From gritty rap songs to trending club attire, the tall, green, and wide LA Slauson Swap Meet has stood as an integral part of South Los Angeles, sitting at the crossroads of South LA culture and socioeconomics.
So what’s the story behind the Slauson Swap Meet? And how has it added to the fabric of South LA?
Growing up in South LA, near the Slauson swap meet, I never really thought much about indoor swap meets. I thought they were everywhere.
Swap meets are where you buy clothes, specifically Pro Club T-Shirts, or a new matching outfit from top-to-bottom. But they’re not everywhere. Even more so, this phenomenon of convenient shopping in odd indoor settings hasn’t always been in LA, in fact, it began recently in the mid 80s.
But how did the Slauson Swap Meet end up on 1600 W. Slauson Avenue, anyway?
1600 W. Slauson
Going back into Los Angeles Building and Safety records, the first piece of property located at 1600 W. Slauson was a four bedroom house with a barn, built in 1919.
Twenty years later, that house and the parcels around it were acquired by a new owner, to build a series of stores, which for about 11 years, served the Harvard Park community. In 1948, those stores were razed to build a factory and office building, leased by Lightcraft of California. The process to build this factory took over 10 years from start to finished, but it opened for business in 1958.
Lightcraft of California was a light fixture company that sold stylish lighting accessories for residences. This particular factory at 1600 W. Slauson served as one of several production and distribution locations for the company.
Lightcraft of California continued to operate in this factory and office building at 1600 W. Slauson for 24 years. Yet, in 1984, the company ran its last liquidation ad in the LA Times and ceased production of its lights in Los Angeles.
Less than a year later, in February of 1985, the factory building was acquired by a new owner, Mr. Park D.J. who submitted an alteration permit to convert the factory into a retail location.
In November of 1985, just over a year since Lightcraft of California vacated its factory at 1600 W. Slauson, The Korea Times ran an advertisement announcing the grand opening of the LA Slauson Swap Meet on December 5, just in time for the Christmas season.
Wait a minute. How exactly did this factory turn into an indoor swap meet? This call for some expert advice.
I reached out to Dr. Alec R. Stewart, an urban historian and Mellon Junior Fellow in the Humanities, Urbanism, and Design Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Stewart knows everything there is to know about indoor swap meets. And he took me back to the roots of the indoor swap meet phenomenon.
“The indoor Swap Meet boom was really actually a product of Los Angeles in that there were several converging factors, one being the deindustrialization of South LA and in the greater LA metropolitan area during the early 1980s,” Stewart said. “That really opened up a lot of space and concurrent with the closure of factories ranging from GM to you know, aerospace industries in the San Fernando Valley, to many smaller industries.”
Indoor swap meets are a specific type of retail establishment that grew from the ample space, and the divestment of both manufacturing jobs and retail hubs in South LA. As opposed to outdoor swap meets, which typically sell secondhand items, indoor swap meets have been a shortcut to buying inexpensive electronics or custom-made garments in the inner city.
“There was an initial Swap Meet called the Western swap meet in Koreatown that was opened in November of 1983. And it was structured sort of like a market you’d find in Seoul, it was a garment and textile market. And it lasted for only two years, it was so successful that the property owner decided to tear it down and to build a shopping mall,” Stewart added.
He continued. “So a bit of irony there, what happened was that many of the vendors within that business in Koreatown ended up sort of scattering and opening up in some cases, with with other with friends and other people who have who pulled their capital open up slightly. Like the Compton Swap Meet. And then other vendors sort of moved out into South LA and the San Gabriel Valley and the San Fernando Valley, sort of fueling a proliferation of swap meets in those neighborhoods.”
As Stewart mentioned, the first iteration of an indoor swap meet began in Koreatown in 1983. Within a 10-year period, there were over 90 indoor swap meets across the Los Angeles region, mainly situated in predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods across Central and South Los Angeles.
With this new retail void created in the ever-expanding South LA. Many Korean immigrants found opening up micro-retail operations in swap meets across Los Angeles led to a pathway of entrepreneurship and financial stability, while also filling the gap left by fleeting big-box retail establishments in South and Central Los Angeles. At the same time, swap meets were convenient compared to a trip outside of the community, according to longtime South LA resident Garth McAdams.
“Well, the Slauson Swap Meet is a history for us as we grew up with it. I know about the Slauson Swap Meet in the 80s, like 1988,” McAdams said. “My first outfit that I wore, socks, came from the Slauson Swap Meet, and that was the first time I came to California. Somebody brought them to my attention. Laid them out. Told me where they got them from. I had never been to the Slauson Swap Meet. And then that’s where I got introduced to the Slauson Swap Meet, and then I became a Slauson Swap Meet baby like everybody else.”
McAdams continued. “We went to buy clothes and jewelry. If we want to go to a concert, that’s where you go buy your outfit at. Wherever you’re going, that’s where you’re going to get your outfit. If you want some jewelry, that’s where you’re going to get your Jewelry from. Whatever you want in accessories, like clothes, earrings, anything, The Slauson Swap Meet [was the place to go].”
Garments remain an essential part of the indoor swap meet industry. In fact,the swap meet also correlates with the immense investment in textile industries which boomed in Los Angeles around the same time, thanks to its wide stretching road infrastructure and proximity to sewing plants in Mexico.
Evolution of the Slauson Swap Meet
Now that we know more about indoor swap meets, now we can look into how monumental the opening of The LA Slauson Swap Meet is. This all traces back to one industrious individual, Michael Yoon.
Like we saw before, The Korea Times ran an advertisement announcing the grand opening of the LA Slauson Swap Meet, operated by Michael Yoon. In his research, Dr. Stewart found that Yoon started the Slauson Swap Meet with his wife, Sandra, in 1985. Before that point, Yoon was a self-made Korean Entrepreneur who owned a hamburger stand in the Harvard Park area, 10 years before the grand opening of the LA Slauson Swap Meet.
It wasn’t long after that the Slauson Swap Meet had one of the largest spaces and number of vendors that challenged the biggest indoor swap meets in the Los Angeles area.
“There are a couple of things that I think distinguish the Slauson Swap Meet. One is its size,” Stewart said. “As you know, most swap meets are actually quite small. They ranged in size from maybe 10 moves to maybe 50. If you’re talking about maybe an old pharmacy on a main street that had been repurposed, small floorplate buildings with not too many tenants. The Slauson swap meeting, on the other hand, was a former industrial building and quite large, with hundreds of vendors. You know, there are a couple of swap meets that I would say are comparable to the Slauson Swap Meets, one being the Compton Swap Meet, also known as the Compton Fashion Center, which closed in late 2014-15.”
While swap meets became more common in the mid 80s, they faced a number of protests and boycotts by the end of the decade. In particular, a tension between Korean vendors and African Americans shoppers developed over tense arguments and disagreements across several stores. The grassroots group called Organization of Mutual Neighborhood Interest, OMNI, called to boycott Korean-American merchants because of these sour business encounters, citing anecdotes of rudeness and failure to exchange or refund products sold at the individual swap meet shops.
“Another thing is that there was a protest by the organization of mutual neighborhood interest in the late 1980s, that was very critical of the way that the management of the Slauson Swap Meet was conducting its businesses and, you know, a lot of the critiques were justified and that there was a perception that was there was true, that the ownership was was not leasing booths to African American vendors, despite the fact that the vast majority of customers its Slauson, were black,” Stewart added. “And so the, you know, after that, that protest and boycott, the unions who operated the swap meet chain, were, you know, they took out, they basically embarked on a public relations campaign, and, and held a series of trainings with their vendors to try to heal that divide.”
A series of events led up to the boycott of Korean-American businesses in the South Los Angeles area. In the book No Fire Next Time: Black-Korean Conflicts and the Future of America’s Cities, author Patrick D. Joyce noted that few boycotts between black consumers and Korean-American merchants actually materialized, despite the wide-spread disdain toward Korean Merchants. In fact, between 1987 and 1991, there were seven recorded boycotts toward Korean Merchants, including one against the LA Slauson Swap Meet in November 1989, which lasted 30 days with as many as 20 protestors each day (led by OMNI) (122).
By the early 1990s, LA Slauson became one of the largest Swap meets to reach an agreement with OMNI, ending the small-but-mighty boycott. This resulted in all vendor merchants guaranteeing receipts and providing a minimum 72-hour return or exchange policy. The swap meet also promised to work with the community to uplift African Americans, the swap meets primary clientele.
But the swap meet didn’t stop there: It developed a new customer complaint system, and it hired a new African-American customer service representative to help solve any conflicts or arguments on the spot. Much of the tension at the Slauson Swap Meet, as explained by Yoon in an LA Times article, was caused by a language barrier and disrespect from both the shopper and the merchant.
That should have solved the problem, right?
By 1991, there were over 100 swap meets in the city of Los Angeles. And Yoon, at the time, had expanded the LA Slauson Swap Meet to over 150 micro retailers.
In April of 1992, however, Central and South Los Angeles were under fire after an unwelcome verdict on the Rodney King Police beating and the Latasha Harlins trial. Swap Meets, along with many other Korean-owned establishments, were targets of looting and arson.
The Slauson Swap Meet however survived the looting and arson not by faith, but by fire.
“Well that was a sight to see,” McAdams said. “These people were guarding the Slauson Swap Meet on the roof with their security. It was not only Korean up there. Black people were helping. They have a security army. And most of the security army was black people. It was the Koreans who owned the store, but the security was with them….That’s the only place nobody could invade. The Slauson Swap Meet is the only place nobody ever go. They tried, but they would have gotten shot at….That’s the most secure place I’ve ever seen. I’ve never seen anything like that.”
According to the Korea Times, was under fire by driveby shooters and potential looters. “At LA. Slauson, they fired shots in the air to throw back attempts to break into the parking lot and the building.”
The Slauson Swap Meet Today
Today the Slauson Swap Meet stands as an iconic cultural monument in South LA. While swap meets like these started in an attempt to fill the convenience gap in several LA neighborhoods, many of them have not weathered the test of time. Several Swap Meets, including The Union Swap Meet, The North Hollywood Swap Meet, Westlake Theatre Swap Meet, have closed. Others, including the Alameda Swap Meet and Plaza Mexico, have found new ways to adapt to the changing demographics, particularly the Latinofication of South LA.
The Slauson Swap Meet, however, still remains busy on a Saturday morning, with over 120 vendors still active on any given day. Whatever the case is, indoor swap meets have a strong connection to South LA History, and it will continue to do so, at least here in Harvard Park.
That’s all for this recap, and I hope you learned something new today. As always, leave a comment down below to share your experience with the Slauson Swap Meet, and I’ll catch you around on the Recap.