Koreatown Revival Eludes Poor

Times Staff Writer

Not long after Chang Park’s arrival from South Korea four years ago, the reality of his predicament became painfully clear: Life in the United States was going to be harder than expected.

A lack of English frustrated his efforts to complete the simplest of tasks. He faced ill treatment, even from fellow Koreans. Worst of all, he couldn’t find a decent paying job.

“It did not take much time to figure out that my income is not even close to what it needs to be to cover the basic needs of my family,” Park, 50, who has held a variety of unskilled jobs in Koreatown grocery stores and makes about $6.75 an hour, said Saturday. “It was impossible to make a living with this low hourly wage.”


Park related his experience to a community gathering of more than 150 residents, business leaders and representatives of elected officials called to focus on the economic plight of workers in Koreatown.

Thirteen years after riots in South Los Angeles ravaged scores of Korean-owned businesses, many entrepreneurs relocated to Koreatown, rebuilt and thrived. But Koreatown’s residents and workers are still suffering, and are poorer than ever, according to community leaders, academicians and civil activists. Among the hardest hit are recently arrived emigrants from Southeast Asia and Latin America.

“While the business sector of the community has been progressing, the residents and workers are living in poverty,” said Danny Park, executive director of the Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates, a workers support group. “The gap between the haves and the have-nots is widening.”

Although the city does not officially delineate specific boundaries for Koreatown, community leaders and residents generally view the neighborhood as being bound by Hoover Street to the east, Wilton Place to the west, Pico Boulevard on the south and Beverly Boulevard on the north.

A report recently published by Park’s group found that some 50% of residents in Koreatown are Latino, 20% are Korean, 25% white and 5% African American. The largely immigrant population is mainly employed in unskilled nonunion jobs, with virtually no benefits, in the service sector, retail trade and restaurant industry, the report concluded.

It also found that 70% of the population in Koreatown, where a typical family of four makes less than $36,800 a year, could be classified as working poor. The area’s median household income is $20,000, compared with the national average of $42,000. Families are surviving on 83% of the income they had in 1990. And the average hourly pay in Korean supermarkets, the neighborhood’s largest employers, is around $7.

“Jobs in Koreatown do not pay enough wages and benefits to avoid the cycle of poverty,” said professor Edward J. Park, director of Asian American Studies at Loyola Marymount University, who collaborated on the Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates report.

Skyrocketing home prices, which have caused overcrowding and public health concerns, add to the potent ingredients for social discontent, experts on urban social trends observed.

“We are basically calling on the business community to give workers a living wage,” said Danny Park, adding that the consensus among many workers here is that $11 an hour is reasonable.

Jong Min Kang, president of the Korean American Business Assn., which has some 5,000 members in the Los Angeles area, acknowledged that cultural differences, language barriers and different work ethics sometimes caused misunderstanding between Korean employers and their workers.

He noted, for example, that Korean employers were accustomed to paying their workers on a monthly basis. They needed to be better educated about federal pay obligations and tax regulations, he said.

“We are teaching [them] they must follow government laws,” Kang said. “We are teaching them California labor law.”

Chang Park, the grocery market worker, said at the town hall meeting that newcomers are particularly affected by culture shock and financial hardship because some employers “take advantage of new immigrants’ problems of documentation status in order to abuse them.”

Danny Park, the workers advocacy group leader, noted that in the aftermath of the 1992 riots, Korean business owners were criticized for selling goods in South L.A. -- home to primarily African Americans and Latinos -- but living outside the community and not giving anything back.

“A similar thing is happening now in Koreatown,” said Park. “Many employers do not live here. What are they giving back to the community? Should it not be a living wage? Once workers get [that] it will increase their buying power and they will in turn reinvest back into the community.”

Isaies Perez, 22, said an increase in his hourly salary of $6.75 would help him build a better future for his wife and infant son. That’s why he left Mexico five years ago.

“Right now I cannot support my family,” said Perez, who washes dishes and buses tables at Koreatown restaurants. He spoke through an interpreter. “I have to work 10 or 12 hours a day to be able to support them.”