From the turbulent riots of 1992 to modern lofts and savvy eateries, Los Angeles Koreatown has since become a hot multicultural spot and one of the top destinations for its booming A.Y.C.E. K-BBQ (All You Can Eat Korean BBQ) and diverse nightlife. Home to a population of over 120,000 within just 3-square miles, this dense urban center has recently experienced a fiercely debated issue over gerrymandering. The proposed Koreatown redistricting in the early 2012 has stirred much concern amongst Asian Americans living in the city of Los Angeles and especially for the Korean Americans who consider Koreatown their epicenter.
Redistricting occurs once a decade, and this time it officially divided Koreatown into two council districts-—Council Districts 10 and 13-—represented by Councilmen Herb Wesson and Eric Garcetti, respectively. Previously, Koreatown was divided into 4 council districts, and this caused much pain and trouble to residents of Koreatown as it required approval from four different council members to pass a single matter. At first glance, two districts might seem an improvement, but many argue that unnecessary inefficiency and inconvenience will still remain the same. The consequence of the political division is that one of the economic jewels of Los Angeles will continue to stay divided and powerless.
Koreatown activists are fighting aggressively to unite the neighborhood into a single district. The argument is that the Los Angeles City Council's redistricting decision resulted from racially-motivated reasons, primarily to increase the number of registered African-American voters in Council District 10. As the City already has an African American majority district (Council District 8), the Koreatown residents ask that they be in one district to strengthen the area's political and economic voice. To date, Koreatown lacks park space, community centers, and senior housing, among other services and thus the residents express that a single district would improve the chances of getting the attention and services the area deserves. The community members are just asking to be represented by one city council member to hold accountable for its needs.
This August, the fight moved to federal court. The lawsuit's plaintiffs argued that "the city has diluted and negatively impacted the voting power of Koreatown residents by unnecessarily, unlawfully and unconstitutionally dividing their community into two separate districts." [Los Angeles Times, July 31, 2012] The residents' attorney wants a federal judge to bar the city from using the new districts in the March election and to appoint a court-supervised special master to redraw the line. The attorney further made it clear that although there is an interest in having an Asian American majority district-—which could further enhance the changes of electing an Asian American candidate-—the lawsuit is not an attempt to create one.
Attorneys from the Korean American Bar Association (KABA) and the greater Los Angeles continue to voice that this is the political awakening of Koreatown. One attorney expressed that Koreatown refuses to be the quiet group that hands out money without representation while the LA City Redistricting Commission ignores natural borders of the town and slices through inconvenient geographic features. An activist went as far as to refer to Koreatown as an ATM for Councilmen, reflecting how the city has been taking advantage of the community. Throughout the city meetings, attorneys and representatives of Koreatown have been supported by huge turn-outs and bursts of applause by the community members.
The fight to keep Koreatown whole is a golden step towards endowing the neighborhood with voting power or the ability to induce the City Council to respond to Koreatown's needs. The bitter battle over redrawing Los Angeles council district boundaries has brought together diverse organizations and many generations in one voice. It has certainly awakened Koreatown and positioned it at the dawn of yet another economic and cultural upgrade.
Yejee Marilyn Kim is a 3L at Pepperdine University School of Law in Malibu, California and is serving as the Pacific South/Southwest Regional Director for NAPALSA