The End of an Era: Union Swap Meet’s Last Days
by Samanta Helou Hernandez
The swap meet is a mythic place in Los Angeles. In the ‘90s and early 2000s, it’s where kids in Black and brown neighborhoods bought fits for school: Pro Club white tees, Dickies, Nike Cortezs, and gold nameplates. These in-door markets were a hangout very much like the malls of white America.
Back then, South Central swap meets were often the only place that sold West Coast rap mixtapes. The Compton Fashion Center was featured in both Tupac and Kendrick Lamar videos. When it closed and became a Walmart, it was as if a piece of Compton had been erased.
Swap meets are much more than an affordable place to shop. They’re where neighborhoods create community, re-affirm identity, and build collective memories. They’re historical landmarks. But as the city changes, people are displaced, and younger generations shop online, the swap meet’s days are numbered.
This is the story of one such place: Union Swap Meet in East Hollywood.
Joo Lee opened Union Swapmeet on Vermont and Santa Monica Blvd. in 1986. He modeled the concept on ones from his home country of Korea that allowed multiple people to own businesses in one place.
For merchants, the rent was more accessible than a traditional brick-and-mortar, and it attracted new immigrants who wanted independence—but didn’t have the capital for a larger enterprise.
At the height of Union Swapmeet in the ’80s and ’90s, lines of people would wait to shop at 70 different stalls.
Families sent money to their home countries and bought clothes, toys, and pets. They could get acupuncture, a haircut, tailor clothes, eat, and buy alternative medicines from Mexico, all in a day.
Latino radio stations held events, mariachis played, and there were even car giveaways. Latinos and Koreans, hundreds and thousands of miles away from home, spoke their native languages. A trip to Union Swapmeet was an all day affair.
Naturally, friendships formed. Kids who grew up going to the swap meet with their families, later took their own children. Some patrons went on first dates here and others even met their spouses.
Joo retired four years ago, leaving Union Swap Meet in the care of his two daughters and son-in-law.
The Lees adapted to the changing demographics of the neighborhood by repainting the exterior with murals of long-time vendors and even added an Instagrammable set of wings. They threw pop-ups and a heavily attended Hong Kong-style night market and tried to fill some stalls with Etsy vendors.
It wasn’t enough.
The Lees struck a deal with Koreatown developer Jamison Services to demolish the market and turn the property into a seven-story residential and retail complex.
Throughout 2019, customers continued to trickle in to pay their cell phone bills, buy jewelry, and visit longtime friends.
Vendors at Union didn’t plan to move to another swap meet after the closure. To them, it’s a futile attempt. They understand they’re a dying breed.
What follows are the voices of the longtime merchants that remained that year.
Olga Avila originally from Michoacan, Mexico. Owner of Incense, Arts, and Crafts at Union Swap Meet since 1986:
“When I first opened, this was a music store. I sold all kinds of music like merengue, salsa, cumbia, punta, soca, ranchera, nortena, balada, everything. My customers were from Mexico and Central America. I had to have something for everyone.
When one first arrives in this country, it’s easier to go to a swap meet and be able to speak your own language than going to a mall and having to speak English.
It’s a place where Latinos can feel like they’re in their own country. They don’t feel so sad, because when you leave your country, it’s a sad thing. You feel alone.
It has changed a lot. Now there is almost no one. All the young people who are born here go to the malls.
I’m a little sad. I spent many years here. My children grew up here, my grandchildren grew up here. My daughter has a stall here. It is very painful to leave it.
All the time I spent here was very beautiful. I got to know many people. I got to know their stories from joys to sorrows, everything.”
“Cuando yo abrí esta era una tienda de música. Vendía de todo tipo de música merengue, salsa, cumbia, punta, soca, ranchera, norteña, balada, todo. Escogía de todo porque venía gente mexicana y Centroamericana. Entonces tenía que tener un poquito de todo para todos gustos.
Cuando uno llega a este pais es mas fácil ir al swap meet donde puedes hablar tu idioma en lugar de ir a un mall donde tienes que hablar inglés.
Es un lugar donde Latinos se sienten en su país. No se sienten tan mal, porque cuando uno deja su país, es algo triste. Te sientes triste.
A cambiado muchísimo. Antes había más gente ahora ya casi no hay.
Estoy un poquito triste. Tengo muchos años aquí. Mis hijos aquí crecieron, mis nietos aquí crecieron. Y mi hija tiene un local. Es muy doloroso dejarlo.
Todo el tiempo que pase aquí fue muy bonito. Conviví con mucha gente. Conocí muchos sentimientos de muchas personas, tristezas, alegrías, de todo.”
Francisco Gutierrez, originally from Guatemala. Owner of F&G Shoe Repair at Union Swapmeet since 2000:
“I’m from Guatemala. I repair all kinds of shoes, women’s bags, luggage, leather jackets. I learned this in my country, when I was 8 years old. My mother made me learn this work. I know how to manufacture the entire shoe, not just repair it. I am 65 years old now.
I wanted to become independent and be my own boss, that’s why I’m here. Thank God I’m doing very well.
This job cannot be done online, so I still have customers. If this were just retail, I would have left, because it is easier to buy online.
I have a lot of American customers now, before it was only Latinos that came here.
A lot of swap meets are disappearing. I think once this closes I’ll look for a place outside. I do not plan to close. The swap meet gave me a lot of life. It has given me everything—a way to survive, everything.”
“Yo soy de Guatemala. Reparo toda clase de zapatos, bolsas de mujer, las luggage, las chamarras de piel. Yo aprendí en mi país a los 8 años mi madre me puso a aprender el trabajo. Yo sé hacer el zapato completo no solo reparación. Tengo ahorita 65 años.
Me quise independizar y ser yo mi propio jefe por eso estoy acá. Gracias a dios me va muy bien.
Esto no lo pueden hacer por internet por eso sigo con clientela. Si fuera esto solo ventas, ya me hubiera ido.
Tengo mucha clientela americana y antes era puro Latino.
Ya se están acabando muchos swap meets. Yo creo que buscaré un local afuera. No pienso cerrar.
El swap meet me dio mucha vida. Me ha dado de todo. Como sobrevivir, de todo. ”
Lilia Ochoa, Michoacan, Mexico. Owner of Travel Latino Express at Union Swapmeet since 2004:
“The majority of my clients are from Mexico. Many are from Durango and Oaxaca, but I also have many from Guatemala. What I do most is send money.
When Trump first won, my clients sent and sent money. They took their money from the bank because of all the changes that were happening. They were afraid of being deported and so they sent the money.
My clients come with the illusion of helping out their families back home and building their houses. That is why they come and work so many jobs so they can send money and finish their houses back home. And then they return to their home countries. Those stories are very common in this type of business.
It’s very nice because sometimes they tell me their stories, they tell me their lives, about how they left children back home. They feel trust in me and maybe that keeps them coming back.
I like to take care of people. I like listening to them.
I do feel nostalgia about the swap meet closing, but these are the changes of life and you have to accept them. Everything has an end, right? What can we do?”
“La mayoría de mis clientes son de México. Hay muchos de Durango y Oaxaca, pero también tengo muchos de Guatemala. Lo que más hago es envió de dinero.
Al principio que ganó Trump mandaban y mandaban dinero. Sacaban su dinero del banco por todo el cambio que pasó. Tenían miedo que los deportaran y entonces mandaban el dinero.
Mis clientes vienen con la ilusión de ayudar a sus familias en sus países y construir sus casas. Por eso vienen, agarrar dos tres trabajos para mandar y mandar y terminar sus casas. Y después se regresan a su pais. Esas historias son muy comunes en este tipo de negocio.
Es muy bonito porque a veces me cuentan sus historias, me cuentan sus vidas, que dejaron hijos allá. Sienten yo creo confianza en mí. Y eso tal vez los hace que sigan viniendo.
Me gusta mucho atender a la gente. Me gusta mucho escucharlos.
De repente si siente uno nostalgia que se vaya a cerrar el swap meet, pero son cambios de la vida y hay que aceptarlos. Todo tiene un final verdad? ¿Qué podemos hacer?”
Casey Yoo, originally from Korea. Owner of Easy Alterations at Union Swap Meet since 2015:
“When I retired a doctor, I was bored so I thought this would be a good way to spend time. I’m also a background actor.
I’ve owned this business for four years now. I took over because the previous owner passed away. But this stall has been here since 1986.
The original owner of the swap meet is actually from my hometown in Korea. We graduated middle school together. When I started this 4 years ago, I realized I knew him.
The tailor is my friend. He has over 40 years of experience. I do the cutting and trimming, and he sews.
I heard when this swap meet first opened it was very busy but people from Mexico and El Salvador they don’t come here anymore so business is down.”
But alteration is still a busy business and so is shoe repair because it’s a good service at a cheap price.
This building will be torn down and rebuilt. I hope I can come back, because the first floor will be commercial.”
Sonia Gomez, originally from Mexico City, Mexico DF Mexico. Owner of Naomy’s Hair Salon at Union Swap Meet since 1997:
“The majority of my clients are Latinos and Filipinos. A lot of Americans are coming to this neighborhood, but they don’t enter the swap meet.
Until now, my business has not been affected. Thank God it hasn’t. It will affect me when they close this. I have many clients that have been coming here for many many years.
They are taking a lot of Latinos out of here. A lot of my clients lived around here but they kicked them out. That’s what’s going to happen to this whole area. They are going to Americanize this bit. In the building next door, they gave people money to move out of their apartments but they still come here. They come from places as far as Hesperia.
For me the hours go by when I’m working. I forget the clock. This is where I live my life. I love to see that people leave happy, that they feel different with a haircut. They leave with more self esteem. And I’m happy that they leave happy.
Since I was 7 years old, I used to say that I wanted to curl hair and look here I am curling hair.”
“La mayoría de mis clientes son latinos y filipinos. Está llegando mucho americano a esta vecindad, pero al swap meet no entran. Aquí no entran.
A mi hasta ahorita no afectado mi negocio. Gracias a dios no. Lo va afectar cuando ya me cierren. Tengo muchos clientes de muchos muchos años y siguen viniendo.
Pero están sacando mucho a los Latinos. Toda esta área es lo que va a pasar. Van a americanizar este pedacito. Aquí alrededor eran mis clientes y a todos los sacaron. Les dieron dinero para que se salieran de los apartamentos de aquí al lado y todavia vienen hasta acá. Hasta vienen desde Hesperia.
Para mí se me pasan las horas y sin comer. Y sin acordarme del reloj. Aquí se me va mi día y mi vida. Me encanta ver que la gente sale contenta, que se sienten diferente con un corte de pelo. Se sienten con más auto estima. Y me quedo contenta que se vayan contentos.
Yo desde que tenía 7 años decía que quería hacer chinitos y mira estoy haciendo los chinitos.”
Christian Lopez owner of City Pets at Union Swap Meet:
“I’m from Los Angeles, but my parents are from Guatemala. I opened this up when I was 18. I like animals, so it’s kind of like a passion and a business at the same time.
I’ve been coming to this swap meet since I was maybe three or four years old, because I grew up in the area. I actually have pictures of me as a kid when we would come and visit the swap meet and buy jewelry. When we would visit, I would buy animals without my mom noticing, and I would hide them until we got home.
I went from having one small 500 square feet locale to having four little spots. The next step I think for me would be to get an actual brick-and-mortar location.
I have customers that come in here, and I’m like a therapist to them. They’ll talk to me not just about their animals but about family. It’s a community based business. You’re serving the community.
The swap meet is a dying industry. The products that we have in here don’t cater to the people that are in the neighborhood now.
But swap meets are important, because they preserve culture and preserve history. They service the community. It holds for people an emotional part. They’re unique.”
In March of 2020, all remaining vendors left and the swap meet officially closed. A locked fence kept hopeful shoppers out as they walked by trying to visit one last time.
Signs from vendors hang on the market’s exterior announcing their new locations. Inside, the stalls are empty. The once bustling swap meet stands desolate awaiting the tractors that will tear down each wall, one by one.
All that will remain of the market are the cherished memories of the vendors who opened their first businesses here, of the second generation kids, now adults with their own children, who remember spending weekends shopping with their families, and of the immigrants who found a sense of comfort and familiarity speaking their native language, listening to cumbia, punta, and merengue, and building a community with fellow shoppers and vendors. They know the new development is not meant for them, and when construction ends, the neighborhood they’ve called home for decades will be even more unrecognizable.
Visual art segments of Gloria Molina Grand Park’s Our L.A. Voices are made possible by Jardín deLArte