Little India

flag-india-us-1_T3tRy_16298Some time ago, I wrote an essay for a Sociology course at UCLA.  It was a part of my senior thesis, and I am excited to share some of it now.  I have done my best to update some of the data.  Enjoy!

New York has Jackson Heights, Chicago has Devon Street, and Los Angeles has Pioneer Boulevard.  “Little India” towns seem to be popping up all over the United States.  This is due to the increase of the South Asian population and the demand of their material culture such as mehndi, cuisine, jewelry, movies, music and clothing.  Ethnic enclaves like “Little India” often emerge as a result of the demand of the growing immigrants from a particular country.  It also seems that non-South Asians are flocking to these little towns in surprising numbers.  They are opening Dhaba’s (small restaurants), sari boutiques, jewelry shops, and grocery stores.  This is not to say that the only entrepreneurship that South Asians are involved in are as small business owners, but rather this is the best way to show how a niche is created for business opportunities when communities migrate to a new country.  I have often wondered as to why and how such places have become popular and what are the resulting obstacles that a growing ethnic minority will face.  Focusing on “Little India” along Pioneer Boulevard in the City of Artesia many questions arise.  Yet before the questions are presented to you, there is a great deal of background to cover.

The City of Artesia was a farming area as a portion of Rancho Los Coyotes Spanish land grant.  The city was founded in 1875 and during the 1920’s was converted into dairy lands.  Soon the city not only became a place for milk but a place for real estate.  By the 1950’s land prices plummeted and farmers moved out.  The remaining farmers wanted to avoid this forced migration by becoming incorporated to nearby Dairy Valley in which later became the City of Cerritos, but their attempts were unsuccessful and even they had to move out.  Officially incorporated on May 19, 1959 the City of Artesia had a measurable area in square miles of 2 had approximately 9,500 residents.  During the 1970’s the city began absorbing a large numbers of Portuguese and was struggling with a very meager tax base.  During the 1980’s many other ethnic groups migrated from South Asia, China, Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines1.

When I originally did my research in 199 the city had a population of 15, 464 people which breaks down to 40% Latino, 42% white, 15% Asian and 3% in the other category.  With an operating budget of about $12 million the city struggled to maintain its infrastructure.  The median household income is at about $36, 383.  There are 279 stores in Artesia and they generate $161 million in annual sales1.

Selected Statistics from the 2002 Economic Census
2002 Economic Sectors

2002 NAICS sector

Number of





Number of

31-33 Manufacturing





more »
42 Wholesale trade





more »
44-45 Retail trade





more »
51 Information





more »
53 Real estate & rental & leasing





more »
54 Professional, scientific, & technical services





more »
56 Administrative & support & waste management & remediation service





more »
61 Educational services





more »
62 Health care & social assistance





more »
71 Arts, entertainment, & recreation





more »
72 Accommodation & food services





more »
81 Other services (except public administration)





more »

As more and more professional South Asians began to move to nearby Cerritos there began the first demand on South Asian goods.  Many believe that “Little India” first began back in 1971 when Balkishan Lahoti (who lived in Cerritos) began selling spices and food out of a garage in Artesia2.  He has now opened up a business in the City of Bellflower, but many other South Asians have come and set up shops along Pioneer Boulevard.  In 1999 there was close to 120 (out of the 279 total Artesia businesses) South Asian businesses along the strip and still growing.  Since then several new complexes have been built perpendicular to the strip, which should have added another 20 shops.  The rate at which the strip is growing is astounding and its popularity is even more so.  Thus, has lead to one of the issues that have seemed to arise due to the growth.  Glenn Seade, a non-South Asian business owner complained that “The parking hassles have led to a 20% drop in business at Martell’s Cleaners near 186th…these were good customers who plainly came up to us and said, ‘ we cannot fight the parking.'” They feel that the city has approved to many building permits to business along the strip and has thus caused the shortage of available parking.  Martell’s has since move out to another location.  According to an LA Times article, City Manager Paul J. Philips said he believes “…the retailers are exaggerating the area’s parking problems…the city approved a out 10 business permits in Little India last year, but most of the applicants were seeking to replace businesses that had moved2”.  Here we can begin to understand why the issue of parking becomes very complex.  Other ethnic groups that migrated to Artesia, such as the Portuguese, were the first to open their businesses.  Now, they are slowly moving away because Pioneer Boulevard no longer holds any lucrative prospects.  They are struggling to find other means of making ends meet.  The other aspect of this is that many of the non-South Asian business owners live in Artesia, but the South Asian businesspersons live in the more upscale Cerritos area.

South Asians have created a market in the area that will cater to particular customers looking for particular goods.  So the businesses that were once along the strip are no longer making money.  They have seen lower foot traffic and thus a decrease in sales.  The people that come are looking for goods and services related to the South Asian community.  Although many residents welcome the businesses due the incredible amount of tax revenues they generate for the city, there is a sense of animosity.  Ramesh Mahajan, former president of the Little India Chamber of Commerce feels that the City Council treats the business owners in Little India are “…not one of them…” and is very biased.  Mahajan feels that the city “…would have been a ghetto if Indians didn’t open businesses there2”.  Several of the shopping complexes have parking lots that offer very limited parking, but if you cannot park there then your best bet is parallel parking along the street.  Street parking is limited two hours.  The Chamber of Commerce would like to make diagonal parking available as opposed to the parallel parking.  The city is not very excited about this idea and has suggested a parking structure be built and customers be bussed into to the area.  But Rakesh Kapoor, a travel agent, feels this is a bad idea because “…people buy jewelry and large sacks of rice and four, and they are not going to want to walk long distances to their cars”2.  So the debate continues, but both sides are attempting to find an agreeable solution.  The problem cannot be helped.  There is a demand in the area for the shops and the shops attract people come here from all over Southern California.  These demands are not limited to just food, clothing and jewelry, rather it has found other ways of bringing in other businesses that would cater to the South Asian community.

Several community organizations have found home in Little India.  For example the South Asian Network (SAN) operates along the strip.  They hold seminars on health; immigration and even offer language classes.  Several immigration attorneys have their offices along the strip and help to serve South Asians wishing to gain citizenship.  State Bank of India has come to Pioneer to meet banking needs and offers more hegemony to the area.  FIA (Federation of India Association) has even brought India’s Independence Day Celebrations to Artesia.  Originally they were held near USC, but now they feel that Artesia has become an icon for the South Asian community.  The local businesses had booths at the festival, which in turn added to their business and popularity of Little India within the South Asian community.  Now rather than go to shops in Anaheim, Diamond Bar or Buena Park, most South Asians come to the Artesia shops.  The geographic location has developed a reputation for being the heart of the South Asian Community in Southern California.

In some years there has been a parade along the strip, well sort of.  People gathered along the street with umbrellas and lawn chairs expecting elaborately decorated floats dedicated to India’s Independence Day, but the spectators have often been disappointed.  The parade consisted of a few cars and some people sitting in them and waiving.  At the Little India Chamber of Commerce meeting on June 3, 1998 they discussed the parade.  Many of the business owners were embarrassed, and criticized the parade organizers.  They are now planning to hire professional float makers and plan to escalate the amount of time and money to develop an annual Independence Day Parade along Pioneer Boulevard.  This plan has yet to be realized.

The name “Little India” has yet to be made official.  The Little India Chamber of Commerce would like a sign of the 405 and 91 freeways to direct drivers to the area.  The Chamber, along with many other businesses feels that such a sign would increase their business.  However, the city feels otherwise.  They believe that since Artesia residents consist mainly of Latinos, it would be misleading the public.  Such a sign would not be representative of the city’s demography.  City Manager Paul Philips and the council “…felt that if they recognized one group they should recognized them all, and that’s just not realistic”3. Yet the businesses on the strip perceive things differently.  They are would not mind if the sign included other ethnic groups, they just want to direct potential customers into the area.  They feel that there are other reasons why.  On of the owners of Books and Bits felt that the city is “…a little biased to this community…” and would like to see the situation improved.  Although she is Iranian and not South Asian, she believes that the city is having a difficult time with such issues because of their slight prejudice with the South Asian community.  Although “…it’s a very, very critical part of our local economy, “ says Paul Philips but the city still has a hard time with the issues3.

Combined with the parking issue one cannot help but to think about the issues in the other low-income communities.  For example, the case of Korean shop owners in African-American neighborhoods.  It is important to clarify now that what is happening in Artesia if very unique and is not the same as Korean shop owners in the inner city.  This is because of the fact that the South Asian businesses and literally transforming the city physically and cutlturally.  They have not only become a part of the economics of the area but they have become a large part of the social and cultural aspects as well.  This is because many of the owners live within a ten-mile radius.  Particularly in the neighboring City of Cerritos, South Asian business owners are involved in the community and politics.  This means that they are constantly using public facilities, contributing to other businesses and their children are attending the local schools.  South Asians have become a large part of the social and economic aspects of the area.  Although they do not live in Artesia, the residents are considered “a part of the neighborhood.”

South Asian business that have come are not just a part of the economical and cultural part of the local area, but has become a tourist attraction for all of Southern California.  Sumita Batra, marketing manager for Ziba beauty center has attracted not only South Asians but also non-South Asians and has become responsible for the mehndi on Madonna’s hands.  Hollywood producer Ilene Staple, pop singer Gwen Stephanie and super model Naiombi Campbell have all come to visit and even more so added to the popularity.  Little India has gone from a man selling spices out of a garage to an economical and social powerhouse.  Its success is mainly due to efforts made in the last couple of years.  There is still a more progress and issues to arise and to be resolved. The strip is growing and business are doing well.  But the popularity with the American community may be a trend.  If that is true then the popularity could just be temporary and the economic boom the area is experiences could be temporary.  This means that South Asians are going to have to develop a discourse as to how the relationships with the non-South Asians will continue.  I do not believe that there is enough demand from the growing South Asian population to support the booming number of business in Artesia.  Thus, I would anticipate a market correction in the area.

1Cox, John. Community Profile/ArtesiaLos Angeles Times 20 December 1996: pg. B-2

2 Canalis, John. Success of ‘Little India’ Puts Parking at a Premium, Merchants Say.

Los Angeles Times 19 January 1995: pg. J-3

3 Hamilton, Denise India Inc. Los Angeles Times 20 July 1997: pg. D-1