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Anxiety builds as crime increases in Koreatown

Some residents won't go out after dark in the trendy area. Others fear South Korean investors will be turned off.

October 31, 2006|K. Connie Kang and Andrew Blankstein | Times Staff Writers

H.J. Huh arrived in Koreatown a decade ago, as the district was struggling to recover from the 1992 Los Angeles riots.

The nurse from South Korea has seen the area blossom with fancy restaurants, luxury health spas and high-end condos.

But Huh says she has never felt less safe.

First, a rapist stalked the neighborhood, attacking more than a dozen women. That was followed by several robberies and shootings.

Now, she tries to stay in her apartment at night, even avoiding a quick trip to the nearby Korean supermarket. When a stranger enters her apartment elevator, she gets off at a different floor to make sure she is not followed home.

"I am afraid to go out -- even to a market at night," she said. "Koreatown is one of the densest areas in the city, but you hardly see patrol cars."

To the casual eye, Koreatown is thriving -- with luxury condominiums and extravagant nightclubs rising from the destruction of the riots. During his Asian trade mission earlier this month, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced $300 million in South Korean investment in Koreatown, including a Korean Trade and Cultural Center, new offices for the South Korean Consulate and a Korean American Museum.

But behind the glitz, anxiety is building.

A series of high-profile slayings in the community over the last year -- including the shooting deaths of three people at a Koreatown restaurant earlier this month -- have heightened concerns about crime.

Los Angeles Police Department statistics underscore the perception, showing a 40% jump in homicides (from 15 to 21) and 11% increase in robberies (from 557 to 620) in Koreatown so far this year. Rapes in the district are up 47% -- from 30 to 44.

In response, the Korean American Federation next month will begin citizen security patrols on weekend nights, using a car purchased by the community organization. Additionally, some Korean churches and senior groups are urging first-generation immigrants, accustomed to transacting business in cash back home, to carry minimal cash so they will be less of a target for robbers.

The fear, said Gab Jea Cho, a federation board member in charge of the community security project, is that the crime issue could make Koreatown a less attractive place for South Koreans to invest in and visit. A good amount of the area's growth is being financed through investments by wealthy South Koreans, who also have made Koreatown a major tourist draw.

Visitors from South Korea are the best customers at exclusive stores, snatching up designer mink coats, watches, jewelry and leather goods before heading for the airport to return home.

"Tourists from South Korea will stop coming if they keep hearing about crime in Koreatown," said Chris Moon Key Nam, a real estate agent who recently was elected president of the federation.

Among some Korean Americans, concerns about crime are already changing behavior.

"I don't go to Koreatown when the sun goes down," said Suky Lee, a real estate agent with Nelson Shelton & Associates in Beverly Hills. "I don't feel comfortable."

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Police and community leaders are quick to point out that while violent crime is up in Koreatown this year, overall crime is down compared with the mid-1990s, as it is in the rest of Los Angeles. Assaults declined from 410 incidents last year to 340 so far this year.

But the perception of crime has become a central issue in Koreatown -- fueled by several violent incidents that have generated much coverage in both the Korean-language and mainstream news media.

The community also has been shaken by several gang-related killings, including a multiple shooting that left one man wounded and another dead inside a 6th Street cafe, and the fatal stabbing of a young father in the parking lot of trendy Chapman Plaza on 6th Street.

Koreatown is bounded on the east and west by Vermont and Western avenues and on the north and south by Beverly and Olympic boulevards.

It is a world where wealth and poverty live side by side -- and closer than in other parts of L.A.

Wilshire Boulevard and 6th Street have become Koreatown's main commercial cores, boasting Korean banks, night spots, restaurants and beauty treatment establishments near longtime city landmarks, such as the Wiltern Theater and Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

But other parts of Koreatown remain mired in gang problems and blight.

While wealthy Koreans have come to the district to invest, the area has also seen an influx of poorer immigrants from Asia -- including ethnic Koreans from China, who tend to work in restaurant kitchens and do menial labor for low wages. Many live in run-down boarding houses.

Farther east or south, the neighborhood becomes predominantly Latino, with some areas marked by gang activities and drug dealing.

Some believe this mix of conspicuous wealth and poverty contributes to crime.

In some churches and in the Korean-language news media, community leaders say Koreans may be drawing attention to themselves by driving luxury cars and wearing expensive clothes.

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