A Slow Return From the Ashes


In the back of his Sunset Boulevard grocery, Jin Hyuk Chang says he still has not come to grips with the economic and racial problems he encountered during the civil disturbances of 1992.

Having just purchased a grocery store in the South Central section of Los Angeles, Mr. Chang watched the store burn to the ground along with 2,000 other Korean-American businesses there. He has since moved several miles away to a neighborhood where he feels more comfortable.

And in the aftermath of the fire that destroyed his first business, Chang had to take out a second loan to open his new grocery.

"I am now carrying two loans, and the payments are very, very difficult to make," he says, standing in a back room full of boxes.

"The sad part is that I was one of the lucky ones," he adds. "Most of my friends were unable to reopen their businesses and have gone back to Korea or left the state."

Many of the area's grocery and liquor stores were owned by Korean-Americans. When the community outcry over the presence of so many liquor stores grew, these owners were hurt. After the riots, a local coalition sought stricter enforcement of existing laws that could keep liquor store owners from rebuilding.

"Residents simply felt that these stores did nothing positive for the community, while attracting drug dealers and homeless people," says Karen Bass, director of the Community Coalition, a nonprofit violence-prevention group.

Working through the permitting process, activists pressed for additional restrictions governing lighting, signage, restricted selling hours, and on-site security. With so many stores existing on tight economic margins, the costs of such changes have meant nearly 200 stores have not been able to reopen.

This fact has exacerbated race relations between African-Americans and Korean-Americans despite five years of formal attempts by community leaders to heighten cultural awareness and understanding between the two groups.

But the ongoing clashes between blacks and Koreans in L.A., long perpetuated by an economic theory known as "middleman minority," may be waning, says Pyong Gap Min, a professor of sociology at Queens College in New York, and editor of the book "Asian Americans: Contemporary Trends and Issues."

Under this theory, middleman minorities concentrate their stores adjacent to or within other minority districts, selling merchandise produced by the dominant society - in this case, corporate America - to those of smaller minorities in poorer communities. Because the middlemen are not seen to reinvest their earnings in the host community, hostility ensues, and a vicious cycle follows in which the middlemen pull together out of solidarity.

Since the riots, says Mr. Min, some Korean-Americans have been forced out of Koreatown - the largest gathering of Koreans outside Seoul. But others are beginning to further embrace their English-speaking host communities and the American culture that goes with them. That means adding English to signs and studying ways to heal cultural misunderstandings between shopkeepers and customers.

Both mean that further assimilation of Koreans in American society is inevitable, if slower than some observers hoped. A further sign of progress is the newer generation of Korean-Americans who have grown up in the US and learned English.

The riots were unwitting catalyst to another change.

"When the riots happened, Koreans had to rely on those of us who speak English to stand up for them in front of the media and courts," says Bobbi Chang, spokesman for the Korean Association, a coalition of Korean businesses. "That caused a power shift from the older generation, who are stuck in their ways, to those of us who grew up in America and understand it better."

That shift may affect grocery owner Chang as well. "I am brushing up against more Americans at my children's school," says the father of two. "That makes me want to take care to understand my adopted country better."

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