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The future of Historic Filipinotown

What will become of the changing neighborhood—and who gets to decide its fate?

City planners have rolled out proposed design guidelines for commercial corridors in Westlake, including Temple Street, home of Tribal Cafe, an eclectic cafe wedged between newer developments.

Ailene Quizon Ignacio is certain gentrification is coming to Westlake. By that, she means the community where she has lived all her life—which she describes as low-income, working class, and immigrant—could become a destination for expensive apartments, high-rise condos, and luxury hotels. If it does, she says she’ll fight to stop it.

“Gentrification is here and affecting our community,” she says. “Komunidad namin ito. Este es nuestra comunidad. This is our community. You folks may not have to live here every single day, but we do. We have to make sure that this is a place where we want to live.”

Ignacio was speaking to city planners about a design district proposed for commercial corridors in Westlake. Organized by the LA Tenants Union, the meeting was convened last week in the basement of labor rights group Unite Here.

The sign for a former deli in Historic Filipinotown.

The union has framed the proposal as a tool for gentrification, inflaming anxieties about the neighborhood’s future.

Who gets to decide the look and feel of its streets, shops, and restaurants? Will residents, many of whom are low-income and do not speak English as a first language, be able to afford to live there much longer?

Unlike Silver Lake and Echo Park, Westlake, which encompasses Historic Filipinotown, is only just starting to become attractive to developers. Even if changes are inevitable, community advocates say the area’s cultural legacy—and its reputation as a refuge for immigrants—is at stake.

Small business owners are worried they’ll be replaced by newer, trendier tenants catering to a wealthier demographic.

But not all Westlake residents are opposed to the concept of a design district or the addition of new developments and small businesses in the neighborhood. Historic Filipinotown itself was founded partly on the premise that cultural and heritage tourism could help drive the local economy and boost small, immigrant-owned business.

In 2001, Historic Filipinotown didn’t exist. The neighborhood was still closely associated with the police corruption and gang violence that became a national news story when the Rampart scandal broke several years earlier.

Temple Street was seen as little more than a traffic shortcut to get from Hollywood to Downtown Los Angeles without taking the 101.

“No one wanted to move into the neighborhood back then,” says Michelle Magalong, executive director of the advocacy group Asian & Pacific Islander Americans in Historic Preservation. “There wasn’t a threat of displacement whatsoever. Gentrification was not even a term on anyone’s mind.”

Eric Garcetti had just been elected councilmember of District 13, and Magalong had just begun studying the area as a graduate student in UCLA’s master’s program in urban planning.

The biggest challenge facing Magalong and other community advocates was figuring out how to attract business and generate interest in the neighborhood—not drive it out.

The most effective way to do that, they decided, was to create an official city designation that would promote cultural tourism. The effort to do so had been in the works since at least the 1970s, says Magalong.

“Because we were stuck in this legacy of being colonized by the Spanish and by United States, it’s shown in how we build our communities. The names of our businesses are in English, and you wouldn’t really think it’s Filipino.”

But it was stalled by redistricting and a lack of political motivation, says Joseph Bernardo, a historian and former field deputy who served under Garcetti when he was a councilmember. There were also bigger, more existential challenges, including the question of how to advocate for a community whose complicated history isn’t anchored to any one part of town.

“Because Filipinos are so adaptable, the tendency is for them to land here as a first base, as a landing zone, and then after a year or two, they go out in the suburbs and buy homes,” says Joshua José, the owner of the eclectic Temple Boulevard open mic spot Tribal Cafe. “You see a lot of enclaves of Filipinos in Carson, in North Hollywood, East Los Angeles, everywhere around Historic Filipinotown.”

Filipinos began immigrating to Los Angeles in the early 20th century, settling in an area of Downtown then called Little Manila—today known as Little Tokyo—according to Bernardo.

After World War II, Little Manila shifted toward the intersection of Temple and Figueroa, Bernardo says, but the expansion of the 110 freeway and the construction of institutions like the Music Center pushed the community farther west along Temple Street, on the other side of the 110.

Many immigrants didn’t stay in the neighborhood long. By the early aughts, Filipino Americans made up just a fraction of the neighborhood’s majority-Latino population.

One of the many churches in Historic Filipinotown, located next to neighborhood institution Brooklyn Bagel, which is being renovated.

Even without a predominantly Filipino American population, it was difficult to make the case for an ethnic-cultural enclave.

“It doesn’t look like a Filipinotown. No one knows what a Filipinotown looks like. We’re not like Chinatown or Little Tokyo in terms of our signage,” says Magalong. “Because we were stuck in this legacy of being colonized by the Spanish and by United States, it’s shown in how we build our communities. The names of our businesses are in English, and you wouldn’t really think it’s Filipino.”

Bahay Kubo Restauran, a traditional Filipino restaurant on Temple Street.

Magalong was driving through the area of Skid Row that was in the midst of being rebranded as the Old Bank District in the Historic Core, when the solution occurred to her. “You could call something historic, and it’s a nod to what it used to be even if it may not look like it anymore,” she says. “I said, ‘Well, why don’t we call it Historic Filipinotown? That way people will ask the question of what makes it historic, and why is it Filipinotown?”

Garcetti, who had committed to making the designation happen during his campaign for City Council, went for the idea. Historic Filipinotown became an official district of Los Angeles—complete with signs and crosswalks stamped with traditional Filipino designs (today the decorations have all but worn away)—in August 2002.

Five years later, Garcetti helped open Unidad Park, a city park with a garden designed to resemble Filipino rice terraces, a playground that evokes a traditional Nipa hut on stilts, and what was then billed as the country’s largest Filipino American mural. In 2012, Michelle Obama recognized Historic Filipinotown as part of Preserve America, the national program dedicated to promoting heritage tourism.

But the civic and federal designations are mostly symbolic. They do little to protect against the kind of gentrification residents now fear is imminent as city planners work to advance the North Westlake Design District ordinance.

It’s just “a recognition at a point in time,” says Judy Rodenstein, a spokesperson for Preserve America. “If they decide now... to do something that endangers some of the resources that were talked about in the application, there’s no enforcement.”

To critics, the proposed design district for Westlake represents a cartoonish manifestation of their worst fears about gentrification.

A 2014 draft of the ordinance included art galleries, bakeries, bars and cafes, co-working spaces, and stationary stores on a list of encouraged businesses. Prohibited businesses, on the other hand, included automotive repair shops, bail bond brokers, fortune telling services, drive-through restaurants, and public storage facilities. Neither of these guidelines is in the latest version of the ordinance.

The latest draft mandates that new businesses cover their walls with greenery or original artwork, install uniform signs that aren’t backlit or printed on a canopy, and work to hide driveways and parking lots.

“There is a high concentration of transit riders within this community, which means there are a lot of people who walk,” says city planner Craig Weber. “It’s important to the city to create an environment that is conducive to walking and does not take a step backward and reorient toward the automobile. That is the driving intention with the ordinance.”

To many who live or work in the neighborhood, the ordinance, with its precise requirements for the ground floors of buildings (at least 30 percent of walls would have to have windows, for example, to create active street life) is the latest and most ostentatious flashpoint in a years-long resistance to the kind of gentrification that has long since transformed neighboring Silver Lake and Echo Park.

That doesn’t mean the historic Westlake community is opposed to change. Ignacio, who says she has concerns about the ordinance not requiring new businesses to have parking, does want the city improve the sidewalks and plant more trees.

“If you’re trying to promote walkability, I mean, the sidewalks are a mess,” she says. “There’s no trees. There’s no shade. It’s hard to walk.”

Activists in Thai Town were prepared for gentrification. Their campaign to create a district started in 1992, after the LA Uprising left the Thai-owned businesses in East Hollywood badly burned, looted, and destroyed.

Chanchanit “Chancee” Martorell, a Thai-American activist who has a master’s degree in urban planning from UCLA, knew the area needed funding, resources, and aid. The problem, she says, was “the Thai community has been, since we settled here in the U.S. in the ’50s until the present, fairly invisible.”

The designation would be a symbolic nod toward the immigrant community and a civic tool for boosting cultural tourism and growing the local economy.

Thai Town in East Hollywood.

In 1992, Martorell created the first demographic survey of the Thai community in Los Angeles. The results showed that her neighbors wanted to preserve historic sites, create more affordable housing, and improve infrastructure.

Thai immigrants, too, are spread out across Los Angeles, concentrated not just in East Hollywood but also in North Hollywood—home to Wat Thai, the largest Buddhist temple in the city—Arleta, Panorama City, and Sun Valley. For Martorell, the decision to create a Thai Town district in East Hollywood was strategic. It’s “the historic port of entry,” she says. “The name Hollywood has cachet, and it’s adjacent to the entertainment capital of the world.”

In 1994, the LA Thai community was devastated by the Northridge earthquake, and Martorell funneled all her energy into helping the community in the San Fernando Valley rebuild itself. Four years later, the community bounced back and resurrected the Thai Town campaign, narrowing the boundaries from between Hoover Street to the east, La Brea Avenue to the west, and Melrose to the north to its current six-block stretch of Hollywood Boulevard between Western and Normandie avenues.

“You need to make it more walkable, pedestrian friendly, and compact,” says Martorell. Her vision two decades ago is not all that different from city planners’ proposal for north Westlake today.

In October 1999, four months after the subway station opened at Hollywood and Western and put the neighborhood on the map, the Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously to transform six blocks in East Hollywood into the country’s first and only Thai Town.

Community advocates didn’t stop with the city designation or even a federal Preserve America designation they earned nine years later. Martorell says she knew that if her community was going to be culturally and economically sustainable, it had to take ownership of its assets, defend itself against unfavorable development, and work in tandem with city planners to advocate for development that would aid and empower the existing community, not displace it

“We were concerned about [the Metro Red Line] leading to gentrification and displacement, and so we wanted to promote equitable transit-oriented development,” says Martorell. “Whenever you have an investment in such a huge public infrastructure, a public asset, that public asset should turn around and provide community benefits, because it’s our tax dollars. The community should be benefitting from that, not displaced by that.”

By that time, still years before gentrification became a national buzzword and a major cause of friction at city planning meetings, the Thai Community Development Center had begun meeting with Jackie Goldberg—Garcetti’s 13th district predecessor—to discuss the impacts of the new Metro red line stations. The community’s conversations with Goldberg gave “the multi-ethnic stakeholders of East Hollywood” bargaining power, Martorell says, and eventually led to the creation of a city ordinance, adopted in 2001, that restricted what developers could build alongside the Red Line stations in Hollywood.

The plan encouraged developers to build schools, childcare facilities, public parks, and libraries while promoting the construction of affordable housing in mixed-use developments.

It also limited new residential development, supported social services and local businesses, and established standards for new construction to “conform to the existing neighborhood character”—of which Thai Town has plenty.

East Hollywood’s ordinance, with its limitations on parking and emphasis on pedestrians, shares some similarities with the North Westlake Design District ordinance.

But it was drafted before gentrification became a rallying cry for tenants’ rights activists nationwide — and it was created in part to thwart its potential negative effects.

Central Los Angeles was still battling the stigma of violence, poverty, and racial tension in the aftermath of the LA Uprising, which led to white flight to the valleys and suburbs. The area known as Wilshire Center had not yet been rebranded as Koreatown, the boundaries of which were not outlined until as recently as 2010. (Today, it is consistently ranked among the hippest and most popular rental neighborhoods in the city.) Between 2000 and 2010, rents jumped 73 percent in the Westlake-adjacent zip code 90012, encompassing parts of Downtown, Chinatown, and Echo Park, according to one analyst.

A massive Filipino American mural at Unidad Park.

Today, the city of Los Angeles consistently boasts one of the nation’s most unaffordable housing markets. Those statistics help explain why the LA Tenants Union has become an active force in rental battles across the city.

Their campaign to oppose the Westlake Design District—dubbed Coalition to Defend Westlake—has helped to educate some residents about the proposal, while encouraging others to take a greater stake in the future of their neighborhood.

But the union and its coalition run the risk of co-opting the voice of the community for the sake of its own anti-development agenda, which prioritizes existing renters over property owners and new businesses.

Joselyn Geaga Rosenthal, a longtime Historic Filipinotown resident who formerly owned an art gallery on Temple Street and says her family has been rooted in the neighborhood for more than 50 years, says outrage over the ordinance is misguided.

“Development is already happening,” she says. “This ordinance would make sure that developments are pedestrian-friendly.” She says she gave her input on an early draft of the ordinance and has been collaborating with city planners to help create a more walkable, business-friendly neighborhood.

But some Westlake residents, like community organizer Chrysanthe Oltmann, say the same courtesy was not extended to them.

“If the Coalition to Defend Westlake had not petitioned and stalled this and gone out and notified people,” she says, “nobody would’ve known and these changes would have been made.” Her question to city planners and to residents alike: “How can we address the top-down nature? How can we involve the community more in every step of the decision-making process?”

Senior city planner Patricia Diefenderfer says her department will continue to field feedback from the community and tweak the ordinance accordingly.

“There’s a danger they would assume that the new policies and ordinances are not and have never been intended to benefit them and are intended not for them, but for people who will replace them,” says Reanne Estrada, a creative director with Public Matters, a community arts group that collaborates with the Pilipino Workers Center on Hidden Hi Fi, a cultural tour of the neighborhood in a 1944 vintage Jeepney.

Part of her group’s mission is to document and archive the stories of the neighborhood and the people who live there, as it continues to evolve.

“For us, it was really important to make sure that we were able to capture and save these stories, because admittedly, neighborhoods change over time, they evolve,” she says. “But we kind of have to ask ourselves how much of that we can control in the direction of being more humane and respectful of people and their rights.”

Editor: Jenna Chandler

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