"Meet Me at the Swap Meet": Architectures of Emergent Citizenship in Greater Los Angeles, 1983-2020

Doctoral Dissertation

Committee: Margaret Crawford (chair), Paul Groth, Andrew Shanken, and James Holston

Indoor swap meets rapidly opened across Greater Los Angeles from the early 1980s through the 1990s as immigrant investors—principally from Korea—repurposed and subdivided former department stores, warehouses, supermarkets, movie palaces, and other “obsolete” buildings into indoor bazaars selling new, off-brand goods. Overlooked by architectural and urban historians, these repurposed sites of commerce housed thousands of immigrant micro-entrepreneurs who built social and financial capital through their retail operations. This dissertation examines processes of place making, place claiming, and urban citizenship through the space of the swap meet. I argue that these businesses, which were sited almost exclusively within lower-income communities where African American, Latinx, and Asian residents were in the majority, were a vital cosmopolitan crossroads in a rapidly diversifying metropolis. These quasi-public spaces played host to the formation of new solidarities between these groups and material cultures into the first two decades of the twenty-first century.

Operating across transnational, regional, and local scales and focusing on racialization processes and consumer culture, this dissertation shines a light on the hidden histories which have taken place within swap meet space. My analysis begins by examining the development of the indoor swap meet as a new business type derived from multiple precedents, including outdoor swap meets and a range of indoor bazaar traditions from Latin American mercados to Korean shijang. It subsequently turns its attention to Korean-dominated indoor swap meet niche, which boomed during the 1980s alongside other business sectors including Korean-run garment manufacturing, wholesaling, and banking industries. As economic and social institutions, I argue that indoor swap meets not only helped their owners and vendors attain financial stability and material wealth. They also prompted intercultural contact between Asian, Latinx, and Black visitors, which led to a series of conflicts at several swap meets prior to the 1992 Rodney King Rebellion. While initially contentious, I argue that these conflicts produced better business practices and new solidarities between African American and Korean business and community leaders. Also during the 1980s and 1990s, swap meets’ intercultural milieus were key sites of cultural production, giving birth to new forms of retailing and popular culture. Analyzing hundreds of hip hop lyrics which reference swap meets, this dissertation links the emergence of west coast hip hop to swap meet space, examining how these emergent forms of political speech were products of their spatial context. The dissertation concludes with a discussion of attempts by swap meet developers and managers to blur the lines between swap meet and mall retailing within Latinx-serving shopping centers.