Koreatown Suffering Growing Pains

Times Staff Writer

Westside commuters rushing home along Olympic Boulevard, past blocks dominated by Korean-language signs and new blue-tile-roofed shopping centers, are unlikely to pay much notice to the old brick building in the heart of Koreatown that houses the Olympic Market.

Second-floor window boxes bursting with flowers reveal the touch of a gentle hand, but little else distinguishes the Korean grocery.

Yet someday--if the building is not torn down in the burst of development engulfing this section of Los Angeles--someone may place a historical marker here, for this market played a key role in helping spark development of a sprawling Korean business district whose most dramatic growth may have only just begun.

"Koreatown has very bright prospects for the future," said Bourney Moon, the present owner of the Olympic Market. "But it also has lots of problems."

Immigrants have established an estimated 2,800 Koreatown-area businesses, thus revitalizing commercial strips that were decaying 15 years ago. But growth is bringing its own troubles and frustrations.

Increased shopping along Olympic Boulevard conflicts with the street's role as a major alternative to the Santa Monica Freeway, creating a dangerous mixture that has led to accidents in which pedestrians have been injured or killed.

Koreatown lacks a pedestrian-oriented central mall such as enjoyed by Little Tokyo and Chinatown, and partly because of this draws relatively few non-Korean visitors from outside the area. Many Korean leaders hope that some of the land zoned for apartments in the heart of Koreatown can be rezoned for such development, possibly including a cultural center that would introduce Korean arts to the general public.

But Koreatown has grown primarily as a Korean business center, while residents of the area are predominantly non-Korean. Some non-Korean residents have begun to fight commercial encroachment into residential areas, and there is no indication that the city would readily agree to large-scale residential-to-commercial rezoning.

Many old-timers say that the most important single event in the birth of Koreatown was Hi Duk Lee's 1971 purchase and subsequent expansion of the Olympic Market, which he later sold to Moon.

Lee recalled recently how he built up the market by importing Asian foods, contracting for locally grown Korean vegetables and offering Korean-style cuts of meat.

"After three years, lots of customers were coming in, because they knew I was keeping fresh meat and produce," Lee said. "After three years, I picked up business from $7,000 per month gross to $70,000 per month gross."

Attractive Environment

Lee's market helped create an environment that proved attractive to other Korean entrepreneurs. A Korean bookstore, photo shop and barber moved into the same building, which Lee purchased in 1974. A second Korean grocery store came in across the street, and a Korean-owned bank building went up nearby.

Over the next few years, Lee built a Korean restaurant and shopping mall along Olympic Boulevard. Korean shops began sprouting up in storefronts along nearby streets to the north.

Today, Korean businesses are concentrated in the super-block formed by Olympic Boulevard, Vermont Avenue, 8th Street and Western Avenue. But they sprawl to the north and south along Western and Vermont for three miles, and to the east and west along Olympic for two miles.

Construction of what would become the largest shopping mall in the area, the $25-million Koreatown Plaza, is due to begin early next year on a three-acre site along Western Avenue. The mall is scheduled for completion in 1987.

But the area's zoning limits most development to narrow commercial strips, allowing few developments of this size. Most of Koreatown is a jumbled mixture of storefront shops, small shopping plazas and auto sales and service lots. Eighth Street, less of a commuter thoroughfare than the other major streets, has a large Korean bookstore, restaurants, an Asian food market and two new shopping plazas under construction. Some Korean-Americans feel that its relatively quiet ambiance makes it the most pleasant street in Koreatown.

Korean barbecue restaurants abound, with gas grills at each table to cook marinated beef, a dish that waitresses frequently recommend to non-Koreans. Korean customers often order fiercely hot spicy noodles or equally piquant dishes cooked in individual clay pots.

It is a neighborhood where Korean newcomers and senior citizens can supply their daily needs without speaking English, and where earlier Korean immigrants who drive in from Los Angeles' suburbs can recall the flavor of their homeland.

But people risk their lives crossing Olympic Boulevard through heavy traffic.

"This is primarily Asian people we're losing here," Steve Hillmann, a traffic officer with the Los Angeles Police Department, commented at an October meeting in Koreatown held to discuss pedestrian safety on Olympic Boulevard. "I'm talking about pedestrian versus auto, pedestrian versus motorcycle."

Many businesses in Koreatown display signs only in Korean, sometimes because no one on the premises can speak English. This arouses resentment among some non-Korean residents of the area and concern among Korean leaders who feel that good community relations and business prosperity depend upon greater efforts to attract non-Korean customers, including use of English on signs.

Jong Whan Cha, owner of the Nasung gift stores, with branches on both Olympic and Vermont, said he believes that about 70% of the customers in Koreatown stores are ethnically Korean, about 10% are from other Asian groups and about 20% are non-Asian.

About half the residents of the area, however, are Latino, while Koreans comprise less than a quarter of the population.

The 1980 U.S. Census counted 31,410 residents in the area bounded by Pico and Wilshire boulevards and Vermont and Western avenues, with an ethnic breakdown that was about 50% Latino, 16% Anglo, 6% black, 12% Korean, 5% Japanese, 3% Filipino and 7% other Asian.

A possible requirement that signs include Roman lettering is among the suggestions being reviewed by a citizens committee formed to advise Los Angeles city officials on a "specific plan" for the central portion of Koreatown.

The growth and expansion of Koreatown was made possible by the elimination of racially discriminatory provisions in U.S. immigration law in 1965, which led to a wave of immigration from Korea and other Asian countries.

But a small Korean community, centered about two miles south of today's Koreatown, has existed in Los Angeles since early in this century.

Establishment in 1905 of the Korean United Presbyterian Church at 1374 W. Jefferson Blvd., where it still stands, led to the growth of a handful of Korean businesses and institutions in that area during the decades before World War II.

"The Jefferson (Boulevard) Korean community was based on Korean-Americans who came to this country during the Japanese rule of Korea, in the early 1900s," said Ji Soo Kim, a businessman who also is chairman of the board of the Hankook Academy, a private school on Wilshire Boulevard. "After liberation from Japan (at the end of World War II) and after the Korean War, the second wave of Koreans came over here, as students, during the 1950s and 1960s.

"Because of the 1965 law, masses of Koreans came to this country in the 1970s. Many settled along Olympic Boulevard because there was the Olympic Market. Housing was affordable for new immigrants and the shop rental was low because there were a lot of vacant stores."

Koreans have settled in major cities across the country, but the largest number have come to the Los Angeles area, now home to roughly 200,000 Korean-Americans and Korean immigrants who live scattered throughout the region.

Many of the immigrants come with solid educational or professional backgrounds, but find that difficulties with English force them to take menial jobs that do not make full use of the talents they bring. Many labor long hours, scrimping to save enough money to buy a gas station, liquor store, convenience market, Laundromat or other small business. Throughout Southern California, Koreans have made a deep impact in these areas, running businesses that serve primarily non-Korean customers.

7,000 Korean-Owned Businesses

Koreatown--the largest Korean business center in the United States--is where ethnic Koreans come together to trade primarily with each other.

According to a survey by the Korean Chamber of Commerce of Southern California, there were about 7,000 Korean-owned businesses in Los Angeles County in 1984, with about 40% of them situated in the Koreatown area.

In considering the future of the neighborhood, the strongest theme to emerge from discussions by the "specific plan" advisory committee is hope for creation of a Korean cultural and community center that would give Koreatown a focus.

A leading scenario for how such a center might be created calls for the city to rezone some large parcel of residential property within the heart of Koreatown for commercial and community use. This would be done as part of a development agreement by which some of the profits from private commercial development would go toward paying for adjacent public facilities that might include a theater, a senior citizens' center and office space for community organizations.

City staff members have expressed sympathy for this goal.

"The committee--and the Korean community--is very motivated," said Ruby Ann Justis, a Los Angeles city planner working with the group. "They really want this."

For such a development to actually take place, however, Korean-Americans "are going to have to muster up a tremendous amount of political support," she added.

Stormier Outlook

The outlook is much stormier for those who hope that the city will allow general expansion of Koreatown's central commercial district into residential areas, possibly in coordination with formal creation of a redevelopment district.

City officials have offered little encouragement to those who wish to see such a redevelopment project.

Teresa Wallette, an aide to Los Angeles City Councilman David Cunningham, told a recent gathering of the citizens' advisory committee group that Koreatown does not appear eligible for a redevelopment designation because it "is not a blighted area."

Leaders of the Country Club Park Neighborhood Assn., which represents residents of an area southwest of the intersection of Western Avenue and Olympic Boulevard, recently waged a successful battle against a Korean restaurant's request for a zoning variance to replace an adjacent residence with a parking lot.

"We will unalterably oppose any commercialism attempting to creep into our residentially zoned neighborhood of stately, graceful, historic homes," the association declared in a document presented to the Board of Zoning Appeals.

Katherine Miller, secretary of the association, said she does not consider her neighborhood to be within the boundaries of Koreatown, but that she is also "very concerned about the rights of the people who do live in what's designated Koreatown."

General Plan Conflicts

Any rezoning to allow commercial expansion into residential areas, in addition to facing potential opposition from residents, would conflict with the city's General Plan for the Wilshire Corridor, which calls for intense development along the proposed Metro Rail route and lower-density commercial and residential uses in what has become Koreatown.

Yet many Koreatown developers and other community leaders say that plans predating the Korean business influx are now inappropriate, and that arguments in favor of commercial development in portions of Koreatown's central residential core are so strong that the city will eventually yield.

David Hyun, the Korean-American developer of the Japanese Village Plaza in Little Tokyo, illustrated the frustration of Koreatown developers by describing what he believes is a common reaction of non-Koreans observing the jumbled growth of small shopping malls in the area:

"When one shopping center is put on Vermont Avenue," he said, "they say, 'Oh, wonderful!' Two or three is maybe OK. But when you see five or six, you say, 'Why don't these Koreans know how to build well?' That's not the case at all! They're building under the city regulations that existed before they came. They're revitalizing under a handicap--under existing zoning and parking codes, and they are inadequate."

Hyun said he considers it likely that the city will eventually create a redevelopment district to coordinate and finance commercial and community development in the heart of Koreatown.

"The Korean-American community has so much vitality, it is so vigorous, so capable, that unless it is directed with sufficient force it cannot be contained," Hyun said. "It's going to run all over the place, which is what it's doing now. I believe the city needs a focused Koreatown, perhaps more than Korean-Americans, because traffic congestion affects everyone."

Many Korean business leaders believe that as more immigrants obtain citizenship, and as Korean-Americans become more politically sophisticated, they will be able to exercise their economic and political muscle to achieve a further transformation of Koreatown that would make it a proud showcase of Korean culture and achievement.

"It can become a national symbol for the United States of how a new immigrant people have succeeded in a relatively short period of time," Hyun said. "For Korean-Americans to achieve such a dream in 25 years is without historical precedent. This achievement by a new immigrant people can show to the world at large that America is for all people."

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