Though relatively little is known about them when compared with their adult counterparts, the experiences of Chinese American youth and Mexican American youth in Los Angeles were significantly shaped by living in the developing urban city. More independently as they became older, these ethnic youth navigated social structures that informed the racial, gendered, and class orderings of the city. As both Asian American and Mexican American adult populations in the Los Angeles area boomed before World War II, so did their youth populations, reflecting wars, changes in immigration law and policy, and the steady growth of the region’s railroad, manufacturing, and agriculture industries. With lives intimately tied to adults’ lives, both Asian American youth and Mexican American youth were a mix of recent arrivals from outside the United States and individuals who were born within its national borders. Their presences overlapped with those of their parents and other adults, in both private and public spaces where paid and unpaid labor took place. In ways that reflect the cultures of their respective communities of the era, young people utilized city spaces in different ways as they attended school, worked, socialized, and participated in community events and activities. Excluded from white-only institutions and social organizations, Asian American and Mexican American youth formed their own respective organizations and clubs. They brought dynamic life to Angeleno spaces as they navigated social and community expectations along with rapidly changing cultural and consumer trends.
Isabela Seong Leong Quintana
Shelley Sang-Hee Lee
Although the 1992 Los Angeles riots have been described as a “race riot” sparked by the acquittals of a group of mostly white police officers charged with excessively beating black motorist Rodney King, the widespread targeting and destruction of Asian-owned (mainly Korean) property in and around South Central Los Angeles stands out as one of the most striking aspects of the uprising. For all the commentary generated about the state of black-white relations, African American youths, and the decline of America’s inner cities, the riots also gave many Americans their first awareness of the presence of a Korean immigrant population in Southern California, a large number of Korean shop owners, and the existence of what was commonly framed as the “black-Korean conflict.” For Korean Americans, and Asian Americans more generally, the Los Angeles riots represented a shattered “American dream” and brought focus to their tenuous hold on economic mobility and social inclusion in a society fraught by racial and ethnic tension. The riots furthermore marked a turning point that placed Asian immigrants and Asian Americans at the center of new conversations about social relations in a multiracial America, the place of new immigrants, and the responsibilities of relatively privileged minorities toward the less privileged.
Many Asian American neighborhoods faced displacement after World War II because of urban renewal or redevelopment under the 1949 Housing Act. In the name of blight removal and slum clearance this Act allowed local elites to procure federal money to seize land designated as blighted, clear it of its structures, and sell this land to private developers—in the process displacing thousands of residents, small businesses, and community institutions. San Francisco’s Fillmore District, a multiracial neighborhood that housed the city’s largest Japanese American and African American communities, experienced this postwar redevelopment. Like many Asian American neighborhoods that shared space with other communities of color, the Fillmore formed at the intersection of class inequality and racism, and it was this intersection of structural factors that led to substandard urban conditions. Rather than recognize the root causes of urban decline, San Francisco urban and regional elites argued that the Fillmore was among the city’s most blighted neighborhoods and advocated for the neighborhood’s destruction in the name of the public good. They also targeted the Fillmore because their postwar plans for remaking the city’s political economy envisioned the Fillmore as (1) a space to house white- collar workers in the postwar economy and (2) as an Asian-themed space for tourism that connected the city symbolically and economically to Japan, an important U.S. postwar ally. For over four decades these elite-directed plans for the Fillmore displaced more than 20,000 residents in two phases, severely damaging the community. The Fillmore’s redevelopment, then, provides a window into other cases of redevelopment and aids further investigations of the connection between Asian Americans and urban crisis. It also sheds light on the deeper history of displacement in the Asian American experience and contextualizes contemporary gentrification in Asian American neighborhoods.