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How LA neighborhoods got their names, and what happens if they change

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Is an L.A. neighborhood still the same if you change its name?

In a report on ballot measure JJJ, Koreatown resident Alexandra Suh worried about how gentrification was changing her neighborhood.

"I think some real estate people refer to this as 'Wilshire Center,'" she told KPCC. "They don't want to call it Koreatown."

(For what it's worth, Wilshire Center is an official designation for the wide area that also encompasses Koreatown)

Angelenos of a certain age will also remember when South L.A. was known as South Central until the city changed it in 2003 to get away from the stigma of the old name.

Take Two looks at the history of how L.A. neighborhoods were named (and who chose them), and what happens when residents want to call it something different, with LA Magazine's Chris Nichols.

How did parts of L.A. get their names?

When you go back to thinking of [L.A.'s beginning] as agricultural land, rolling hills and open spaces, whoever bought that parcel decided whatever they wanted to name it.

For example in Beverly Hills, the original buyer had property in Beverly, Massachusetts, so they called it "Beverly."

It was all completely arbitrary and ridiculous. People would come up with these names based on their families or their hobbies.

Are these official names, too?

They are, and they're designated. But each one has a long and complicated paper trail at the city archives, and they're not really put together.

When you want to dig deep into it, you have to call back the original city document that made that neighborhood official.

Also, the ones that are officially designated have a strong written border, but there are some that just come back casually through realtors and neighborhood people.

Why does it make a difference?

People have such ownership of their neighborhood.

Then there are these honorific titles like Koreatown, for example, where you go to your council person and you say, "I think we should name our neighborhood 'this.'"

In Koreatown, for example, there was a conflict with Little Bangladesh. Little Bangladesh wanted to slice part of Koreatown and call it that, and so they had kind of a "walk off" with the Councilman Tom LaBonge.

He told me the story of walking through and pointing out, "There's a Bangladesh business, and there's a Korean business."

So four blocks got named Little Bangladesh and 40 blocks named Koreatown.

History and culture matters, but what about real estate prices?

A lot of it is driven by real estate.

There are neighborhoods that might go back to a historic name that they think is charming and cute and will separate them from the larger neighborhood. 

Wilshire Highlands is one that came from an old real estate brochure that came back.

But whenever you can make up a story about a place, it's easier to sell – it's got a name, it's got an identity, it's got character, it's got this great background and people love it, so therefore it's worth X percent more.

"It's not 'down near USC.' It's 'University Park.'"

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.