A Neighborhood Just West of Downtown

For the last 10 years, I have lived in a small apartment building, probably grand in its day, that is located where Koreatown thrusts into the Central American community, and where Salvadoran children startle their grandmothers by leaping out of shadows with toy Uzis and Mac-10s. Nobody has really bothered to give this area a name, though in the news reports that have dominated local television for the last week, the anchor people have been calling it "just west of downtown."

Half a mile north, the neighborhood consolidates, takes on weight and a Latin flair, and is clearly part of Hollywood. A couple of blocks south begin the brand-new housing blocks of Wilshire Center--brand-new but already peeling around the edges--that provide underground parking and security codes for pink-collar office workers who cannot yet afford the more stylish condominium complexes of Encino or Baldwin Hills.

My neighborhood has always been transient, a brief stopping place for Thais and Nicaraguans and pale, gaunt poets before they move on to single-family homes in greener parts of town, though the newly arrived Koreans seem to put down roots. The last time I bothered to count, there were restaurants of 14 ethnicities within a five-minute walk of my front door.

The local supermarkets, big as soccer fields, are famous for their selection of multinational goods. Guatemalan women walk home from the Ralphs with bags of groceries balanced expertly on their heads.

Last Thursday, the intricate framework of the neighborhood collapsed for a few hours. Drawn out onto the streets by a particularly nasty bit of apartment-house arson--not by any means a rarity around here--a crowd coalesced, moved onto the supermarkets and, barred from there, into the strip malls that line Vermont Avenue. From the stoop of my building, it seemed like a giant block party, a looters' bacchanalia of new tennis rackets and boom boxes, and later of liberated rental tapes from the video store, plastic-wrapped clothes from the dry cleaner and fake palm trees from the furniture store. On Vermont itself, I saw thousands of people out on an illegal shopping spree, helpfully assisting one another in maneuvering a sofa or a heavy Barcalounger across the busy thoroughfare. One tired-looking cop drank a cup of coffee and tried not to look anyone directly in the eye. And then the fires started, mostly in liquor stores and chain mini-mall clothing outlets, but not all that discriminately and only a few yards away from densely inhabited apartment buildings. That night, men stood rooftop sentry with Uzis, outlined against the orange sky. It was the first time I can remember being comforted by the sight of armed drug dealers.

This is some of what is burned and gone, just within walking distance of my apartment: Vim and Arunee and the Thai Kitchen on Vermont just north of Ninth, among the oldest Thai restaurants in Los Angeles; the fine Halal Pakistani restaurant Bundoo Khan; the Bangkok-style buffet restaurant Renoo's Kitchen (noted, ironically, for its incendiary Thai curries); the Filipino fish joint Bahay Bangusan; the Third Street branch of the excellent Salvadoran place Atlacatl, which was home to some of the best pupusas in town; a brand-new country Korean restaurant that was around too briefly for me to remember what its name was; the Latin nightclub Mexican Village, whose groovy, Mayan-style gargoyles stand grinning over smoldering heaps of ash. In one mall, newscasters have been lining up for standups against scenes of picturesque devastation the way that 747s sometimes circle over O'Hare.

And yet the neighborhood survives, mango vendors and paleta carts flourishing in the morning-after calm like the cheerful green shoots that sprout from a newly charred forest floor, noodle shops and dumpling houses, doughnut stands and taquerias that swept away the broken glass and were running again the morning after the troubled afternoon. A lone, well-lighted Salvadoran restaurant stands improbable sentinel in a block-long burned-out mall, pumping out pupusas and carne asada while surrounded on either side by ruined stores, among the smoking rubble and the military patrols.

Most of the supermarkets are open again--my neighborhood was luckier than those a few miles south--and there's no longer need for shoppers to fistfight in the aisles over chickens. The restaurants are mostly open again too--the several that burned tended to be unluckily close to liquor stores or discount outlets--though the atmosphere is far from gay, the waiters bound to laugh a little too heartily at your own forced jollity. Monday night I went to one of my favorite Korean restaurants, Yee Joh, close to the burned-out complexes on Hoover and Alvarado. (The mall it anchors sports a professionally lettered, though misspelled, sign that says "We Support Rodeney King.") Yee Joh was emptier than usual, brightly lit, fairly grim: the Korean-American community doesn't have much to smile about this week. The food was good as ever--the leek pancakes as crisp, the barbecued octopus as savory--but I almost felt like crying, and they seemed relieved to see us go.

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