During one of the Militant's many bike rides within the 5-mile radius of his compound, he often favors certain streets over others, for no other reason than their accessibility or their familiarity -- Vermont or Western always; Hollywood, Sunset, Santa Monica, Melrose, Beverly, 6th or Wilshire very often (topography does play a huge role when biking; the Militant tries to avoid the steep hill on Normandie Avenue between Melrose and Beverly). But on a spur-of-the-moment decision while biking down Vermont between errands on Wednesday evening, he decided to veer right on 3rd Street.
Right away, it hit him: the roughness of the road (the asphalt was removed for re-paving soon), the faint smell of smoke, the stronger scent of food and other spices, the sight of throngs of people walking on a relatively narrow sidewalk, with street vendors selling everything from sliced fruits to sunglasses, took him back to [the largest city of his parents' unspecified home country]. But this was different. It was officially Koreatown, but not exactly Koreatown.
It really was like the 3rd world.
Now, unlike most hoity-toity know-it-all writers, the Militant does not mean this in the pejorative sense. The sights that the Militant saw were not of shame, disgust or disdain, he saw a multi-cultural community not fearing the urban landscape, but embracing it.
A young Latino boy in a taekwondo uniform crossed a sidestreet with his mother and younger sister, while a Bangladeshi couple entered a market to grab a little taste of home (apparently the presence of a Bangladeshi community here is something the Militant discovered only recently). Around here, a minimall might sport businesses from, at the very least, four different ethnic groups. In addition, traces of the Thai, Filipino, Vietnamese and Pacific Islander
communities spill over into this thick ethnic soup of a community. This is the type of neighborhood where the "privileged class" is not white Americans, but yet another immigrant group -- Koreans, far more established and business-savvy, owing their presence largely to taking advantage of the B1 Visa where others don't. This is the type of neighborhood where the most common product sold in the stores are phone cards, which, for $5 or $10, anyone can call a local or toll-free number printed on the card, enter a PIN code revealed after scratching off the silver bar and talk to their abuela, their bhai or their tatay (That's grandma, cousin or father in Spanish, Bengali and Tagalog, respectively) for minutes to hours on end, on the other side of the world, usually at odd hours of the night.
Now, people from more, um, privileged areas usually scoff and accuse these people of being "insular," "unwelcoming" or "keeping to themselves." But this is where their American dream begins. Whether they speak English or not, their children definitely will, if they don't already, and will likely grow up torn between a world of two cultures, finding their identity. Enclaves, whether designated or not, exist so they can give each other a boost, some support (be it emotional or financial) or just make friends. How many immigrants actually end up homeless in our streets? Very few, if any. East Coast transplants migrate "out west" and whine and complain why the pizza is no good or why the leaves don't all turn orange in the Fall, but imagine the culture shock of the foreign immigrant -- which is that of the transplant magnified a hundredfold -- yet they are too grateful and self-respecting to whine. In fact, whining is not even an option. Their only option is to work, to survive.
And surviving is what they do here in the dense sidestreets of 3rd Street.
The experience isn't unique to this street, it's replicated in places like Pico-Union, North Hollywood, East Hollywood, Panorama City and Westlake, to name a few.
In East Hollywood's Thai Town, the same scene is played over, this time with the cast of characters speaking Thai, Spanish and Armenian, the street a little bit cleaner and the neighborhood, though still densely populated, not as dense as the corridor two miles due south. Of course, it helps when the street is arguably the most famous street in the world. The Times did an article on Thai Town on Thursday, and while it depicted the same characteristics of a low-income, multicultural immigrant population, its restaurants are renowned, its ethnic identity is becoming a permanent part of the cityscape and community organizations are striving to empower and educate its residents on how to run a successful business, and facilitating a public market there.
Back down in 3rd (World) Street, perhaps the roughness of the pre-paved road is the perfect metaphor -- it's rough now, but the best is yet to come. Though others may pass, with fear or without regard, the Militant will ride through 3rd Street again, quietly wishing its residents the best of luck and prosperity, and uncover even more untold stories. Perhaps you might even give it a try yourself.