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.”