Community officials have long fought for a unified city council, which they believe would lead to reinvestments in the most densely populated area of the city.
As states strive to finalize voting cards for the next decade, some Asian-American communities are pushing – and ready – to see more political representation at the local level.
In Los Angeles, Korean-American leaders have long campaigned for Koreatown, a popular cultural and tourist hub, to be united under a single city council district. Over the past year, while waiting for 2020 census data, a network of community groups mobilized hundreds of residents to get them to sign petitions and speak at redistribution hearings.
In the city map published on October 1, the entire Koreatown district is represented by one council member instead of four for the first time in decades. A final vote will take place this year.
Activists say the result is a reflection of years of grassroots organization against a redistribution process that they believe is shrouded in corruption and favoritism.
“Our goal of uniting Koreatown in one district is a 20 year old wish list,” Eunice Song, executive director of the Korean American Coalition, a national civic group that has supported Koreatown since 1983, told NBC Asian America.
The neighborhood, home to more than 120,000 people, is currently divided into four of L.A.’s 15 boroughs. This fragmented structure, Song said, is forcing Koreatown residents to compete for the attention and resources of several elected officials.
“If accountability is divided among four councilors,” she said, “it has a direct bearing on the fact that Koreatown’s needs are being reduced and therefore neglected.”
As a result, many chronic problems in the community remain unsolved. As the most densely populated area of the city, Koreatown has the fewest green spaces. According to the 2019 American Community Survey, one in five residents lives below the state poverty line, almost twice as much as in California. The proliferation of homeless camps has created hygiene problems for business owners.
Despite its name, Koreatown is a mostly Latin American neighborhood. Asian Americans are the second largest ethnic group. But it is Korean immigrants who settled in the area in the 1960s after the country’s immigration quota system was lifted who built a sprawling business district with world-renowned restaurants and nightclubs.
If a single councilor represented Koreatown, Song said, it would mean the taxpayer’s money generated by the neighborhood’s thriving businesses would be reinvested in the community. The money could be used to clean up streets and graffiti, invest in public safety initiatives, and build more parks and cultural centers. It could also serve to fill the community office with more Korean and Spanish, which can better serve monolingual, low-income residents.
Earlier this year, a group of 10 long-standing Koreatown nonprofits, including the Korean American Coalition, formed the Koreatown Redistricting Task Force to gather community support for their campaign. The coalition organized three town halls and several online workshops – in Spanish, Korean and English – to educate voters on the benefits of a consolidated local council.
The map design placed Koreatown in Council District 10, an area that spans much of south and central LA, by the end of the year.
During redistribution hearings, other neighborhood leaders have raised concerns about a unified Koreatown. Since each parish must have roughly a quarter of a million people, maintaining Koreatown means other wards will lose voters. Some residents of Council District 10, which has a large black population, said making Koreatown a district could dilute their political voice and weaken their ability to continue electing black councilors, a tradition that dates back to the 1960s .
But Korean-American organizers say that past voting cards have deprived them of all political freedom of choice.
“The issue of redistribution is important to both Koreatown residents and the Korean American community,” said Connie Chung Joe, executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice – L.A. and former executive director of Korean American Family Services.
After the US census is complete, all states will have to redraw their district lines for congressional, general and local elections every ten years to reflect population trends.
It’s not just L.A .; Political participation is increasing in Asian enclaves across the country. In Chicago’s Chinatown and the Detroit suburb of Hamtramck, where every fourth inhabitant is Asian, community leaders have been fighting for months to maintain or consolidate their electoral bloc as part of the redistribution process.
The Korean-American community of L.A., Joe said, was deeply marked by the redistribution process in 2010. Despite the overwhelming public demand for a consolidated neighborhood, the reallocation officers still decided to divide Koreatown into four boroughs. In turn, five Koreatown residents sued the city for involvement in Gerrymandering.
“People marched into the streets and flooded hearings calling for a unified Koreatown,” said Joe. “And that fell on deaf ears. That was a sore point for the community. “
(Unlike the boundaries for the city council, Koreatown is kept together in one district on the maps of California’s Congress, Senate, and State Assembly.)
The redistribution process, community leaders say, has become a sensitive issue for the Korean diaspora because it evokes memories of the 1992 riots in L.A. In the days of unrest following Rodney King’s verdict, more than 2,200 Korean companies were looted, burned or destroyed, causing approximately $ 400 million in damage. Despite calls for help, the police could not be seen.
The crisis became a moment of political awakening that fueled the Koreatown unification campaign.
“We felt like we were always a minor matter,” said Steven Kang, foreign affairs director for Koreatown Youth & Community Center. “So we started campaigning for an association every 10 years because we felt like the L.A. stakeholders didn’t care about us.”
After analyzing the 2020 census data, the Koreatown Redistricting Task Force estimated the demographic distribution of Koreatown to be 42 percent Latinos, 40 percent Asian, 10 percent White, and 6 percent Black.
Kang said the biggest lesson Korean-American organizers learned from the 2010 campaign was to work more closely with their Latin American and Bangladeshi neighbors.
“We knew we had to form a very diverse coalition of interest groups,” he said. “Yes, Korean Americans make up a significant percentage of our community, but acknowledge that our brothers and sisters in the Latino community live and work here too.”