A Conversation with LA County Planning Commissioner David W. Louie for AAPI Heritage Month

RPC Commissioner David W. Louie

For the 30th Anniversary of Asian-American Pacific Islander Heritage (AAPI) Month and with this year’s AAPI theme in mind, “Advancing Leaders through Collaboration”, members of the Advance Planning Social Media Team of Los Angeles County Planning reached out to Commissioner David W. Louie for an interview. Commissioner Louie represents the 2nd District, which includes most Metro Area Plan communities. We learned a lot about Commissioner David W. Louie who spoke candidly about his personal history, as well as about his ongoing work for the Regional Planning Commission for the last decade. In his own words, Commissioner Louie “riffed” on his experiences, sharing many details about his upbringing as a fourth generation Chinese American growing up in the Crenshaw area of Los Angeles. He also acknowledged the work of many other AAPI contributions to the field, including the collaboration that happens at all levels of community leadership. He poignantly concluded by reflecting on the importance of the “Stop Asian Hate” campaign, highlighting the Anti-Chinese Massacre of 1871 and his role in efforts to justly memorialize this tragic event and dark smudge in Los Angeles history. The full interview is summarized below and has been edited for clarity.

Mark: To start, please tell us about your background and how you came to be on the Regional Planning Commission?

I’m 4th generation Chinese American born and raised in the city of Los Angeles. Went to 39th Street Elementary School, which is now called Tom Bradley, Audubon Junior High School, Dorsey High School and then Cal State LA. My grandfather was a farmer who leased land in the Baldwin Hills and Compton areas and grew crops. My dad was the first that went to college. He met my mom in San Francisco while working as a bartender while doing his graduate work at Cal. They worked at the Forbidden City, a 1940’s Chinese nightclub and cabaret. I was raised in the Leimert Park neighborhood in the Crenshaw area, one of the first areas that Chinese could own property after World War Two. The community was very multiethnic. Dorsey High School was African American, Asian, Anglo. A beautiful mix. The Shaw was and continues to be a great place to grow up and live.

I have a degree in business administration with options in accounting and real estate. I worked for the Department of Commerce assisting small businesses and went on to be a police officer with the City of Richmond in Northern California. Simultaneously, I owned a fast-food franchise. I was a CPA with Arthur Andersen & Co., specializing in tax for entertainment, health care and not-for-profits. Then, for 25 years, I served as a broker for an international commercial real estate firm focusing on adaptive reuse, governmental and not-for-profit requirements, and market rate and affordable housing. Most recently, I’ve had my own firm specializing in transactional and advisory real estate services.

I have had the opportunity to serve on the City of Los Angeles Planning Commission, appointed by Mayor Tom Bradley. Mayor Richard Riordan appointed me to the Metro Citizen’s Advisory Commission. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa appointed me to the El Pueblo Commission, which Mayor Garcetti reappointed me to. I also served on the Board of Governors for Pilgrim School and Farmers University, the Board of Governors for Farmers Insurance, and on United Way’s Executive Board. Early on, I had the opportunity to do Brotherhood/Sisterhood USA, which was put on by the National Conference of Christians and Jews. They gathered together high school students, focused on fighting biases and promoting understanding between people of different races and cultures. A lot of good folks came out of that program including Zev Yaroslavsky, Mark Ridley-Thomas, and Warren Furutani. It was a very interesting program that had a big influence on me.

In 2012, Supervisor Mark Ridley Thomas asked me to serve on the Regional Planning Commission, I thought that it would be an interesting opportunity and here we are a decade later.

Mark: Can you tell us a bit more about your stint as a police officer?

I became a police officer because it was, man this is going sound strange, fun. I actually relocated from Los Angeles up to the Bay Area to open a fast-food franchise. The opening was up in a city called Richmond and I did my banking at Wells Fargo and it turned out that some tellers were off-duty police officers and I’ve always had an interest in in police work and they said, “well, come on and ride along and see what it’s like.” And I did and I enjoyed it. And I was doing it so much that they said, “why don’t you become a reserve officer?” And I said, “cool.” So, I went through the Reserve Academy and became a reserve police officer. And I was doing that so much, they said, “hey, why don’t you just become a regular officer and you can get paid for this?” So, I did that and worked as a police officer at the same time that I owned and operated the fast-food franchise. It wasn’t so much a career choice as it was a life choice as far as something that I’d like to do and it was a great time. I was young, single, had two incomes and thought I was making a dent in the universe.

Mark: You mention that you are fourth generation, can you please tell us more about your family, like your grandfather who worked in agriculture in the Baldwin Hills area? 

My great-grandfather was the first one to immigrate to the US. My grandfather was born here in the United States. He was sort of a sharecropper. You know, it wasn’t like he owned a farm. He leased land and grew onions and “Dong Gua” which is Chinese winter melon. I can remember we would help with the horse and plow, and it was good fun. So that’s the 4th generation piece.

One interesting aspect is Mom. She was a girl in the 1930s and her mom passed away when she was young, her dad couldn’t and didn’t have the capability of raising her and gave her up to an organization called Gum Moon, which raised girls and she was there from the time she was 12 until she was 18, and then she was emancipated and allowed to leave. Mom was a very interesting woman. She had a very positive attitude, and at our house, when I was a kid, she always had a cart of candies and treats. It struck me as unusual, but it was because as a girl she didn’t have stuff. So she always wanted to make sure that her kids always had all the candy, whether they needed it or not, available.

Mark: So, this is when you were growing up in Leimert Park?

That’s right, the Crenshaw area.

Mark: OK, so you mentioned that your upbringing was multiethnic and that you went to Dorsey High School. So, while you were going to school, you or any members of your community didn’t experience any racial strife or anything else like that??

Crenshaw was a great place to grow up. It wasn’t Shangri-La, but there was unity in the community.  Racism was much more subtle.

In the 4th grade, I can recall the first incident where I knew that being Asian was different and not good, or that it did not have a good outcome. Many of my friends looking back were Anglo and I’d go over their house, we’d play Army, we’d play board games, hide and seek and have dinner at their place and they come over my house and same thing and I think it was about the 4th grade. It was time to become a Cub Scout, so I applied, but didn’t get in. Dad took me aside and said, “you didn’t get in or we didn’t get in because you’re Chinese and the Bai gui (“White Devils”) didn’t want us in there.” And he said, “we really don’t wanna be where we’re not wanted.” I think we went on to join the multiethnic YMCA. Back then, that was the first time that being Chinese wasn’t a plus.

So there was racial tension and discrimination. And it went both ways. I can remember, growing up, that my parents had their own prejudices. They had just gone through World War Two, and brought their experiences and passed them on. It was not kumbaya, it was a part of growing up.

Mark: You mentioned when you moved to Leimert Park, your parents were able to purchase a home. There was a significant African American community there as well too and to the best of your knowledge they were able to purchase a home because we know there were a lot of challenges back then?

Yes Sir. In the late 40’s and early 50’s it was an area that people of color could buy.  The Crenshaw area included for me Leimert Park, Hype Park, View Park, Baldwin Hills and Windsor hills. Looking back it was just a very dynamic period of time, to grow up in the 1960s. A lot of folks from my generation remember it as a very positive experience.

Erica: Considering the history of redlining in Los Angeles County, something we keep learning more about, it’s interesting to hear that your father bought a home in the 1950s. Can you tell us more about what inspired or motivated him to buy property?

Remember, the inability of Asians to own property in California is more than redlining. It was the fundamental denial of Asian ownership until the 1940’s. In regard to my parents, I think homeownership was important and that this was an area he could buy a home. When my parents first got married, they lived in an area near 9th and San Pedro, which is close to the produce market.  When my grandfather was alive he could not own property.  There were other Chinese farmers working in produce who also wanted to own property. They were significant and so my understanding is that the city attorney at that time said, “Why don’t we put a corporation together and you can own stock in the corporation and the corporation will buy property.” And that’s the genesis of the produce market at 9th and San Pedro. So the Chinese ownership, they own a little less than half and there’s an Anglo family, that owns a little more than half and it’s still in existence today.  So the ownership of real property has always been an objective for my family. I’m sure that grandpa passed that on to my father. And when the time came to own property, have a home, he looked around and said, “this is a neat area and we can buy there.” As a result, a very significant AAPI population evolved in the Crenshaw area.

Mark: So here is another question about your history as well, too. How many different fast-food restaurants have you owned and what has been on the menu?

Well, OK, we’re not making this bigger deal than it was. I owned one restaurant. I purchased one license. You may not be old enough to remember, but there used to be a fried chicken place called Pioneer Chicken. They had the original orange chicken. I think at its peak there were about 350 stores primarily in Southern California. And when I was thinking about going into the fast-food business, I used to frequent a place on Crenshaw Blvd., McDonald’s. It was owned by one of the first black operators and he and I became pals and we chatted and I said, “I’m thinking about buying a fast-food franchise. And I said McDonald’s seems like a good way to go.” He said, “not if I were doing it again.” He said, “I would go chicken, I’d go fried chicken.” And I thought about it and Pioneer Chicken was expanding in the Northern California. So, I said, “OK, let’s give it a try!” I thought I was a smart guy and willing to put in long hours and get greasy. And I did.

Mark: So you ran the Pioneer Chicken for about the same number of years that you were a police officer there in Richmond?

Almost identical, I think I started the chicken place and within a few months became a reserve officer and then a regular police officer. The jobs overlapped for about five years.

Mark: Ok, that’s really interesting!  I want to transition over to the second question, which is about how your role on the Regional Planning Commission for more than 10 years with an AAPI lens, if possible, if you might talk about that, too?

The role of the Planning Commission is advisory to the Board on planning issues. My role is that I bring the perspective of someone of the community, a person of color, born and raised, educated, worked in primarily African-American and Asian areas, with a financial and accounting background. And from a business standpoint of actually operating a small business in the area. I hope that I bring that kind of experience and perspective to the Commission. And, in many ways, I think that that is the role of the Commission. I don’t know if there is an expectation that we are planners as such, but rather that we are reflective of the community, the needs of the community, and able to express those thoughts and share those opinions with the Board.

Mark: Are there any cases that stand out in your mind over the last 10 year that were personally important to you and what were those?

The Tejon Ranch and Universal Studios matters were interesting. From a broader perspective, the Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance, the Industrial Use Task Force, the Oil Well Ordinance and the SAAFE Ordinance have been important to me. 

Mark: And you feel that from your perspective as a Chinese American and also as someone who represents people of color, that the SAAFE Ordinance was a good thing and that you could help advocate for that?

So back in 1992, one of my challenges at the Los Angeles City Planning Commission, was that members of the AAPI community, in many instances, were the licensees coming back to be authorized to operate again.  I could see moms and pops who could only operate because it was them, maybe with their kids, operating the store that it allowed it to be financially viable. I could firsthand understand the inability to speak English and how that could impact customer relations and how different cultures and backgrounds influence what people saw and heard and understood. And it was a challenging time to look at that. But I could also see how a good operator even with limited English abilities, who recognized the importance of a superior operation, and a sensitivity to who they were serving could make a positive impact on those communities. It was challenging as far as the dynamic, but it was clear to me how it needed to be executed. When arriving at the Regional Planning Commission, and having an opportunity to work with our enforcement group and with the Sheriff’s Department in this case the 2nd District, I understood where the challenges were, and knew that the SAAFE Ordinance would be a plus, and that it would be helpful to the communities and our citizens. Thanks to Mitch Glaser and Doug Smith who made the SAAFE Ordinance happen.

Mark: I am really curious about how you feel the AAPI community is served by land use and zoning decisions.  As a member of the AAPI community, you’re on the Regional Planning Commission, which advises the Board of Supervisors. Do you feel that you’re in a special place to ensure that the AAPI community is properly represented and that the outcomes are good in land use decisions.

All communities are defined by their land use and zoning decisions. Land utilization is the foundation for an equitable, sustainable and healthy community. The Regional Planning Commission is a very special place. The Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance, the SAAFE Ordinance, the Oil Well Ordinance, the Industrial Use Taskforce, the Adaptive Reuse Ordinance–these are all areas that the AAPI community are impacted.    

Mark: Right, right, right. You know, harkening back to the past a bit, redlining and all that kind of stuff. You know we don’t have that anymore, although there’s still racism that affects decisions by people and governments, etc. Do you think that our Los Angeles County government is more progressive than others and are there are things that we may still need to do to make things fairer for everybody?

Redlining on a Federal level came about in the 1930’s and existed for 30 years before being legally banned.  The impact of past discriminatory lending practices is still being felt in Los Angeles County. A clear pattern and practice of Redlining has defined many of our communities.  A recent report by ABC News and FiveThirtyEight, “The Lasting Legacy of Redlining” highlights Los Angeles and how the Latino and Asian communities are still segregated from the city’s white population. Our Board of Supervisors has Equity as a priority and has specific policies to achieve it.

Mark: Yes, right, and I have seen that study.

Our Board is trying to end the embedded racism that permeates our system. They are working to create policies that bring equity to the people of Los Angeles County.

Mark: Your community is the Crenshaw area and that’s where you grew up and you’ve spent so much of your life and developed and had businesses, all kinds of stuff like that. There are other areas of the County like the East San Gabriel Valley, which is very rich with American Asian and Pacific Islander culture. What are your thoughts about that those areas as representing AAPI and j how Regional Planning has been involved in planning there?

In general, many of the planning issues are the same throughout the County.  Market and affordable housing, homelessness, health, development, safety, gentrification, noise, traffic, pollution, economic viability, transportation, jobs, conservation, protection of natural resources and respect for existing uses.  What is different is language, specific cultural priorities, and our methods of community outreach. The Department has worked hard to develop an effective and sensitive community outreach process.

Mark: When you’re on the Commission and there happens to be Asian Americans, maybe applicants or something like that, do they tend to look to you to help them get through the process?

You would think they would, but because County Council is very protective of us applicants don’t. County Council does not want anybody except staff to talk to us. So my business card does not have my phone number on it. It doesn’t have my address on it and it does not have my email address, so even if they want to reach me, it would be very difficult and those that have tried, I will get a phone call and I will be told that “so and so” is trying to get ahold of you. They’d like to meet with you and we suggest you don’t. Which is fine. And I’ve actually been approached otherwise, not only by the AAPI community, by advocates for applicants and in general I have to politely say thank you, but no thank you. Or in some instances where I do accidentally meet with them or where I’ve had a prior relationship with them and now they come before us, I need to make a full disclosure on it.  I don’t know that I’ve had to recuse myself. But it’s very interesting how from the applicant’s standpoint, their ability to reach out to me is very, very limited.

Mark: Well, that’s good to know. I would think that they may still feel some comfort and feel there is representation, so that’s important. Erica, did you have something that you would like to follow up on?

Erica: Yes, thank you. As a Planning Commissioner you’re in this position of course where you have to follow these rules, but I do think that generally it seems like you are able to balance the various needs within the community and not just for Asian Americans, but in general, since you have great background from the community. So that’s interesting. I have another question, and it’s a little darker, but we recently posted about Hilda Solis’s renewed commitment along with other Supervisors, to “Stop Asian Hate.” There have been these instances of hate against Asians in Los Angeles and continued tensions between various racial and ethnic groups. I’m curious if you have any kind of thoughts or views on that?

Yes, I do. I think from my experience, a lot of times discrimination or discrimination based on race is based on ignorance, a lack of education, and lack of exposure. And I believe that once people either sweat together, cry together, fight together there is sort of an understanding of who they are and what they believe. And that’s part of education and that education needs to be brought to bear. And, you know, talking about stopping Asian hate. Yeah, yeah, let’s stop Asian hate. How do you do that? Again, I think exposure, I think education, I think in some cases, forcing people to be side by side, experiencing stuff, you know whether that stuff is playing on the same basketball team. Whether it’s working together to try to improve your neighborhood, whether it’s spending time with another family of a different background really starts to breakdown the misconceptions about people. It’s simple to say, hey, you know we all have the same objectives and goals. And it’s quite another thing to have to live that with another group. So, I think the commitment that Supervisor Hilda Solis made is right on point. I think she gets unanimous support from the other Board members that, yeah, we need to stop Asian hate.

I know that Supervisor Hilda Solis has been supportive of a motion at Metro. And Supervisor Holly Mitchell was the one that seconded, which recognized the displacement of the Chinese community for the creation of Union Station. And that Metro would do what was necessary to try to recognize that and to put in place appropriate recognition and that might be in the form of a monument or educational facilities at Metro to bring that about. I know that Supervisor Holly Mitchell in particular has worked hard at trying to bring together the Korean American community and the African American community. Looking at the Civil Unrest of 1992 from an educational standpoint to recognize the differences and the pain from both sides that occurred, she tried to on a real person to person basis, deal with some of the issues that came up. And I mentioned that you know Supervisor Holly Mitchell is a teacher. She actually had an event specifically for looking at that and exploring that and one of her deputies is Korean American.  She is looking at trying to deal with the institutionalized racism and the impact and the embedded discrimination that occurs.

AAPIs have had tremendous success overall. For example, Eddie Yen, who is a very successful member of the Executive Officer within the County. And he is also the President of the Asian American Employees Association, an attorney and man, has he been dynamic at bringing about change at the County. There are a couple folks who have succeeded at being excellent at what they do and also taking a look at being excellent at bigger things that they want to accomplish. if we’re looking at celebrating AAPI heritage, during this 30th Anniversary of when Congress recognized it, designated as a month to reflect and make proclamations and declarations, I think those these folks are examples of success of doing that and doing that well.

Mark: Yes, you have some gems right there in what you’re saying. I want to pull some of those as quotes and I was about ready to ask you, what would you like to say about AAPI Heritage Month, but you just said it right there, unless there’s anything else you’d like to say about the heritage month?

Well, I have a particular interest in an event called the Anti-Chinese Massacre of 1871. Back in October of 1871, the good citizens of Los Angeles went and lynched 18 Chinese American men, about 10% of the Chinese population in an act of just racial bias and an opportunity to take out the anger and frustration against the people who looked different, smell different, spoke a different language, eat different food, dress differently, and perceived to be threats to the economic vitality of the City of Los Angeles. So right now that is currently memorialized in a 18 inch by 12 inch plaque over at El Pueblo and a number of a us think that there ought to be more than that, and we’re working on trying to bring about a more significant memorial. And the Mayor of Los Angeles has supported that, and we are endeavoring to bring that about so that’s something I’m working on.

Mark: That plaque that you’re working on or something greater? Is that a committee that you’re on that we can name or call out?

The City of Los Angeles had one of their people, the Chief Designer Officer for the City of Los Angeles, Christopher Hawthorne, charged with Identifying and recognizing some of the history, the untold history of Los Angeles as part of the Civic Memories Working Group. And he came out with a 200-page report called, Past Due. And within it there are, I think there were twelve recommendations, one of which was recognition of the Chinese massacre. Based on that recommendation, Christopher, I, Michael Woo, who is a former City Councilman put together a steering committee of about 70 individuals to start to develop the framework for a more significant memorial. We’ve done that, we’ve convened a site committee, a funding committee, a planning committee, a design committee, and hopefully, within the next 30 days, we’re going to issue an RFI, a request for ideas to the community for a memorial to be placed at El Pueblo, which is the birthplace of Los Angeles. And you know by the way, the Mayor offered a formal apology for the Chinese massacre. I think the City of San Francisco and the County of San Francisco apologized to the Chinese community for the discrimination and the painful events that occurred in the city and county. The City of Antioch also offered their apology. The City of San Jose has offered their apologies. So, I think for AAPI Heritage month, a variety of governments and governmental agencies have reached out to do some education to try to stop Asian hate.

Mark: Wow, that’s great. I’m gonna have to look up the Civic Memories text (Past Due) and take a look at that. That sounds fascinating!

That’s a great text. It’s a great text and beyond the Chinese, I mean, also for the Native Americans. It’s interesting, the City of Los Angeles is going to issue a proclamation, in essence, give back Father Serra Park to the Native Americans and Father Serra Park is directly across from Union Station. And there was recognition of the Civil Unrest of 1992. Christopher Hawthorne also wanted to recognize COVID-19 as being a significant event in the history of the of the City of Los Angeles, so it’s a very interesting read and it’s available online.

Erica: Thank you so much for this opportunity to talk to you! We’re out of time, but it’s been so interesting to learn more about you. I’m very impressed with everything, even this last initiative you’re working on with the steering committee. And I hope to hear more about that. I’m very proud of how you can use your position to advocate for the community, especially given your experience living in the community.  

Mark: Thanks so much for spending this time with us.  

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