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Koreatown Suffering Growing Pains

December 08, 1985|DAVID HOLLEY | 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.

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