Fleeing after the 1974 insurgent overthrow of Ethiopia’s last monarch, the late Emperor Haile Selassie, and subsequent violent purges by the incoming Marxist regime, thousands of Ethiopians in the United States decided not to return home and thousands more came to the U.S. as refugees. Most settled in the Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles areas.
Ethiopian immigrants in Washington, D.C., began opening restaurants and cultural shops along several blocks on 18th Street in the Adams Morgan neighborhood in that city. The neighborhood became a business and cultural center for Washington’s Ethiopian community.
In Los Angeles, Ethiopian immigrant Fekere Gebre-Mariam, a businessman who once aspired to be a diplomat and had immigrated to Los Angeles in 1971, was inspired by the success of Washington’s “Little Ethiopia.” In 1988, Gebre-Mariam, seeking to establish a business center for L.A.’s scattered Ethiopian community, moved his Ethiopian cuisine restaurant, Rosalind, from La Cienega Boulevard to a decaying block of shops and thrift stores along South Fairfax Avenue in the city’s Carthay Square neighborhood. The block, once called South Fairfax or “SoFax,” running between Olympic Boulevard and Whitworth Drive, was once an extension of the larger Jewish commercial district to the north. Gebre-Mariam saw promise in the blighted, low-priced block to draw in businesses to provide “all things Ethiopian.” Soon, other Ethiopian businesses and restaurants joined him there.
By 1994, the South Fairfax block featured five Ethiopian restaurants, a coffeehouse, a market, a travel agency and a silk screen shop, becoming, as Gebre-Mariam envisioned, a center for Ethiopian Angelenos. The recession of the 1990s, however, brought economic hardship to the block, aggravated by fallout from the 1992 Los Angeles riots. By the end of that decade, a number of the original Ethiopian shops and restaurants on the block had closed. Gebre-Mariam persisted, however, and, by the beginning of the new millennium, the block came to be known as "Ethiopian Restaurant Row," "Little Addis" (named for Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa), and, most commonly, "Little Ethiopia." It was smaller than Washington, D.C.’s Little Ethiopia had been, but it survived and thrived even after Washington’s Little Ethiopia community was forced to move due to escalating rents.
In November 2002, after lobbying by Gebre-Mariam, Belay Dawit (Merkato Restaurant & Market), Meshesha Biru (Nile Travel), and brothers Birhanu and Getahun Asfaw (Messob Restaurant), the Los Angeles City Council unanimously designated the three blocks between Olympic and Pico Boulevards as "Little Ethiopia." The neighborhood’s business block was closed to traffic and Little Ethiopia celebrated its first-ever cultural street festival, drawing about 5,000 people. The festival has been held every September since.
Little Ethiopia is the smallest of L.A.’s 18 officially-recognized ethnic enclaves, but it is the only one to recognize a culture from the African continent. It is also the first place outside Ethiopia to be officially named for the home country and the first in U.S. history in an American city officially named for an African nation.
Sources: California Fool's Gold -- Exploring Little Ethiopia, by Eric Brightwell; Fairfax Avenue, by Erin J. Aubry, LA Weekly; Ethiopia Enclave Feeds Body, Soul, by Edward J. Boyer, L.A. Times; Little Ethiopia Los Angeles; Neighborhoods: Little Ethiopia , by Rachel Levin, L.A. Times; Little Ethiopia in California: How it Happened, by Azeb Tadesse & Meron Ahadu, Tadias Magazine; Little Ethiopia Business Association.