Putting Culture On The Map: Media Discourse and the Urban Growth Machine in Koreatown, Los Angeles

By Brady Collins (California State Polytechnic University)

Over the last decades, culture has become an essential ingredient in the economic development strategies of cities around the world. In this context, the development and promotion of ethnic neighborhoods—e.g. Chinatown, Little Tokyo, Harlem—is a strategy for revitalizing diverse urban areas. The local newspaper is a key actor in this process: it represents and promotes a city’s cultural assets, and in doing so shapes the way readers perceive of different communities. Given the tastes and preferences of today’s young urban professionals, “hipsters”, and tourists–urban environments characterized by ethnic diversity, authentic cuisine, and unique cultural experiences–these representations have the power to attract new capital and residents to immigrant communities.

Los Angeles in particular has attempted to brand itself as a kind of melting pot, highlighting its rich ethnic mix and cultural vibrancy. Koreatown, a dense and diverse neighborhood just west of Downtown Los Angeles, has become one of the trendiest spaces in the city. From being depicted in Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown and the New York Times’ “36 Hours”, Los Angeles’ Koreatown has, like so many other ethnic neighborhoods before it, entered the stage of popular culture and discourse. Through a close reading of every article ever written about Koreatown in the Los Angeles Times, clear patterns of language use and representations of the community emerged. The newspaper relies on four distinctive frames—the immigrant enclave, the global village, the divided slum, and the exotic destination—to effectively commodify Koreatown for outsiders and the urban elite.


Korean-style tiled rooftops on Olympic Blvd in Koreatown, Kaijo 2014

“Immigrant enclave” stories focus on the plight of immigrants and their families, the successes of particular immigrant entrepreneurs, and the emergence of cultural markers that signify the development of ethnic neighborhoods, such as themed architecture, festivals, and the growth of ethnic markets. These articles paint a picture of how, according to the LA Times, successful ethnic communities should look and feel. In other words, Koreatown is successful because entrepreneurial and civic ethnic leaders branded the physical environment and put their culture “on the map”, so to speak. The “global village” frame perceives Koreatown as a “melting pot” of culture, tying the growing diversity of Los Angeles to its global city status and as an indicator of its multiculturalism and progressiveness. These articles are at least grounded in reality: in fact, Koreatown is the most ethnically diverse neighborhood in Los Angeles. However, oftentimes this means identifying inspiring anecdotes: racially mixed children playing in the street or Latino families eating in Asian restaurants. Yet these representations of the community ignore the fact that many residents that constitute this diverse populace lack basic services and amenities. The public’s attention is drawn to the surface-level multiculturalism of a place, whereas systemic inequalities along racial and ethnic lines are ignored.

While the global village celebrates diversity, the divided slum frame does the opposite: it attempts to describe the negative outcomes of neighborhood diversity. The issues that Koreatown, like other low-income communities of color, faces, such as violent (and non-violent) crime, slumlords, and juvenile delinquency, are placed within the context of racial tensions among residents. When viewed alongside both the immigrant enclave and global village frames, the divided slum frame depicts an inner city gateway community in which escaping poverty requires establishing or contributing to one’s own ethnic neighborhood through entrepreneurial pursuits. In other words, the “problem”—a community of diffuse and divided immigrant residents—can only be solved by leveraging local culture as a strategy of neighborhood revitalization. At the same time, this frame is inextricably tied to the final frame, the “exotic destination”, in that together they depict social ills, such a poverty and crime, as well as ethnic diversity, as desirable aspects of a gritty, urban experience to a gentrifying elite.

For the LA Times, the “exotic destination” frame is played out in reviews of ethnic restaurants and journalistic reporting on unique cultural experiences, and aim to entice their readers by claiming to have discovered things that are “original” and “exotic” in seemingly hard-to-reach places. Words like “spiritual”, or “enchanted” describing the aisles of ethnic supermarkets, serve to not only help sell these products and services (through unabashed orientalism), but to treat immigrant communities as commodities. The benefits of this are clear—new outsiders spend money at local restaurants and businesses and inject new activity into the local economy. With that said, food writers that encourage cultural tourism through their reporting have real economic and social influence over the communities they are writing about.

            In the context of the post-industrial economy, the newspaper’s reporting on the social, cultural, and economic conditions of ethnic communities both incentivizes cultural production and attracts cultural consumption. And while these frames are produced and perpetuated by the local media, the scale of their impact is much greater. For the newspaper’s national or international readers, these frames may produce a multiplier effect: reporting on Koreatown in the New York Times and numerous other online magazines and blogs is evidence of this.

These findings call for further critique of the municipal newspaper as not only a core actor in neighborhood change, but also in its capacity to shape the public’s perception of other cultures and communities in their city. While reporters may hold good intentions in writing stories about “authentic” restaurants, diverse neighbors, and struggling families in racial and ethnic minority neighborhoods, the stories they tell project images and symbols that are the currency of the post-industrial economy, and create new exchange values over urban space. Paradoxically, this may ultimately lead to the displacement of the very communities to which reporters are trying to connect their readers as larger institutional actors such as public agencies, private investors, and developers, exploit the increasing land values. We need decentralized and democratic forms of journalism that counter the hegemony of large, institutionalized municipal newspapers. Unless we can empower the voices of those communities being represented, the inevitable and conspicuous packaging of local cultures for the creative and leisure classes of contemporary cities will only continue.

Read the article here.

Photo by Abbie Bernet on Unsplash

Brady Collins is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. His research interests include community and economic development, ethnic enclaves, gentrification, and spatial politics.


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