LOS ANGELES (CN) – The aroma of spicy, hot stone soups and Korean barbecue fills the air along Third Street in the Koreatown neighborhood of Los Angeles. As the scent drifts east across this food mecca it meets the unmistakable fragrance of spicy curries and fish biryanis emanating from markets in Little Bangladesh, a little-known community that staked its claim here eight years ago.
Nestled along four city blocks between Vermont and Normandie streets, Little Bangladesh is the cultural and culinary hub of LA’s Bangladeshi community. Sharing space along Third Street with Korean dumpling houses, Mexican taco joints and donut shops, Bangladeshi restaurants often double as markets selling home goods and offer a rich blend of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi foods.
The scent of chicken tikka masala wafts out the doors of Apon Bazar market and restaurant on Kenmore Avenue, where a worker is stuffing the freezers with hilsha, considered the national fish of Bangladesh. The perfume of fish and eggplant curry sweeps out from Deshi Market’s cafeteria on Third Street.
Little Bangladesh received its official designation in 2010, after neighborhood leaders organized residents for more than a year to lobby the Los Angeles City Council. The city approved the designation and installed signage marking the area in 2011.
The designation by City Hall put Koreatown’s Bangladeshi community on the map and legitimized the cultural hubs serving Bangladeshi residents of Los Angeles.
Zia Islam, a retired Bangladeshi military lieutenant and member of Bangladesh Unity Federation of Los Angeles, said the neighborhood designation acknowledged how important the area has been in helping “thousands” of Bangladeshis get their start.
Bangladeshi people began settling in what is now Koreatown in the 1960s, drawn by nearby colleges and the area’s largest mosque, the Islamic Center of Southern California.
As more and more Bangladeshis arrived in the community they opened markets selling staple Bengali goods. New arrivals continued converging on the area, wanting to live closer to shops where they could find food from home.
More than 6,000 Bangladeshi immigrant families live in Little Bangladesh today, Islam said, but some estimates place the number as high as 20,000.
“It’s my educated guess,” Islam said regarding the population estimate. “We don’t have census numbers and there is no Bangladeshi designation to select.”
In the 1980s and 90s, Bangladeshis would arrive to Los Angeles with nothing but their luggage and could ask any taxi driver to take them to Little Bangladesh, Islam said. “Every taxi driver knew where it was.”
Little Bangladesh was before and remains today a place where new arrivals can get a hot Bengali meal and “get the right advice to start their life in this nation,” Islam said.
Aditi Mahmud grew up in what is now known as Little Bangladesh. She said more than simply stamping cultural relevance to an area, a community designation means establishing a sense of responsibility over a place.
Mahmud remembers an area rich with ethnic diversity. Neighbors from the Philippines and Latin America would interact with other residents from Ethiopia and Eritrea. Still, there was some feeling of risk and isolation.
In the mid-90s, she said there were only two stores selling Bangladeshi groceries. Many immigrant families in the area struggled with language issues, which led to anxiety over immigration status. Many families were unfairly evicted by landlords.
“We didn’t know who to turn to.”
Mahmud joined a community art project in 2008 with other South Asian youth. They made Bengali art banners that wrestled with the question of identity.
“The feeling at that time was where do we belong, where do we fit in,” Mahmud said. “We didn’t really have an identity at that point.”
The banners were well received by the few Bangladeshi shops in the area. Mahmud credits the banners with fomenting the work of seeking official neighborhood designation by the city.
In late March, the Bangladeshi community marked their Independence Day with a parade, a live music concert in Little Bangladesh featuring local artists and a feast of traditional foods.
Arzeen Kamal, a distinguished singer in the community, was a featured artist in the parade. Kamal was born and raised in Bangladesh and came to the United States for his studies.
Kamal, who trained as a singer, likes to perform traditional Bangladeshi folk songs at neighborhood events because they help different generations of Bengalis connect to their culture and feel a sense of ownership in their community.
“The community is small but I try to make them visible [with my singing],” he said. “When you’re visible, a lot of fear is gone.”
Kamal said the new generation of Bangladeshis is challenging the marginalization of their community. They’re educated, confident and more willing to challenge pop culture depictions of Muslims and southeast Asians as terrorists or religious zealots, he said.
“If we keep our mouth shut the world won’t be changed,” said Kamal. “We will have to continue defending ourselves as not being bad.”
The effort to win Little Bangladesh’s designation was challenged by Koreans in the area, who had not previously applied for their neighborhood designation. After the City Council vote in 2010, Bangladeshi residents received just the four-block stretch of Third Street.
The contest over space and naming rights highlighted how important it is for communities to build and sustain spaces that represent their identities.
As in many ethnic enclaves of Los Angeles, Little Bangladesh residents grapple with an inadequate supply of quality affordable housing, high rent, low wages, the threat of gentrification and a fear of displacement.
Koreatown has always been a multiethnic community and a vital hub for immigrants. People from Bangladesh and Korea coexist with immigrants from Guatemala, Mexico, El Salvador and the Philippines, carving out spaces for self-expression and tradition.
Juan Espinoza runs an Oaxacan grocery store directly next to the Little Bangladesh sign on Third and New Hampshire Avenue. He sells staple food items from Mexico such as tortillas, beans, avocado and Mexican chilis.
“I’d like to attract [Bangladeshi people] into my store but I don’t know what to sell them,” Espinoza said. “I also want to shop in their stores but I’m not familiar with their cultural foods.”
Islam said the key is to sell the food item that accounts for “80 percent of the protein” in the Bangladeshi diet.
“One word: fish,” Islam said. “The path to man’s heart is through his stomach, right?”
Islam said there is Latin American market near the Bangladesh Unity Federation of Los Angeles office that sells dried fish. “Bangladeshis are the biggest customers there.”
Espinoza’s shop is one of many on Third Street that cater to Latino and Korean residents in the area. There are less than a dozen stores that cater to Bangladeshi residents.
Islam said he expects the market for Bangladeshi food to continue expanding and hopes to see more businesses operating in buildings owned by Bangladeshis. Even with the rising cost of living in LA, Islam said the community will remain as an important place for people to congregate and share connections to their homeland.
“The importance of this little piece of land will not diminish,” Islam said.