Glenn Willings, 72, lives in a parking lot. He sleeps in a makeshift tent made of a blue tarp, some scavenged grocery carts and an old mattress. His last home was Folsom State Prison.
Less than a block away Laura and David Maher share a one-bedroom apartment in a luxury high rise with rents upwards of $4,000. The couple is originally from Colorado but last lived in West Hollywood.
This is Koreatown. The New York Times called it one of the trendiest neighborhoods in the United States. K-Town, as it is locally known, is the most densely-populated and diverse area of Los Angeles. It is also one of the poorest. K-Town is a place where extremes sit side-by-side, where poverty and luxury share the same block.
Willings hasn’t always been on the street. He says that 15 years ago he was a recipient of Section Eight housing assistance, but lost it after going to jail. Now he and seven other homeless live in a city-owned parking lot on the corner of 6th Street and Vermont Boulevard.
“Denny’s is open all night, you can go there and use the restroom,” Willings says when asked why he chose to make the parking lot his home. “Walgreens is open all night, you can go there and get some soda and chips.”
Willings is hardly alone. Data from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority shows that the number of tents and makeshift shelters has increased by 85 percent in LA County since 2013.Glenn Willings, 72, lives in a ramshackle tent set up in a parking lot on the corner of Vermont Ave. and 6th St. in Koreatown, Los Angeles. Glenn is one of the thousands of homeless who reside on the streets of Koreatown and are being pushed out by new money developments. (Scott Cook/Annenberg Media)
“Pretty cool for people like us”
The Mahers, originally from Colorado, may not use the Denny’s for its bathroom, but their reasons for settling in K-Town are roughly the same: location.
"It's pretty cool for people like us who are not from LA because we can see downtown and the Hollywood sign from the window of our apartment,” says David Maher, a supervisor at a private elementary school in San Pedro. “It's like we've got a birds-eye-view of two of the most famous landmarks in LA."
The Mahers live on the 11th floor of The Vermont, one of K-Town’s newest and largest high rise apartments. The building sits on choice real estate, located on the corner of two of LA’s main thoroughfares and across the street from the Wilshire-Vermont Metro station.
What is happening in K-Town is part of a larger trend in LA High-end developments, aimed at bringing in newer, wealthier residents, are changing the face of culturally distinct neighborhoods around the city.
“This construction is trying to attract young urban professionals with a lot of income,” says Brady Collins, development associate with the Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance, or KIWA.
“They don’t ride public transit”
The K-Town building boom is a reflection of LA’s “transit-oriented development strategy,” which seeks to put more people on less land while getting them out of cars and into trains and buses.
On the surface it appears that the city’s strategy is working, with new apartment high rises going up over Metro stations along Wilshire Boulevard. Local activists, however, see a flaw in the city’s vision, namely that many of the new buildings come equipped with massive parking structures.
“The idea is that if you build around these transit hubs folks that live in these buildings will use the transit,” Collins says. “The problem is that the people who we’ve seen move into units like the Vermont is that they bring their cars with them, they don’t ride public transit.”
Collin’s employer, KIWA, advocates for K-Town’s low income workers, who are increasingly under pressure by the neighborhood’s rising cost of living. The group was formed shortly before the 1992 LA riots, which saw tensions between the African Americans and the growing Korean community reach a breaking point.
Voices of change
What's Koreatown really like? Press play to hear how K-Town's residents experience life in their unusual neighborhood.
Father Frank Hicks, 71, leads St. Basil’s Catholic church in Koreatown. His church caters to the diverse community by conducting services in English, Spanish and Korean.
Violet Cole, 26, lives in an affordable housing unit in Koreatown. While luxury construction has boomed in recent years, new affordable units remain elusive.
Brady Collins, 27, works with the Koreatown Worker’s Alliance, an organization that advocates on behalf of the neighborhood's low-income residents.
Isaac Lee, 34, is a lifelong resident of Koreatown and the son of Korean immigrants. Lee now lives near the massive twin-towered Vermont high rises.
Gigi Coleman, 50, has lived in Los Angeles all her life. Coleman grew up in the Koreatown area but left in 2010, feeling at odds with the youthful direction of the neighborhood.
“Cultures mashed up in the same pot”
Changes to immigration law allowed Koreans to enter the U.S. during the early 1970s, just as the area now called K-Town was entering an economic decline. Before the decline, the neighborhood was known for its connections to Hollywood and the Ambassador Hotel, which hosted the Academy Awards through the 1930s and was the site of Presidential candidate Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1968.
Large corporations like Texaco and IBM that occupied offices on Wilshire Boulevard left the area for Downtown and West Los Angeles, taking many white collar jobs with them.
The departure of these businesses created a real estate vacuum that were filled by Korean immigrants.
“My parents came in the early 70s. When they came they knew only Korean but started living an American life. Now they are fluent in Korean, English and Spanish” says Isaac Lee, a 34-year old businessman and father, who grew up and now lives in Koreatown.
The Korean population was joined shortly after by migrants from Central America fleeing civil wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador. Now only about a fifth of the neighborhood’s residents are of Korean ancestry while more than half are Latino.
“When I was young, it was just Koreans and Latinos. Now business is booming and rent is high. Hundreds [of] types of people and cultures mashed up in the same pot,” says Lee.
“Many are experiencing wage theft”
Despite being a minority in the neighborhood that bears their name, Koreans continue to dominate the commercial life of Koreatown. A non-Korean speaker would be hard pressed to guess the names of many of the businesses along Olympic and Wilshire Boulevards between Vermont and Western.
But this appears to be changing too. New buildings like The Vermont, or the Wilshire-Vermont across the street are opening their ground floor storefronts to traditional American fast food chains. English is making a comeback in the form of Fatburger and Jimmy Johns.
K-Town is also reclaiming its lost reputation as a nightlife hot spot for young people around Los Angeles who are attracted to its burgeoning restaurant and bar scene.
The Line Hotel on Wilshire is a testament to this new side of the neighborhood. At night the entrance to the hotel’s valet is a line of Land Rovers, BMW’s and Mercedes.
The crowd that gathers in front of Pot, the hotel’s trendy restaurant, is young and racially diverse. These well-dressed patrons are the image of glitz and glamour that is returning to Koreatown.
For those coming to K-Town to eat and drink it is easy to accept this portrait of a youthful, vibrant neighborhood at face value. Look into the kitchens and the picture is different.
“Many of them are experiencing what we call wage theft,” says Collins. “This is a huge problem in Koreatown.”
Wage theft is exactly what it sounds like: Employers withholding compensation from their workers and forcing them to work for less than minimum wage. Collins says that restaurant industry is one of the leading perpetrators of wage theft.
“Koreatown has an enormous concentration of restaurants. We know that it is a problem that a lot of residents of this neighborhood face,” Collins says. KIWA believes that the amount of income lost by LA workers to wage theft may total more than $1-billion annually.
“I just want a place to stay”
The forces that are driving change in Koreatown don’t appear to be weakening. Mayor Eric Garcetti has called for the construction of 100,000 new housing units by 2021, while the Metro’s Purple Line extension will connect K-Town to the Westside. Both are likely to attract more people to the centrally located neighborhood.
Some worry that these changes are a sign that K-Town will follow the same path as other gentrified LA neighborhoods like Echo Park and Silverlake. Others are not so sure.
“If Koreatown were to gentrify it would have already done so,” Collins says. “Koreatown is just enormous. I don’t think this entire place could gentrify, at least not in our lifetimes.”
For those like Glenn Willings, the question of who will be allowed to live in K-Town hits much closer to home. The parking lot that he’s lived in for the past year is slated to become the new home of the Korean American Museum, a building complex that will include 103 new apartments.
Whether or not this new development will include affordable units is still up for debate. Willings says he’d be able to pay between $400-$500 a month for rent.
“I just want a place to stay, that’s all,” says Willings. “It seems to be pretty cool here.”
Koreatown by the numbers
Get the lowdown on K-Town by exploring the stats below.