Little Ethiopia: Preserving a Los Angeles treasure

The inconspicuous sign at the corner of Fairfax Avenue and Olympic Boulevard that marks Los Angeles’ Little Ethiopia enclave never fails to stir up strong emotions in Meron Ahadu.

“Whenever I see that sign, that Little Ethiopia sign, tears come to my eyes,” she said.

Thanks in large part to Ahadu’s activism, the L.A. City Council formally recognized Little Ethiopia in 2002, making it the first African cultural district in any major U.S. city — including Washington, D.C., home to some 300,000 Ethiopian immigrants.

Rahel, the owner of Rahel's Ethiopian Vegan Restaurant in Little Ethiopia, chats with a customer over coffee.

But it goes much deeper than that.

In formally branding the neighborhood Little Ethiopia, the city also recognized the contributions of the Ethiopian immigrants who settled there and turned an abandoned, riot-torn sector of L.A. into a vibrant hub filled with restaurants and boutiques.

Despite its continuous success, Ahadu doesn’t take for granted that the strip of Ethiopian-owned businesses that dot Fairfax in L.A.’s Carthay section will be around forever.

“It scares me that one day this could all be gone,” she said, gesturing towards the window from her table at Rahel’s, a restaurant that serves vegan Ethiopian cuisine.

The area needs a serious face lift to ensure its survival.

“There needs to be investment,” Ahadu said, her dark brown eyes intense.             Otherwise, “the amount of growth that this area has, the potential, is going to be limited.”

Three key issues threaten the existence of Little Ethiopia.

Only one business owner actually owns the building his business inhabits. That leaves his or her business vulnerable to dramatic rent increases that could price it out of the area.

Struggles with the city over the construction of adequate parking threaten the future of Little Ethiopia’s businesses. Customers — not wanting to deal with the hassle of finding a parking space — often take their business elsewhere.

Also, Fairfax only has one lane going in each direction, which contributes to consistently heavy traffic conditions along this major thoroughfare. And limited housing means people live elsewhere and only venture to Little Ethiopia for quick jaunts to eat or shop for specific items, resulting in little to no community life to tie people to the area.

Ahadu says she fears Little Ethiopia could go the way of Little Armenia.

Once home to a thriving Armenian community, Hollywood’s Little Armenia has become a shell of its former self. Though a sign still marks the neighborhood, Armenian businesses have long since left for greener pastures in Glendale, a city their owners can both live and work in.

To escape rampant civil war, political instability, and economic turmoil in their country, Ethiopians began immigrating to the United States in waves in beginning in 1974, with most choosing to settle in Washington, D.C. Students who left Ethiopia to study also contributed to the mass exodus of Ethiopians the U.S

“It was horrible,” Ahadu said of the revolution, a faraway look in her eyes. “You would see student (protestors) shot in the street. You were told (by soldiers) that you needed to look at the body or you would be next.”

Mothers of the dead students had to pay $300 to reclaim their children’s bodies.

The country had become uninhabitable as the government — which called itself the, Derg (Ethiopian for “committee” or “council”)— ruthlessly and systematically wiped out an entire generation.

The Derg did all it could to keep its citizens from fleeing the country.

In order to leave Ethiopia, Ahadu said, you had to either bribe an official to grant you a visa or trek several hundred miles to get to the nearest border states of Sudan or Kenya. It took Ahadu herself years to make it to the United States.

During the mid-1980’s, the combined forces of the worst famine in memory and a power struggles between government factions made the war-torn nation ripe for another shift of power.

The Mengistu regime rose to power in September of 1987, only to be overthrown by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party during the 1991 revolution. Eventually, Ethiopia split into 10 administrative regions in 1995, although the political situation remains unstable to this day.

Those events sparked a second influx of Ethiopian immigration to the United States in 1991.  Since then Ethiopian immigrants continue to come in steady streams to the U.S.

Statistics from the 2000 census show Los Angeles is home to between 30,000-60,000 Ethiopian immigrants.

“It just keeps coming,” Ahadu said of the immigration of Ethiopians to the U.S.

Meanwhile, the 1992 riots rocked Los Angeles.

Rioters stormed the primarily Jewish neighborhood known as SoFax, looting stores and business and setting buildings on fire. In the riot’s aftermath, SoFax a hotbed for crime, and once-thriving businesses transformed into boarded up shells.

But high crime meant low rents and the first Ethiopian restaurant in the area, Rosalind’s opened up. Also lured by the cheap rent, Rahel Woldmedhin opened up her first eatery, Messob, and several other restaurants, quickly followed suit.  Other businesses — including a surf shop, several thrift shops, and a store selling Rastafarian gear — sprung up, until only one building stood abandoned.

“Before we know it, it became Little Ethiopia,” said Fikre Mariam, manager of Rosalind’s.

The neighborhood had successfully made the transformation from a forgotten riot zone to a place for hipsters to try Ethiopian food, and displaced Ethiopian immigrants to enjoy a much-welcome taste of home.

“People who break the bread together, never betray each other,” Woldmedhin said of the importance of food as a bonding experience in Ethiopian culture.

Still, the city had not officially recognized the area as Little Ethiopia — or the contributions of the Ethiopian business owners who had revitalized neighborhood.

But that all changed in the late 1990s.

Ahadu formed a band of five women called the Ethiopian American Advocacy Group to hold a fundraiser for then-state Assembly candidate Mervyn Dymally, who hails from Tobago and had involved himself with the Los Angeles Ethiopian community back in the 1970’s.

The fundraiser, to which around 100 people came, was an unequivocal success in raising the profile of the Ethiopian community in L.A.

“It wasn’t so much the amount of people who showed up but the types of people who showed up,” Ahadu said.

The simple idea for a fundraiser turned into a movement to have SoFax officially named Little Ethiopia, which happened in August of 2002 with the help of then-City Councilmember Nate Holden.

The Ethiopian community “needed (people) to know that we are here and … we need to be heard,” Ahadu said.

The EAAG marked the day the city council voted to formally recognize Little Ethiopia with a large community-wide celebration. To Ahadu’s surprise, the City Council seemed receptive to having a designated enclave to recognize the Ethiopian community.
“It was like people were just waiting to be asked,” she said.

The enclave has thrived, becoming home to 14 Ethiopian-owned businesses, as well as a Jewish school, a Jewish thrift shop, and a bakery owned by a Dutch family, among other businesses.

On a recent Saturday, laughter and music punctuated the cool night air.

A young couple wearing heavy wool coats huddled close together and stole a quick kiss as they ran across the street towards the warm glow of one of the many eateries along the Fairfax strip.

The inviting aroma of heavily spiced Ethiopian food held a promise of a satisfying meal.

At Rahel’s Ethiopian Veggie Cuisine, eclectic groups of people representing a myriad of ethnicities and ages joked with each other as they tore off pieces of injera —  a pancake-like bread that serves as the centerpiece of any proper Ethiopian meal — and rolled up dishes like curried chickpeas into the bread.

Mariam, the manager of Rosalind’s, estimates the clientele in Little Ethiopia is 90 percent made up of non-Ethiopians.

That’s a fact Ahadu appreciates.

“I just adore that aspect of Little Ethipia,” she said.

Still, while Little Ethiopia has become a hotspot for hipsters and foodies alike,  it remains a sanctuary for Ethiopian immigrants.

It is a place they come to connect and sometimes bump into people they knew from Ethiopia.

“You have friends (from back home) you don’t know if they are dead or alive and you see them walking around,” Mariam says. “We assume most of the kids we went to school with, that we haven’t heard from, that they perished.

Girma Eshetu has been coming to Little Ethiopia two or three times a week since he first came to California in 1982. He comes mostly to talk  Ethiopian politics and commiserate with his former countrymen.

“We all have everything in common, Eshetu said. “it’s a very comfortable place.”

And that has helped ease Eshetu and other Ethiopian immigrants’ transition into American life.

But the district may not be here for future immigrants.

The man who owns the Rastafarian shop and calls himself  Commander says he predicts the enclave will die out within 10 years.

Lack of parking presents one of the biggest obstacles to the future of Little Ethiopia.

Patrick Hansen, owner of Hansen’s Cakes and Cupcake Shop says he has petitioned City Councilmember Herb Wesson for years to build more parking.

But Wesson’s district only covers the east side of little Ethiopia. Across the street is a separate district represented by Paul Koretz

“Not only is there no money, there hasn’t been any lots for sale,” said Wesson’s Deputy Chief Ed Johnson. Also, “(the structure) would have to be able to sustain itself and it’s just a tough time right now. Doesn’t mean that isn’t something that can’t happen in the future, it’s just a tough time right now.”

It’s unclear whether a vacant lot on Koretz’s side of street is up for sale. Koretz could not be reached for comment.

Easing traffic on Fairfax would also take some fine-tuning the city says it just doesn’t have the funds for at the moment.

And while no one has been pushed out by high rents yet, Commander and other business owners says his $3,000 per month rent is just barely affordable. If his landlord decides to raise it again, he’ll be priced out of the area.

To date, only the owner of Nyala’s restaurant owns the building that houses her business. Most landlords are unwilling to sell, or quote a price the business owner cannot possibly afford, such as the $1 million Commander’s landlord offered.

“They may just say ‘Hey I’m going to let this building wear itself out and when it reaches the end of its life sell it to a developer,’” said Jeremy Bagott, a commercial real estate analyst based in Ventura. “There may be some gentrification going on that knocks out the area’s previous residents.”

Either way, Ahadu said she will continue to fight to make sure Little Ethiopia is here for generations to come.

“It’s a place for (young Ethiopians) to know they belong,” she said.

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