Recession, riots and ethnic changes took their toll on the historic Chapman Park Market in Koreatown. But Los Angeles has a way of reinventing itself.
What was the city’s first drive-in mall, beloved for its Spanish and Moorish architectural styles, is now one of its hippest hangouts. The whims of Los Angeles’ fickle club-goers have happily prevailed.
“It feels like you’re somewhere other than L.A.,” said 24-year-old computer specialist Mike Kwn from Orange County. He and many other under-30 Korean Americans from as far away as San Diego have made the building’s ornate courtyard a center of their social life.
When it opened in 1929, the gracious structure on 6th Street was an architectural wonder, featuring the novel concept of one-stop shopping for fresh produce, meat and dry goods. It was an urbane attraction in the fashionable Wilshire District at a time when movie stars played at the nearby Ambassador Hotel.
But the district changed, becoming a less affluent, although vibrant, center for Latino and Korean immigrants. The Ambassador folded and the Chapman Park Market, which was named a Los Angeles city landmark in 1988, went into decline.
The 1992 riots and an economic slump hurt plans to revive and restore the massive market, which spans the block between Kenmore and Alexandria avenues.
About two years ago, that changed. New owners
renamed the building Chapman Plaza and brought in coffeehouses and boutiques that catered to a younger, free-spending crowd.
“There was a point it turned,” said Linda Dishman, executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy, the architectural preservation organization. “It became one of the ‘it’ places.”
Now on weekends, the Chapman Plaza buzzes with Korean American college students, many from the suburbs, who start their late nights in upscale coffeehouses with names like Cloud 9, Bohemians, Renaissance and Antique.
Well-dressed young professionals gather on outdoor patios to share steaming platters of spiced and grilled beef, sip coffee, smoke cigarettes and chat in English and Korean.
For many, Chapman Plaza is a more comfortable alternative to the often exclusive Hollywood club scene because it caters to Korean culture and features architecture and ambience.
The plaza includes one Korean restaurant, a sushi place, four dimly lit coffeehouses, a song room or norae-bang (the Korean version of karaoke), a record store specializing in Korean pop, a flower shop, a bakery, a clothing store, a hair salon, a billiard hall open until 4 a.m. and a 24-hour computer game room.
“It’s like a little scene from Korea,” said 21-year-old UCLA student David Jeong. “That’s what’s cool about it.”
Annie Kim, a 27-year-old film distributor called the plaza a “mini Third Street Promenade” in the heart of Koreatown.
A valet parks cars until 2 a.m. for $2. People often meet at Chapman Plaza and walk to half a dozen other popular Koreatown clubs.
“We don’t have to move our cars,” said Kim, who lives in the San Fernando Valley. “We come here, and then we decide where to go.”
At the upstairs Renaissance Billiards on weekends, people line up early to play $14 games. Typically, there’s a waiting list of 60 people by 10 p.m.
Chapman Park Market was built when Wilshire Boulevard, the commercial corridor two blocks to the south, was bustling with large department stores, majestic churches and synagogues, theaters and the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in the Ambassador.
Built for $200,000 in 1929, the market was the most costly structure in the western United States, historians say.
Architect Stile O. Clements designed the Italian clay tile roof, ornate wrought iron and arched doorways to imitate the style of 18th century Spanish architect and sculptor Jose Churiguera.
“It’s a very special setting within the walls of that courtyard,” said Ken Bernstein, the Los Angeles Conservancy’s director of preservation issues. “It has a gracious and serene feel . . . that is unmatched elsewhere in Los Angeles.”
The current action is a welcome revival after the static 1990s in Koreatown.
Soon after Chapman Park Market was declared a city historic-cultural monument, developer Wayne Ratkovich purchased and renovated the building for about $11 million with visions of creating an urban meeting ground.
It reopened in the early 1990s with delis, cafes, a health club and neighborhood bistro, but business suffered. “Our initial tenants had a tough time surviving,” Ratkovich said. “What we imagined is pretty much what you see today.”
Ratkovich sold the building about five years ago to developer Young Huh.
Huh divided the property for 15 separate tenants and leased many spaces to Korean American-owned businesses. Last October, the property was purchased by another developer, No Myung.
Restaurateur Jesse Suh was among the new tenants. He opened Toe Bang, which offers traditional Korean cuisine for moderate prices.
“I drink coffee and I sit here and I feel like I’m in the Mediterranean,” Suh said on the patio, which features a fountain.
On a recent Tuesday night, Mike Kwn and his co-workers stopped by after work for a dish called rosepyunchae--sliced beef with vegetables served cold and best enjoyed with a bottle of beer.
He motioned to the crowded restaurant. “That just tells you this is one of the hottest in Koreatown,” Kwn said.
The property’s popularity attracted an Atlanta-based restaurant chain, Three Dollar Cafe, which plans to open its first Los Angeles restaurant in the plaza early next year. The company’s Korean owners said the location, the first outside metro Atlanta, seemed a sound investment for their restaurant, which caters to young, beer-drinking sports fans.
“At night, all you see are young Korean Americans” in Chapman Plaza, said Bill Kim, the company’s director of planning. “We wanted to provide a place where they can meet friends.”
The renewed interest in the building by the Korean American community is a good lesson in historic preservation for the rest of the city, Los Angeles Conservancy officials said.
“They’re just adding another chapter to the history of Chapman Park Market,” Dishman said.