EPISODE 107 – HELEN H. KIM ON K-TOWN IS OK + GIVING TUESDAY

Yours truly sits down with Helen H. Kim (@theotherhelenkim) to discuss our vision for K-Town Is OK and how donor support on #GivingTuesday can make all the difference. We reflect on Helen’s family life in Koreatown, going on to learn that her dad–like my mom–worked at a sowing factory in downtown Los Angeles during her youth. We also discuss the catalyst for our shirts: the racist L.A. City Council recordings published by the L.A. Times just this past October; other notes include the shirt’s design process, design accessibility for immigrant communities in L.A., local community shop Virgil/Normal’s support, and our privileged position to facilitate each of these processes. To donate to K-Town Is OK, please do so HERE. 100% of donations go towards commissioning more interviews for the project, a new website, and miscellaneous expenses like ink, paper, and other items in the effort to reach Los Angeles.

J.T.

K-Town is Oaxacan Korean: The Shirts

K-Town is OK – The Shirts

100% cotton. Light and comfy Zuni-brand shirt with inside labeling. Design by The Think Farm; printing by T’s Tees in downtown Los Angeles. Shipping fees included. After placing your order, J.T. will contact you to confirm your size. Small – 2 Medium – 2 Large – 15 XL – 17 XXL – 3

$35.00

J.T.

Get your haircut at the future of Santa Monica Blvd

This article is being published concurrently with the latest for the Making a Neighborhood Newsletter. Please consider becoming a paid subscriber today to get more stories like it, plus work from our colleagues Samanta Helou Hernandez and Ali Rachel Pearl.

I’ve noted before that Santa Monica boulevard in East Hollywood is special to yours truly for a few reasons, including because alongside Vermont avenue it forms the nexus where my mom first opened her newsstand more than 20 years ago.

Virgil avenue and Santa Monica boulevard is also where many of my old friends and I fed ourselves after school, when a few dollars at the 7-eleven there went a long way to sustain our teenage diets of junk food and syrup.

At 4591 Santa Monica Blvd one also finds the Cahuenga Public Library. Admittedly, during my teens I wasn’t always there for the books, but I would still pick up my first copy of Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X at the branch; now, a copy of Making Our Neighborhood: Redlining, Gentrification and Housing also adorns Cahuenga’s shelves for a new generation of readers.

Most recently, the 14.4 mile-long stretch of L.A. asphalt originating from the west side at Ocean Avenue has made its way into my routine yet again–or I’ve made my way onto it–as near the intersection of Santa Monica boulevard and Edgemont street yet another side of East Hollywood has “taken me in.”

First opened in 2019, Barbershop Lopez is the host and mainstay of at least five barbers from in and around the neighborhood; a few steps down memory lane with one of them, however, Oscar Lopez himself, reveals the shop’s history on the block goes quite a ways farther back. 

A millennial who grew up in Silver Lake during the 1990s, Oscar first learned to cut hair from his mentor in 2011 while working at a shelter in downtown L.A.’s Skid Row area. He earned his barber’s license in 2015, and three years later, began leasing a small shop with his colleague Mike the Barber at 4561 Santa Monica boulevard. 

That shop was–you guessed it–just a couple steps away from Cahuenga public library, and on hearing Oscar tell it, I recount to him how I’d walk past his and Mike’s humble setup countless times and glance in to see perhaps one or two customers at a time.

“But we made it work for three!” he replies with gusto.

Oscar Lopez and Rik Martino, also colloquially known around the neighborhood as “Bird-Man,” in 2018. Photo provided by Lopez.

Shortly after starting up near Madison avenue, however, the building’s owners informed Oscar that there were plans to install some apartment units either adjacent to or on top of the shop soon. Since the lease was monthly, he and Mike knew it was time to find another location. Time and fate were on their side. 

A sudden and massive fire in early 2015 at the 4800 block of Santa Monica Blvd and Edgemont street led the owners of the strip there to do some remodeling. In only two years, they transformed a retro style Psychic Reader’s studio into the spacious setup that would become Barber Shop Lopez. Another hair salon would precede Oscar and Mike, however, and when their search revealed that relocating to Hollywood itself was too expensive, they reached a limbo. But in early 2019, the salon left, literally opening the doors for their duo.

4854 Santa Monica Blvd in 2014. Photo provided by Google.
4854A Santa Monica Blvd in 2022. Photo provided by Google.

Oscar and Mike gladly set up shop on the newly renovated strip in April 2019. Yet favorable timing and fate weren’t without some irony. After all, less than a year before their new setup farther west on Santa Monica Blvd came the pandemic.

“It wasn’t easy,” Mike recounted to me en Español during a last-minute appointment I made with him at the shop.

“Pero no nos quedó más que seguir trabajando.”

They kept working, taking their clients’ appointments outside their apartments when they could–with masks on, of course–and right outside on the boulevard itself when necessary. It also helped that the shop’s owners were supportive of their team’s tenacity.

Pandemic or not, the shop went on. Photo provided by Lopez.

“They took care of us,” Oscar noted to me over the phone.

The owners’ good will during the pandemic, coupled with the shop’s steady rise in popularity, led Oscar and Mike to sign a new five-year lease for the space recently. As the last five years for areas as close as Virgil avenue saw seismic shifts for business, foot traffic and clientele, then, Barbershop Lopez persisted. Now, their success is another pushing against the trend for many a local.

Walking into the shop recently, the scent of shaving cream filled the air. On greeting Erick, who’s taken care of my fade and trim roughly every three weeks over the last year (except on Tuesdays), I take my seat on the comfy barber chair in front of him, feeling instant reprieve from the traffic-like-clockwork outside. Above me, an assortment of classic and cult-favorite personalities meets my eyes, from a portrait of “Iron” Mike Tyson lording over his opponent, to small frames of hip hop legends like 2Pac, Pharrell, and more. Most of the art was gifted to Oscar and Mike by their friends.

Oscar Lopez, in business professionally since 2015. Photo provided by Lopez.

Shortly after Erick casts a robe over my neck for the thirty minute session, more personalities walk in, including moms and pops sliding into the waiting seats on behalf of their mijos and mijas, as well as more recently arrived folks from out of state whose lingo distinguishes them.

But speaking with the Lopez team reveals it’s not lost on any of them how their dynamic clientele is indicative of a larger shake-up in Los Angeles over so many seasons. It’s just that they’ve been some of those who’ve found a way to work right through the middle of it all, probably attributable to their razor-sharp barber’s eyes.

“This is our neighborhood, and it’s true that it’s changing, but we do still have locals here,” Oscar notes to me matter-of-factly.

“That’s why I wanted to come back and open up a business right here.”

Barbershop Lopez is open 7 days a week from 9 AM – 7 PM, and I personally get my haircut with Erick for $45. “Kids” get a $10 discount with Erick for fades, tapers, and scissor cuts, and word on the street is that Oscar’s a pretty damn good barber himself, though there’s just one way to find out. You can also follow the shop via their Ig: @barbershoplopez90029.

J.T.