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Two worlds blend uneasily in Koreatown

Sleek new buildings displace traditional homes and businesses. Some think that's great. Others lament the changes.

August 23, 2009|Gerrick D. Kennedy

Hyun Soo Kim moved to Koreatown from Seattle eight years ago, hoping to witness the expansion of the Korean community.

He did, but hardly the way he envisioned.

"Every day," the 30-year-old lamented, "there seems to be something going out of business."

As Koreatown becomes more of a destination and glitzy developments take root, longtime residents and shopkeepers say they are being priced out by luxury apartments and retail chains.

There are so many bars, restaurants and karaoke joints that some merchants are slashing prices in a frantic effort to get their share of customers. Some stores are closed up. Others are barely hanging on.

And as the neighborhood evolves, some suggest that the place is beginning to lose the charm and character that made it distinctive. Others, though, see it as a much-needed urban makeover.

For years, the community was a maze of Korean signs plastered on buildings, mom-and-pop shops offering kimchi and bulgogi dishes, bars advertising Hite -- a popular Korean beer -- and Asian-infused boutiques. Increasingly, though, the old shops have given way to Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, Nine West, Cold Stone Creamery and other familiar names.

As younger residents have moved in, developers have built hipper, sleeker structures, often with retail on the street level and housing above. In some cases, the result is a jarring contrast to the cluttered, ethnic flavor that had been the area's signature.

At the Wilshire Vermont Station, an apartment-retail complex built above the Metro Red Line, tenants and customers are greeted by a futuristic, multicolored entryway, lush palm trees and a mid-rise building with sharp designs. There's a doorman, fitness rooms and Wi-Fi access on the pool deck. The sole reminder of Koreatown is the picture of an empty rice bowl that adorns the entryway.

On Western Avenue, a sprawling complex of Asian-inspired retail and entertainment called MaDang: The Courtyard is taking shape. Farther down the street is Solair, an aqua green high-rise of luxury condos and retail towers above Wilshire Boulevard.

Kim and others may not feel they ended up in the largest Korean community outside of Korea.

Rents at the newer complexes can be more than $3,000 a month, a far cry from the older apartments that go for less than $1,000. More than 30% of Koreatown's population lives below the federal poverty line, and the cost of living in the area is 140% higher than in other major U.S. cities, according to a study done by the Koreatown Immigrant Workers Advocates.

"The gap is just too much," Kim said. "And who's suffering? The middle class. It doesn't help anyone in the end."

While people wearing business attire stride in and out of the new developments, they mingle with tradition denizens of Koreatown: working-class Koreans, some of whom use their homes as day-care centers -- distinguished by brightly colored fences -- and vendors pushing carts with fruit and ice cream treats along the street.

Those living in Koreatown have a variety of opinions about the changes: It's good, it's bad, it's too much, it's not enough.

For Anna Cho, seeing the higher-end developments in the neighborhood is long overdue. Over the last six years she has worked for companies that manage apartments in the Koreatown area, including Wilshire Vermont Station, and she said the addition of more opulent and modern buildings is a sign of the times.

"It's going to be a booming city in the near future," she said.

Cho says Koreatown's proximity to the subway makes the neighborhood a natural attraction. "Transportation is key -- getting around easily. That's the No. 1 thing," the 27-year-old said. Koreatown "is a middle point to getting everywhere."

And although development may continue in the area, it is far from enough, according to one resident.

"It's going to take a long time to clean this place up," said Deborah Bowerbank. "It took years to clean up Hollywood Boulevard."

Bowerbank, 37, said that apart from new mid- and high-rise buildings, Koreatown feels the same as always.

"The same type of people live here. Sure, there is more diversity," she said while taking a break from checking on an apartment building she manages. "People get the idea that it's overpopulated. But that's not true."

Kim said his biggest concern isn't how many people have moved into the neighborhood but what the new developments catering to them will do for local businesses.

He is the founder of www.ktownlove.com an Internet guide to the neighborhood. He said he believes there are too many area businesses.

"We have over 700 restaurants in a 2 1/2 -mile radius. Fifty of them are all-you-can-eat restaurants. That's not a good culture," Kim said. "Korean people cut down their prices for people to be able to afford it. But how can they make a living?"

Kevin Kwon, an owner of Guimok, a Korean barbecue restaurant, said that he's been steadily losing customers because of job losses and that it hasn't helped that his competition has more than doubled.

"It's like survival of the cheapest," he said.

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gerrick.kennedy@latimes.com

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