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Filipinotown Searching for Its Center

Times Staff Writer

Signs at the edge of downtown mark the cultural home of Los Angeles’ largest Asian group. But little else of their presence is apparent.

Historic Filipinotown won the designation three years ago after a decades-long battle, with hopes that the blue sign would lead to the rebirth of the community. But Filipinos living in scattered locales, including West Covina and Carson, have found little reason to drive into the working-class neighborhood of car repair shops and mini-marts.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Sept. 15, 2005 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday September 15, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 17 words Type of Material: Correction
Filipinotown -- An article in Tuesday’s California section about historic Filipinotown misspelled Rowland Heights as Roland Heights.

Once a cultural nexus bustling with community events, the 2.1-square-mile area is now host to weed-filled lots and defaced storefronts with locked gates and barred windows.

A lone trumpet plays a few bars from the song of the Mexican Hat Dance, breaking the neighborhood’s short-lived silence on a Sunday afternoon, only to be drowned out by roaring buses billowing clouds of exhaust. Elderly Filipinos lug grocery bags as they walk slowly across the uneven pavement, passing small stores with signs in Spanish, Chinese and Korean. It’s easy to miss what’s Filipino in the area.

Historic Filipinotown, some business owners and residents say, remains mired in the same problems that have been plaguing it for the last decade: declining economic activity and dwindling community unity. Perhaps most significant, it remains as nearly invisible to the outside community as it ever was. Filipinos make up less than 15% of the area’s 40,000 residents, according to the district’s 2002 study; 65% are Latino.

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“It will always be historic until Filipinos begin to flex their muscles and work together and actually develop the area,” said Joseph Bernardo, field deputy for Councilman Eric Garcetti, whose district covers Historic Filipinotown. Without direct community action, Bernardo said, “it will always remain a historic tribute. It won’t become like a vibrant ethnic enclave like a Chinatown or Koreatown.”

Still, community leaders and activists said they are slowly buying vacant properties so that Filipino Americans can reclaim and develop the community. They plan to build affordable housing, mostly for seniors, and to offer more cultural activities including spoken word and musical performances to lure Filipinos living in Southern California.

The largest concentration of Filipino Americans in Greater Los Angeles is in Carson, where they account for 18% of the population, according to the 2000 Census. The city of Los Angeles has the most Filipino Americans, 101,062 in 2000, with concentrations in Eagle Rock and Studio City. Other centers include Cerritos, where Filipinos make up 12% of the population; West Covina, 9%; Buena Park, 6%; and Long Beach, 4%.

But rather than shopping in Historic Filipinotown, Filipino Americans in the San Gabriel Valley and other areas say they prefer to go to suburban malls in West Covina that have large Filipino-owned supermarkets and restaurants.

Michelle Nadala, who works at Manila Gifts in an open-air mall in West Covina, waved her arm toward the stores brimming with religious items, Filipino music and seashell decorations. “This is the best place to call Filipinotown,” she said.

Some Filipino Americans, including 23-year-old Patrick Manabat of Roland Heights, weren’t aware Historic Filipinotown exists. Manabat is used to getting his Filipino meals, like noodle dish pancit and spicy beef dish kari-kari, in West Covina, at one of South Azusa Avenue’s plazas.

“Instead of going there [Historic Filipinotown], I go someplace else,” he said.

Reversing the lack of interest was the goal of community leaders, who won the official Filipinotown designation three years ago after a 20-year battle for Filipinos to be recognized as a community and for their historical contributions to Los Angeles.

Unlike other Asian immigrant groups, Filipino Americans did not gather in large numbers in ethnic enclaves like Chinatown or Koreatown because they already spoke English well. In the Philippines, colonized by the United States in 1898, English is taught in schools along with Tagalog, the country’s official language.

Filipino Americans have been living in Historic Filipinotown since the 1920s, when the Filipino Christian Church was built on North Union Avenue, said Teresita Dery, librarian at the Filipino American Library, a nonprofit organization seeking to preserve cultural heritage.

In the 1980s, community organizations began to push for signs to designate the area as Filipino, but there were disagreements among disparate groups on the area’s size or name, said Joel Jacinto, executive director of Search to Involve Pilipino Americans, a nonprofit group dedicated to the area’s economic development and to providing community health services and programs.

Jacinto said Garcetti, who was running against Mike Woo for the 13th District City Council seat in 2001, approached the groups and asked what they wanted. Their primary request was for the historic designation, which Garcetti included in his platform. He also pledged to hire Filipinos as staffers and push for justice for Filipino World War II veterans. In return for those promises, Filipino Americans voted in significant numbers for Garcetti, Jacinto said.

Garcetti won the election, and a year later the blue signs went up, marking the area bounded by the Hollywood Freeway on the north, Beverly Boulevard on the south, Hoover Street on the west and Glendale Boulevard on the east.

But since then, some residents and business owners said efforts to revitalize the area into a cultural home have stalled. Old foam cups, sticky ice cream wrappers and spoiled food litter the streets. Historic Filipinotown’s third-year designation anniversary passed in August with no official communitywide event.

“In order for Historic Filipinotown to develop, it’s going to take the participation of very many different sectors of our community working together, and that in [itself] is our own greatest challenge and opportunity,” Jacinto said. "[It’s] definitely possible that it’s out there for us, as long as we’re able to work collaboratively together. That’s the rub.”

Part of the push targets senior citizens who live in the area and those who community leaders hope will move there. Jacinto’s group, Search to Involve Pilipino Americans, has built two projects, with a total of 92 units, for low- to moderate-income families and is planning 162 more, about 80 of which will be senior housing.

Leaders also want to make the area visually distinct. A $2.1-million Historic Filipinotown Pavilion at Beverly Boulevard and Union Avenue will showcase a new pocket park next to the Filipino American Mural, the nation’s largest mural focusing on the ethnic group.

For now, the mural remains locked behind a fence, its description tagged and decayed.

Filipino crosswalk designs, based on traditional weave patterns, have been placed in three intersections. Other plans include streetlight banners and purple orchid trees, familiar sights in the Philippines, Bernardo said. So far, 25 orchid trees have been planted on Temple Street, with 75 to 100 more coming in the next year or so, he added.

There are also preliminary plans from various community groups for a statue of Jose Rizal, a writer and Philippine national hero who was executed in 1896. Garcetti’s office is planning a memorial in Lake Street Park for Filipino veterans of World War II, Bernardo said.

Two recently opened art spaces -- Tribal Cafe and Remy’s on Temple -- showcasing Philippine artwork have attracted some suburban Filipinos to the area, as has a community art show in June organized by the Assn. for the Advancement of Filipino American Arts and Culture.

“It takes a long time, but someone has got to do it,” said Joselyn Geaga-Rosenthal, owner of Remy’s. Unlike Koreatown, Historic Filipinotown does not have streets that allow for a good mixture of businesses to prosper, said Ken Klein, head of USC’s East Asian Library. The main corridors of Historic Filipinotown, including Beverly Boulevard, have “lots of small businesses that Filipinos could develop, little grocery stores, fast food places.... But there’s no real center and no real opportunity for major kinds of investments,” Klein said.

But Filipino American community activists are still optimistic. Already the designation has given Filipino Americans more political bite, as Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa visited the area during his campaign.

“We don’t want to be known as the longest community sign in the city of Los Angeles,” said James Santa Maria, a Filipino community activist. “We want it to mean something, and we want to make sure it endures.”


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