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Koreatown Suffering Growing Pains

December 08, 1985|DAVID HOLLEY | Times Staff Writer

"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."

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