Remapping Koreatown: Folklore, Narrative and the Los Angeles Riots

By Tangherliini, Timothy R. | Western Folklore, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Remapping Koreatown: Folklore, Narrative and the Los Angeles Riots


Tangherliini, Timothy R., Western Folklore


On April 29, 1992, in reaction to the acquittal of the four police officers charged with the beating of Rodney King, Los Angeles exploded into one of the most destructive episodes of civil unrest in American history.' Originally centered at the intersection of Florence Avenue and Normandie Avenue in the South Central district, acts of violence, looting and arson quickly spread to other parts of the city (Jencks 1993, 79-80).2 Koreatown, situated just to the north of South Central, found itself directly in the path of this maelstrom of destruction.s As a result of the widespread arson that accompanied the looting of stores, large parts of the man-made environment were essentially erased from the landscape. In the aftermath of the riots, a landscape that had been defined by the spatial practices of the people who worked and lived in these areas had been deeply scarred and, in some instances, reduced to rubble. The text of the city, particularly in these two neighborhoods, had been forcibly rewritten by the destruction, and the earlier man-made landscape could only be interpolated through a palimpsestic rereading of the city.' Although committees to both study the cause and effects of the riots and to rebuild Los Angeles were almost immediately established,5 in the considerable period between the physical destruction of places-and the implicit challenge to identities associated with those places embodied in that destruction-- and the envisioned phoenix-like rise of a rebuilt Los Angeles from the ashes, a reinscription of place and, by extension, identity was well underway in Koreatown through the tactical deployment of culturally informed practices, among them traditional performances and personal experience narratives (de Certeau 1984, xix). In both cases, the streets of Koreatown became a primary focus of these folkloric performances. By "taking it to the streets," both in performance and through performance, Korean Americans began reasserting control of the contested spaces of Koreatown (Lees 1998:238; Berman 1986).

A majority of the scholarship on the 1992 Los Angeles riots focuses on the political, social and cultural causes of the violence with little exploration of the folkloric aspects of the event (Chang 1994; Gooding-Williams 1993; Salak 1993; Hazen 1992; Los Angeles Times 1992). Considerations of the effects of the riots on specific ethnic communities and on Los Angeles as a whole are plentiful (Park, E. 1998; Totten and Schockman 1994; Chang 1994; Chang 1993; Madhubuti 1993; Navarro 1993; Stewart 1993; Kwong 1992), while a number of studies have focused on the tensions between the Korean American community and the African American community, both from short term riot specific perspectives (Cho 1993) and from longer term historical perspectives (Aubry 1993; Chang 1990; Chang and Leong 1994; Chang and Diaz Veizades 1996; Park, K 1997) . Perhaps the most complete consideration of Korean Americans in the aftermath of the Los Angeles riots is provided by Nancy Abelmann and John Lie (1995). Their approach fuses a historical sociological evaluation of Koreans in America and southern California with an ethnographic exploration of the effects of the riots on Korean Americans drawn from a broad generational and class spectrum in the greater Los Angeles areas Their study ultimately ranges far beyond the scope of the Los Angeles riots and they conclude by suggesting that, "the complexities-confusions of Korean American politics refract the major political and ideological struggles of our time: the persisting divides of ethnicity and class, the meaning and morality of community, and conflicts over gender and multiculturalism" (Abelmann and Lie 1995, 185). Despite the validity of these conclusions, their broad approach, unfortunately, sheds little light on the folkloric dimension of the Korean American responses to the riots-- responses that were intimately related to a well-developed sense of place.

The riots were in large part about place. …

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