On my third trip to Los Angeles, I was determined to see parts of the city that I had yet to experience. Part of my plan this past March had been to discover the ethnic neighborhoods of the city, which included Koreatown, Little Ethiopia, Thai Town, and of course, Little Armenia. I had fallen in love with Armenia and Artsakh when I visited in 2015 and hoped I would experience something similar when I got to LA.
I was under no false expectations that my stroll through Little Armenia would be like my trip to Armenia, where families strolled through the city’s parks in front of the Opera in the afternoon and where small groups of friends met up in cafes at night.
However in Little Armenia I did expect to find people speaking Armenian as they went about their business or find a vendor selling Armenian street food and perhaps stop into an Armenian newsagent to buy a copy of the Armenian Weekly. Truth be told, I came across very few people, heard no Armenian, ate no Armenian street food and saw no newsstands, Armenian or otherwise. I did however come across other interesting things…
On Saturday morning, I set off from Union Station, taking the metro to visit the area.
“The metro? In LA? Are you crazy?” a friend asked. I wouldn’t call myself crazy, but rather risk-averse. Living in the UK, Cyprus and Australia, I have never driven on the right side of the road; and I wasn’t about to learn now, not during a Los Angeles rush hour. My main modes of transportation, I decided, would be Lyft and the train.
After visiting a few tourist spots in Hollywood such as Grauman’s Chinese Theater and the Hollywood Walk of Fame, I walked the three kilometers or so to Little Armenia. Little Armenia encompasses the streets east of the Hollywood Freeway to North Vermont Avenue. There was little information online about the neighborhood, so I decided to turn up there and see for myself. Thai Town runs along Hollywood Boulevard and borders it to the north, so I knew I was on the right track as the number of Thai restaurants increased.
The first thing I noticed was a large mural. Armenian, Greek, Assyrian and Israeli flags were painted on the left side of the wall. Towards the center was an image of the Genocide Memorial in Yerevan with an inscription: ‘we’re still here 2015’—referencing the centennial anniversary. The far-end of the image was more startling and consisted of a tearful woman, her mouth covered with a red cloth reading ‘1915’ Her chained hands were held open and in them were Ararat and Little Ararat. The smoke that ran through the image showed the faces of martyrs killed during the Genocide. It was a little alarming, which I assumed was the artist’s intention. It was a jarring image on a rather quiet street with a clear, blue sky above.
I walked around the neighborhood, flanked by tall, skinny palm trees, typical of LA. I spotted optical shops with Russian signs and names of restaurants written in Armenian. I wanted to eat at one of them but the restaurants were formal—the kind of place you and your cousins take your grandmother as a treat on a Sunday afternoon.
There were no Armenian street food vendors. I had to remind myself that I was in LA and not New York. People did not walk anywhere—except me. I walked past houses that warned ‘beware of dog.’ The more I walked, the more I became aware of how many potential guard dogs were around and worried what kind might jump out at me. In the end, it was just an aggressive chihuahua.
Finally, I spotted a gold-domed church. I thought to myself that must be the Armenian church. While I walked towards it, I got lost on the way and discovered instead the Russian Orthodox church of the Holy Transfiguration. Retracing my steps I again found the gold-domed church, which was in fact the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a Ukrainian Catholic Church—and on the same street as the house of novelist Charles Bukowski!
I was seeing a lot, but my tour was aimless and unstructured. I used my cell phone’s roaming data to Google the Armenian church. I followed the directions back across Hollywood Boulevard where a car let me cross the street. Inside sat a lady with dark hair. A cross hung from her rear-view mirror, confirming that I may have been on the right track. In Cyprus, there are cars that are adorned with crosses as well; I assumed it was the same for Armenians.
The Armenian church of St. Garabed was opposite the community’s Armenian school. I strolled inside and asked the man in the office if I could take a look. Without looking up at me, he waved me in. It was a large, bright, airy church. The pews were empty, and I had the place to myself. I was about to leave when I noticed the beautiful, stained-glass windows. In one, a figure which looked like a knight knelt before a priest in dark clothing. Another filled with triangles of different shades of blue showed the Virgin Mary. On the bottom of the image, a wonderful touch: stained glass designs of Ararat. Beautiful details only Armenians could truly appreciate.
I loved the church and its stained glass windows, but overall I was disappointed with my adventure in Little Armenia. I would not have guessed I was in an Armenian neighborhood. Then again what did I expect? Peaches by the side of the road like on the highway towards Noravank? I left feeling dejected, knowing that with such little material, I would not be able to turn in a piece to my editor, who was skeptical about my pitch from the onset.
I felt like, when I finally got there, there was no ‘there.’ I had the same impression in Koreatown. It was nothing but large apartment blocks with Korean restaurants at their entrances. Were all these neighborhoods a marketing ploy by the city of Los Angeles? Then I met an Armenian Angeleno who told me where all the Armenians had migrated to: the bustling and thriving suburb of Glendale.
It was purely by chance I met Mr. Hakop Hovanesyan a few days later. Hovanesyan, the former assistant to the Consul General of Armenia in Los Angeles, described the dramatic events that compelled Armenians to move to southern California. “People moved here in waves,” he said, reflecting on the Lebanese Civil War, the Spitak Earthquake, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the war with Azerbaijan. “Many Armenians naturally wanted a better life, so they opted to move to LA.”
It made sense that people would move away, but why Los Angeles? Hovanesyan says he moved to LA because he had family in the state. Rent was low in Hollywood, so more Armenians began to populate the area, especially after the construction of an Armenian church and a school. Pretty soon, that pocket of Hollywood became Little Armenia.
“I had a big imagination of what life in LA would be like, but real life is not so easy,” said Hovanesyan. “My wife and I worked hard to build our life here.”
When discussing the Armenians and in particular the Diaspora, with non-Armenians, one narrative always emerges: they stick together not just to survive, but to thrive in the country they live. I asked Mr. Hovanesyan if that resonated with him.
“The Armenian community here is very close, and they do their best to support each other. They give assistance to newcomers—if not financial, then psychological or social support. Most Armenians go to church, so the faith helps us.” He proudly reminded me that Armenia was the first nation to take on Christianity as a state religion in 301 AD “Our faith says: ‘Help your neighbor.’ So that’s what we do.”
“So what has everything amounted to?” I asked him.
“We have top lawyers, top nurses, top merchants and many successful businessmen.”
I was tempted to discount such rhetoric as zealous ethnic pride, but I knew the Armenian community in LA and in other countries has made a success of things. Indeed Mr. Hovanesyan was sticking to the facts.
“Look,” he began, “Armenians are hardworking people. After the 1915 Genocide, of which my father was a survivor, he moved to Syria and established himself there. He became a successful merchant. Why? Because of his hard work.” The Armenian community in LA had the same spirit as Hovanesyan’s father: to be industrious and hardworking. As the community became more affluent, they moved away from Hollywood (which has aptly earned the nickname Hollyweird) into wealthier areas, such as Glendale, east of the Hollywood Hills and not far from Little Armenia.
After researching the city, it seemed to me that Glendale was the real Little Armenia. At least today it had become so. Of Glendale’s five city managers, all had surnames ending in ‘ian’ and ‘yan.’ Clearly Armenian. More than a quarter of Glendale’s 195,047 residents are Armenian, making it one of the most densely populated Armenian places outside of Yerevan. The Kardashians, however live in the posh community of Calabasas.
“How do you think famous Armenians have represented their community?” I asked, knowing that people either love or hate the Kardashians, who have somehow managed to spin gold out of not nothing.
Hovanesyan talked about a joint project for Armenia by Cher and Kim Kardashian, but the details as he described them were hazy. It may have been just hearsay, but it underlined what we discussed earlier on: that Armenians join forces to become something bigger than the sum of their parts.
I had taken enough of Mr. Hovanesyan’s time, but I did have one final question: what were his hopes for the future of the Armenians of Los Angeles?
He mentioned he wanted to see wealthier Armenians provide more opportunities for younger people, so that they might be able to attend Armenian school in LA. “There is an Armenian school here where the language of instruction is in Armenian, but the tuition is high. Not all parents can afford that.”
Since the US and Armenia have relaxed visa requirements, and dual citizenship is permitted, the role of the Armenian consulate, which also worked as a community base, has diminished. Hovanesyan also spoke of the importance of strengthening ties with Armenia; he stressed however that such ties should go beyond just visiting Armenia but doing more business there and having cultural exchanges. “The roots are in Armenia, but the tree is here. If the roots die, the tree here will die.”
Perhaps roots are something ethereal and not necessarily physical, I wondered. Perhaps Little Armenia is wherever an Armenian lives.