Ethnic Change and Enclaves in Los Angeles
By James P. Allen and Eugene Turner
Los Angeles County is home to 10 million people—more than any other county in the U.S. It includes the City of Los Angeles and 87 other cities. Although interconnected with four adjacent counties in a massive metropolitan area of over 17 million residents, Los Angeles County has always had the region’s greatest ethnic diversity.
In this article we look briefly at ethnic trends in the county up to 2010 and then focus on the larger ethnic residential and commercial concentrations, often called enclaves. Lastly, we discuss two smaller concentrations easily accessible from your hotel in Downtown Los Angeles. All eight enclaves are located on the accompanying map.
In 1960, non-Hispanic Whites comprised 80 percent of Los Angeles County’s population, but since then their numbers have been decreasing, due especially to moves to outlying counties and to other states and increased immigration of other groups. Now only 28 percent of county residents are Whites. Despite this general decline of Whites, immigration has tripled Armenian numbers since 1980, with 170,000 now living in the county.
The largest ethnic group in the county is Hispanics, or Latinos, who make up 48 percent of the total. About 80 percent of Latinos are of Mexican origin, followed by Salvadorans and Guatemalans. The next largest groups are Asians (13 percent) and Blacks (8 percent). Black numbers have decreased since 1990, although the four outlying counties have shown gains as many Blacks sought lower-priced housing in more distant locales. Asian immigration has led to rapid growth over several decades so that now there are over 300,000 each of Filipinos and Chinese, with Koreans and Japanese each numbering over 100,000.
Only about half of the people in most ethnic groups live in any geographical concentration of their group, but we sketch here several of the largest and best known enclaves.
Mexicans in the Eastside. Although Los Angeles was founded by the Spanish in 1781 and was later part of an independent Mexico, California became U.S. territory in 1848. English-speaking Whites soon established their control, and many Mexicans lost their land holdings while most Mexicans were relegated to low-paying and menial jobs.
Railroad connection to Eastern states in the 1880s led to a rapid in-migration of Whites. After 1900 increasing congestion and aging structures in Downtown led to a program of urban renewal. This had the effect of moving Mexicans from the old Plaza area eastward across the Los Angeles River into newly developed Boyle Heights and nearby rural areas. Throughout the twentieth century, as the Mexican population has grown by immigration and natural increase, many Mexicans have moved farther east into suburbs of the San Gabriel Valley that had previously been almost all White. The Eastside’s oldest sections, Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles, have its lowest incomes and are over 75 percent Mexican, but incomes are higher and populations more mixed farther east.
Whites in the Westside. West of the Los Angeles River, this loosely defined area was built up as suburbs beginning in the 1920s and remains two-thirds White and mostly middle- and upper-class. Except for newer sections of Downtown, the Westside contains most of Los Angeles’ major office buildings, higher-paying jobs, and expensive homes. It excludes the older, poor, and more racially mixed Hollywood, but it stretches from about five miles west of Downtown westward past the independent cities of Beverly Hills and West Hollywood. The Westside extends from the Santa Monica Mountains on the north to approximately Pico Blvd. on the south, with White percentages increasing in wealthier neighborhoods, especially those near and in the mountains.
The Westside contains the most prestigious residential areas of the city and, together with Downtown, represents the city’s center of economic power. A reflection of the social and economic divide between Whites and both Mexicans and Blacks is the fact that most Westside Whites never venture into the Eastside or South Los Angeles.
Blacks in South Los Angeles. To the south of Downtown and Interstate 10 is another older suburb, once a home to both Whites and Blacks. When racial segregation became legal and widespread in the 1920s, Whites began moving out of the area to newer housing. With their departure, and restrictions on the areas in which Blacks (and Asians and Mexicans, too) could rent or buy houses, a large area (formerly called South Central) extending south past Watts developed into a mostly Black and poor ghetto.
Beginning in the 1950s, as residential segregation lost its legal support, some middle-class Blacks left South Los Angeles, often moving westward, prompting many Whites to depart. There are now important middle-class and more affluent Black populations in Inglewood and the Baldwin Hills, and Leimert Park on Crenshaw Blvd. has become the leading center of Black cultural life. Since 1990 Blacks have moved into many other parts of the city that had been very White, such as the San Fernando Valley to the north. Over the last half-century the departure of middle-class Blacks from older settlements has exacerbated problems such as poor schools, gangs, and crime in those areas, where poverty and unemployment remain major problems.
However, demand for single-family housing by Mexicans and Central Americans has kept home prices fairly high, and homeowning Blacks have found a ready market. The net effect is that South Los Angeles east of Interstate 110 has become well over half Latino, resulting in stores and churches catering to both Black and Latino populations.
Chinese in the West San Gabriel Valley. Beginning in the 1970s a Chinese immigrant began to develop America’s first suburban Chinatown a few miles east of Downtown, choosing Monterey Park as its focus. With advertisements in Hong Kong and Taiwan calling it the “Chinese Beverly Hills,” he attracted many families who bought land, apartment buildings, and businesses. Before the arrival of Chinese, the West San Gabriel Valley was mostly White but with some Mexicans and Japanese. Immigration has resulted in a steadily expanding Chinese, Taiwanese, and Chinese-Vietnamese area focused on Monterey Park, Arcadia, Alhambra, and Rosemead, with these groups now comprising 46 percent of the four cities’ total population. With many immigrants bringing in money for home purchase and other investments, some Chinese in the West San Gabriel Valley have bought expensive homes and opened a full range of businesses and services. More affluent Chinese and other Asians often settled in newer homes farther east in the county, in Walnut, Diamond Bar, or Cerritos.
Armenians in Glendale. Although Armenian immigrants have been settling in Los Angeles for over a century, the pleasant suburban city of Glendale has recently become especially attractive to Armenians from Iran. In the late 1970s many Iranian families, anticipating the downfall of the Shah and subsequent persecution, sent family members to Los Angeles. The exodus continued into the early 1980s, with Iranians at that time having to sneak themselves and valuables out of the country. Among the several ethnic and religious groups represented by these Iranians, some Armenians settled in Glendale and were joined by Armenians from Lebanon. Others followed in classic chain migrations. Immigrants bought businesses and opened new ones, as well as Armenian schools and churches. As the Armenian presence in Glendale has grown steadily over recent decades, Latino numbers have declined. Armenians now comprise 32 percent of the city’s total population.
Koreans in Koreatown. This small area only a couple of miles west of Downtown is the single greatest focus of Korean life in the city. It contains a full range of businesses and services for Koreans, most of who travel in from outlying suburbs for work, shopping, health care, or other activities. Koreatown has seen much investment by Korean companies over several decades, but after 2000, construction of new apartments, office buildings, and stores, as well as continued renovations of older structures, really took off. At the same time more middle- and upper-class Korean families moved there from South Korea or from various Los Angeles suburbs. The area is residentially multiethnic, with Latinos typically in lower-rent apartments and Koreans, other Asians, and Whites in more expensive housing. With the intense gentrification and higher rental prices over the past decade, the percentage of Latinos has diminished and the percentage of Asians increased. Now, Koreans constitute about a third of the area’s population.
The following areas can be visited quite easily via Dash buses, which run every 7–10 minutes until 7 PM (only $.25 a ride). Go online or ask the concierge to show you the map of the Dash routes.
Chinatown. Initially developed in the 1930s as a focus for tourist shopping and a replacement for earlier Chinatowns, this newest Chinatown was mostly Cantonese until the 1960s. Then immigrants from different parts of China, Hong Kong and Taiwan began to arrive, and the late ‘70s saw an influx of Chinese from Southeast Asia. This latter group bought property, built shopping centers, and opened shops and restaurants so that by 1990 they owned the majority of businesses. They energized Chinatown economically, especially the section south of College Street. Altogether, Chinatown is quite multiethnic, with only two-thirds of its residents Chinese of one origin or another.
Chinatown contains fewer than two percent of the Chinese in the county, and its residents are poorer and less educated than Chinese elsewhere in the county. Although it’s convenient for tourists to visit Chinatown, it’s not typical of Chinese settlement in Los Angeles.
Little Tokyo. This area has been home to Japanese since the beginning of the 20th century except for the period of internment during World War II. Beginning in the 1970s, with the assistance of Japanese Americans and government subsidies, nearly all the old structures have been demolished to make room for the new hotels, banks, shopping centers, and apartment buildings visible today. Prior to the ‘70s, most Japanese in Los Angeles had moved to suburbs so that modern Little Tokyo has long been known more as a Japanese American cultural and commercial center than a place of residence. Visiting Japanese businessmen and tourists stay in Little Tokyo’s hotels, and its shops and restaurants are popular with Japanese and other residents of Los Angeles.
We hope this brief introduction and the accompanying map have given you a taste of L.A.’s ethnic diversity and some of its patterns. Those wishing to learn about other ethnic groups and enclaves in L.A. can consult our book The Ethnic Quilt, which covers 34 different groups and is now available online at Professor Turner’s personal website.
James P. Allen, Professor Emeritus of Geography, California State University, Northridge
Eugene Turner, Professor, California State University, Northridge