Monday, March 06, 2006

Nothing Wrong With Koreatown

Sometimes you have to wonder who's really messing our communities up? Sure, I'd love for the Revolution to come just like the next girl of colour, but you have to consider if the Revolution really did show up, how would we distinguish between those who look like us but are just as oppressive as them. Take for example this article in the Washington Post about a couple of real estate investors in Annandale, Michael Kim and Brian Kim, who want to re-develop the area's Koreatown into something more "modern". They call it good business sense. They call it making the region more useful. I call it making the place more gentrified. More box store. More White. Kim and Kim, along with a series of non-Korean investors, have bought a sizable chunk of Annandale's Koreatown, and are in negotiations to invite big box stores into the region, sacrificing the neighbourhood's local businesses. They claim it's about making the land useful for the entire Annandale population. But we all know what it's really about. The article can't hide the fact that what Kim and Kim really find disgusting is not the misuse of real estate resources, it's the sheer Korean-ness of the local businesses.

Real estate developer Michael Kim spent the first seven years of his childhood in Seoul, and when he looks at the 12-acre strip shopping center he now co-owns in Annandale, there's plenty to remind him of the homeland. Too much, in fact. The bakery selling Korean pastries and beverages has been a stable tenant. But when Kim meets someone for coffee, he walks across the parking lot to Wendy's.

The video store with Korean movies and television shows attracts a steady stream of devoted customers. But Kim would prefer to spend an afternoon with his family browsing at Barnes & Noble.

Normally, I hesitate to question another person's membership to their race, but in this case, I subtly cough the term we are all thinking: *cough cough* sell-outs. First of all, what Kim and Kim propose would wipe out the heart of the areas Koreatown. They do not acknowledge in this article that by inserting "destination retail stores" into the region, they might make some big bucks to line their pockets, but they would be castrating the small mom and pop businesses' means of income. The article argues that this particular Koreatown has no "archway" or "gate" to signal that it is an ethnic enclave. Personally, I've never known any ethnic enclave that wasn't built for the tourists that needed some kung phooey, mandolins in the background, faux Forbidden City pagoda-archway to signal to the foreigners that they better don their safari hats, their entering Mountain Dragon territory. Ah so. What Kim and Kim do see is that suddenly Koreatown found itself at the core of a gentrifying area. And although Koreatown was built on the dumps of the city (as any ethnic enclave is), just because everyone around it is getting richer, doesn't mean that the Koreans need to move out. Koreatowns and other ethnic enclaves organically developed throughout the history of the U.S. as safe havens from the rampant racism of America. When we were shut out of renting in the regular residential areas, we rented in the poor areas where landlords were willing to take our equally green money. When we were refused service in the White restaurants and grocery stores, we made a home for ourselves amidst the sewage and junkyards. When we needed to develop a community and organize in the face of White racism, we did so around the ethnic enclave general store. It's not much, but the ethnic enclave is our home, our history, a part of our culture. It is a testament to our tenacity to survive, our dedication to the American dream, and our drive to achieve the basic human dignity and equality we have long deserved. If Kim and Kim see areas a quarter mile away developing into residential housing worth millions, and they want to capitalize by developing suitable commercial centers, the answer doesn't have to be the stamping out of any ethnic or cultural character to what should amount to a historical landmark. No, what any sensible real estate developer with any idea of the importance Koreatown signifies for Koreans can do is develop their commercial business plans with Koreans in mind. I'm from Toronto. We have three equally thriving and upper middle class Chinatowns. It can be done. Ethnic does not have to equal impoverished -- but it will so long as investors of any colour continue to try to sweep communities of colour under the rug in favour of catering to the rich Whites who need yet another Ann Taylor and Sunglass Hut to spend their apparently greener money at.
Michael Kim and Brian Kim said their development plan is not suburban gentrification. Annandale, they noted, is already a community of some affluence. Annandale's town center, they said, should reflect the entire community surrounding it. According to recent census figures, Annandale is 18 percent Asian. It's 68 percent white and 5 percent black, with 9 percent from other races or of mixed origin. Even if their parents' generation is a little resistant to change, the partners have found support among county leaders. "Call it Koreatown, and you are leaving out 75 percent of the town," said Penelope A. Gross (D), who represents the area on the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors and has met with the Kim partners several times about developing the property. "If you call it Koreatown, what are we, chopped liver?"
That paragraph galls me. Just because its an ethnic enclave that developed around a growing ethnic population does not mean that White people can't go there. What about the word "Koreatown" even suggests that anyone is leaving anyone out? I didn't know I had to be yellow to enjoy some good tofu. What Gross says is truly disgusting; she acts as if the very existence of an ethnic enclave is offensive to Whites. You guys have the rest of the fucking country. You can't abide by three blocks of land to sell kimchee on? If you're so willing to sacrifice our cultural history and heritage for the same box stores you can get to four blocks away, who's the chopped liver now? What Kim and Kim's real plans are are to sell-out their culture to the White investors for a quick buck and a good time. Capitalist drive like this won't be satisfied until everyone shops at the same stores, buys the same goods, and consumes the same foods. Because the world needs another Sunglass Hut.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Non-Koreans also shop and eat at Korean ma-and-pa stores and restaurants in non-glamourous strip malls. There's a small pan-Asian business district in St. Louis, not outwardly any different from other strip mall roads.

I sure wouldn't bother driving out of my way to go to a big box, but I do drive to the pan-Asian strip for groceries and restaurant meals.



3/06/2006 12:01:00 PM  
Blogger DC1974 said...

Obviously you've never been to DC. I've never seen an area that is so both incredibly multi-ethnic and so completely bleached out. There is no desire among the ethnic communities to create regional ethnic neighborhoods. Area's like Annandale are too often seen as ghetto -- by the very ethnic groups that live there. It's the most money and status conscious placed that I've ever lived, with most of its ethnic population in the suburbs and working as hard as they can to eliminate community character.
Having moved here from Oakland, CA, where the second generation Korean business people were proud to have turned a blighted area of Oakland into Koreatown. This article is appalling to me as well. But so much a part of the way DC thinks about these things. It's the worst view of the melting pot-- where everything has been blended into a cream soup.

3/06/2006 04:04:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have lived near Annandale for a few years, and I find the commercial area to be a disappointment. Let's go ahead and build some big box stores so my property value can stay high and I can move to where I really want to live.

3/06/2006 05:08:00 PM  
Blogger Jenn said...

There is no desire among the ethnic communities to create regional ethnic neighborhoods.

That's quite a blanket statement, Christopher. As a resident of a city that has no ethnic enclave, I have a strong desire to gravitate to an area where I can find my culturally specific foods and items.

Some areas may be seen as the ghetto, but you can gentrify a region without removing its cultural character. What this article advocates is turning everyone into the same consumerist, culturally White automaton. No thank you.

3/06/2006 07:33:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, there are many different cultural/ethnic backgrounds that would be considered "white" or Caucasian, and I don't consider the dominant culture of the US to be white. If you want to win people over you should use a less divisive term.

3/07/2006 02:07:00 PM  
Blogger Jenn said...

I don't want to win anyone over. I'm not here to cater to the sensibilities of offended White folks.

The dominant culture of US is White. What would you categorize it as? Some lovey-dovey-feel-good "all-inclusive culture American" culture where racism is colour-blind?

3/07/2006 02:40:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The dominant culture is open to everyone.

Your background graphic has already won me over.


3/07/2006 03:43:00 PM  
Blogger James said...

There is nothing about American culture that is now nor has ever been all-inclusive or respectful of persons who emerge from other groups. That is why cross-cultural appropriation exists and still occurs today.

The very notion that a Koreatown or any ethnic enclave should cease and desist existence because mainstream, bland, utterly materialistic Americans want their big box stores and dislike people of color who get in the way of their conspicuous consumption remains repugnant to this reader. It's always easy to find some upwardly mobile, eager to please assimilated, whitewashed hyphenated American in pigmentation only to act as spokesman for anti-minority economic oppression. That's capitalism.

What's also disheartening is this opinion that we can't describe a mainstream Americana as racially "White", especially when our entire mass media, from Hollywood to Tinseltown, from the Grammys to the Tony, from cable news to right wing AM hate radio to our newspapers and periodicals of record - continually displays a wide Sargasso sea of White faces and White issues, of White people with White problems, of White emotions and White solutions. Only the mistakes achieve Technicolor.

3/07/2006 05:01:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I came across this post apparently a month late whilst googling for something else.

I'm not sure I subscribe to either negative view of Annandale and the DC Metro area - I don't see it as hyper-white in oppression of minority culture any more than it is a faceless blur of indistinct cultures.

The DC-area Koreans I know are very proud and protective of their traditions, their identities, the things that bring them the comforts of home. At the same time, though, their appetite for luxuries knows no boundaries.

I, too hope the developers don't succeed in pricing truly Korean businesses out of the area. But when I go to one of these businesses, the customers, even the older people that speak little English and aren't seen as "integrated" into "white" culture, are often spotted wearing snazzy sunglasses and designer clothes, and they didn't get them from H-Mart.

But on the other side of the coin, as long as there are Koreans, there will be Korean bakeries and dress shops and specialty restaurants. People demand these things.

Also, a side note: Annandale's history as a Koreatown is rather short; its story is that of a recent explosion. When these articles talk about buildings that belie their purposes, it's because somewhat recently, they were other things. Annandale is just beginning to be recognized as an enclave... so if it is razed now, it will be a tale of lost potential rather than one of lost traditions.

4/10/2006 05:05:00 PM  

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