like Aziz Ansari and the popularity of the Harold & Kumar films raise Indian-Americans profiles and de-exoticize a particular segment of American culture.
HISTORY OF LITTLE INDIA
After the passage of the aforementioned INS Act in 1965, more Indians moved to the US, many to LA’s suburbs and Orange County. In 1970, the growing suburban Indian-American community convinced the owners of LA’s first Indian grocery, Selecto Spices, to relocate from Hollywood to Artesia where property values were in decline and thus more affordable. Afterward, several Indian markets followed their example. In the 1980s, several restaurants followed. At least as early as 1988, locals began referring to the increasingly desi neighborhood as “Little India.”
The first suggestions for official designation began around 1991, with the formation of The Little India Chamber of Commerce. Over the next ten years, the desi character extended beyond the core five blocks northward into Norwalk and southward into Cerritos. Nowadays Little India boasts about 120 Indian-oriented shops, including clothing stores, eyebrow-threading/hair removal places, home furnishers, fabric stores, jewelers, grocery stores, restaurants, video & music stores and more.
The mannequins of Little India aren’t just Anglo but exceptionally Anglo
As an ethnic enclave that grew organically (as opposed to LA’s Chinatown and Olvera Street), Little India remains targeted toward average SoCal Indians and not tourists. There are, as far as I’ve seen, no “I Love Little India” T-shirts or “Wish You Were Here” postcards. In the markets, English and Kenyan products outnumber the sorts of trinkets and souvenirs favored by casual Indian fetishists like Gwen Stefani or Madonna. The soundtrack is Bollywood and Bhangra, not Goa Trance. There are no signs of Hare Krishnas or Natural Law Party members. Compared to other Indian-American neighborhoods, LA County’s surpasses Devon Street in Chicago and University Ave in Berkeley in size. Only Jackson Heights inQueens has a larger desi population in the US.
STUFF TO SEE AND DO
Artesia Plaza – Little India’s de facto downtown
Weekends and most nights (although not Mondays), the streets, sidewalks and restaurants bustle with people but if visitors want spectacle, India’s Independence celebrations, Diwali, Navaratri and Eid ul-Fitrbring crowds, parades, skits, fashion shows, singers and lights.
For Diwali usually, a crowd of between 10,000 and 15,000 enjoys the festivities
Surasi Farsan Mart
With Indian Food being one of the world’s three most delicious cuisines, most visitors to Little India come to eat. While most of Little India’s residents come from Mumbai, Kolkata and The Azores, not all regions of India are, of course, represented culinarily. Gujarati, Punjabi and Maharashtrian cuisine are especially common but Pakistani and Bengali food are also represented.
Local eateries include Ambala Dhaba, Ashoka the Great, Tirupathi Bhimas, The Haveli Cuisine of India, The India Restaurant, India West, Jay Bharat, Mehfil Tandoori, Mumbai Ki Galliyon Se, Rajdhani, Rasraj, Royal Cuisine of India, Saffron Spot, Shan, Sukhadia’s Mithai, Tangy Tomato, Tava Grill & Lounge, Udupi Palace and Woodlands Indian Cafe. Having eaten at roughly a third, I always try a new one and on the day of our visit, film producer Diana Roark and I ate at Surasi Farsan Mart. The chaat joint was packed and the food was good!
Afterward, we stopped by for a snack and a drink at Ambala Sweets & Snacks, another Little India institution. I kind of wanted jalebi but was still stuffed from lunch.
If you like Indian goods or like cooking Indian food there are several markets in the neighborhood including Bharatiyi Grocery, Bombay Spices, House of Spices, Jalaram Market, Kerala Delicacies, Pioneer Cash & Carry, Rasa Indian Groceries, Shan Hala Mead & Grocery, and Tawa Supermarket. If your food turns out well, invite me over. If you cook it, I will come.
FILMS & MUSIC & TV & DANCE
Normally I try to separate music from film and tv but with Indian culture, that doesn’t make a lot of sense as they’re inextricably intertwined. Amoeba, of course, carries Indian music and films but there’s more on sale at Bangle Bazar [sic], Bollywood Music & Video (aka International Video), Rhythm and even markets likeRasa… in addition to other products. Bollywood is simply too prodigious to be even close to well-represented in a store’s subjection. In fact, Bollywood idols like Amitabh Bachchan (the Indian Al Pacino), Priyanka Chopra and Aishwarya Rai have their own subsections in stores like Bangle Bazar (below).
Little India’s Cottage Art decorated the set of A.R. Rahman‘s performance of the Academy Award–winning song “Jai Ho” on The Tonight Show.
An estimated 7,000 to 10,000 people per week visit the eight-screen NAZ8 Cinemas in nearby Lakewood, which shows mostly Bollywood movies (and offers desi concessions).
Choreographer Nakul Dev Mahajan, who’s appeared on programs including So You Think You Can Dance?, operates a dance studio in Little India for his NDM Bollywood Dance Troupe.
Here’s a video of the great Huell Howswer visiting Little India.
I don’t know (or in this rare case, pretend to know) much about Hinduism. (I did read the Bhagavad Gītāand suffered through Little Buddha.) Anyway, I’m pretty sure Matiya Patidar Samaj (above left) and Shree Swaminarayan (above right) are two Hindu temples, just up the Pioneer Boulevard in Norwalk. Little India proper doesn’t have any proper houses of worship so these nearby temples serve the Hindu locals.
Curry Lane is in my ears and in my nose
To vote for any communities you’d like to see covered in California Fool’s Gold, name them in the comments. If you’d like a bit of inspiration, there are primers for:
- Imperial County
- Kern County
- Los Angeles County
- Angeles Forest
- the Antelope Valley
- the Channel Islands
- the Eastside
- the Harbor
- Mideast Los Angeles
- Northeast Los Angeles
- Northwest Los Angeles
- the Pomona Valley
- the San Fernando Valley
- the San Gabriel Valley
- the Santa Monica Mountains
- the South Bay
- South Los Angeles’s Eastside
- South Los Angeles’s Westside
- Southeast Los Angeles
- the Verdugos
- the Westside
- Orange County
- Riverside County
- San Bernardino County
- San Diego County
- San Luis Obispo County
- Santa Barbara County
- Ventura County
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LA, Amoeblog, Boom: A Journal of California, diaCRITICS, Hidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft Contemporary, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, the book Sidewalking, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, CurbedLA, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Ameba, Duolingo, Facebook, Goodreads, Instagram, Mubi, and Twitter.
18 thoughts on “California Fool’s Gold — Exploring Little India”
Hi! Really big fan of your work and I absolutely love what you do. I know this is over eight years old now, but I want to take exception to this b/c Asian American demographics/geography is the one thing that I know well:
‘Compared to other Indian-American neighborhoods, LA County’s surpasses Devon Street in Chicago and University Ave in Berkeley in size. Only Jackson Heights inQueens has a larger desi population in the.’
While I can’t comment on Devon Street because I’ve never been, suburban enclaves in Silicon Valley and central New Jersey have significantly larger Indian-American districts than Artesia. From what I understand, the same holds true for the suburban areas in a few other major metro areas in the US; when the 2020 census data finally comes out, I wouldn’t be surprised if greater Houston and greater Dallas, along with both components of the Bay Area have overtaken LA. Indians (and other South Asians to an extent) are really one of the few Asian communities where LA population, tbqh, isn’t super vibrant.
Hello, thanks for reaching out!
I think that my wording probably needs to be clarified because I refer to the neighborhood and Los Angeles County in the same sentence in a way that doesn’t make sense. I guess Los Angeles County may still be the county with the largest Indian American population in part just because Los Angeles County is the most populous county in the US. Metropolitan New York has an Indian American population that was (as of 2010) almost five times larger than Metropolitan Los Angeles — but New York City is divided amongst five counties and the Metropolitan Area includes six (because of Newark, New Jersey). I probably chose to look at the county level because it sounds more impressive — but I agree, Los Angeles’s Indian American communities aren’t as vibrant as those in various other places. Los Angeles County’s Indian Population also comprises a smaller percentage of the total population than it does in cities like Trenton and region’s like the San Francisco Bay. I haven’t really spent to much time in Texas, although I’d like to explore it, to be honest!
I’ll probably get around to making that piece on Little India less muddy at some point but I don’t normally like making changes to pieces written that long ago. I do, on the other hand, plan on writing about many of the Asian American populations of Los Angeles after the 2020 census. Even though South Asians aren’t as numerous as Southeast and East Asians, I still feel like they (and all Asians, really) are so consistently overlooked by most people who write about Los Angeles. I like to think that I’m a better writer now than I was when I wrote about Little India so hopefully it will be both clearer and more in-depth.
Very nice posst