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Corner Life

For decades, Korean-American storeowners have faced struggles in Baltimore City. They still do.

Twenty years ago, Joel Lee, a 21-year-old Korean-American beginning his senior year at then-Towson State University, was robbed, shot in the face, and killed while heading to a classmate’s home in Northeast Baltimore. “He wanted to borrow a computer-science book because he was determined to get his grades even higher this year,” his friend, Folashayo Babalola, told The Baltimore Sun after the September 1993 murder. “Joel was very quiet, very ambitious,” Babalola continued. “This has really shaken me. . . . ”

The brutal slaying also shook Baltimore’s Korean-American community, whose leaders still recall the tragedy. Already feeling under siege following attacks directed at Korean-American merchants in the 1980s and 1990s, the Lee case and trial was followed closely in the city. The acquittal of the accused two years later by an almost all African-African jury spurred a protest march downtown and appeared to reflect a troubled relationship between the Korean-American community and traditionally African-American neighborhoods where many of their businesses were located.

(It wasn’t only in Baltimore where relationships between Korean-American merchants and the African-American community were overheating. A year before Lee’s murder, in Los Angeles, Korean store owners were caught in the middle of rioting following the acquittal of white police officers in the beating of Rodney King. In New York, there had been Korean-American store boycotts.)

In Baltimore, there was also a boycott of a Korean-American-owned store, which was eventually closed by the Health Department. And there was a contentious debate over the renovation of the Lafayette and Belair Markets, where Korean-immigrant owners felt they were being pushed out by the city.

Into this fraying backdrop, the Baltimore-based Korean-American Grocers & Licensed Beverage Association of Maryland (KAGRO) was founded in 1995. Forming a nonprofit to help Korean-Americans deal with vendors and navigate the myriad city regulations had been discussed for six months, says Jay Park, who operated a Park Heights liquor store for 25 years and was an early KAGRO president. But the group’s focus quickly expanded in the wake of the Lee trial—which was followed by a wave of four Korean-American store shootings in an eight-day period in January 1997. Immediately, KAGRO began working to build relationships in local communities—starting a scholarship fund, organizing outreach events, and attending meetings. Merchants tried to develop a better relationship with the city police, which had proved a struggle, if for no other reason than the cultural and language barriers.

“The timing [of KAGRO’s launch] wasn’t tied directly to the Lee case,” says Park, “but it concentrated our attention on the most pressing issues we had to deal with, which were not problems with the vendors.”

At his son’s memorial service, Joel Lee’s father said he didn’t “want my son’s death to have no meaning.”

A generation later, Park believes something positive can be connected to that tragedy. “Up until that time, I think we had been looked at and treated differently because of our skin color, our language,” Park says. “But after that, I think people saw us coming together and began to see us as a part of the community, too.”

“Korean-Americans, we don’t have a lot of resources when we arrive.”

But it has never been easy running a corner store in Baltimore. Crime and poverty persist in wide swaths. And now, after decades of struggle on tough corners, city officials are planning to significantly reduce the number of neighborhood liquor stores—the vast majority of which are owned by Korean-Americans. In a sense, Park says, KAGRO members “feel under attack again.”

Among the first things KAGRO did 18 years ago was start a scholarship program for local students. Since then, the association has awarded about $300,000, via annual grants to students in the neighborhoods where KAGRO-member stores are located, as well as to high-school and college-age children of store owners. Two police officers are also annually awarded “appreciation” honors at a ceremony at the Greenmount Senior Center.

The scholarships, as well as different community events and outreach forums, Park says, helped defuse tensions over time. “We tried to go around and get questions from the community, we tried to listen and get the community’s perspective as well as the merchants,” Park says. There were also meetings with former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke’s Korean liaison and municipal departments, and later with the O’Malley and Dixon administrations. By 2004, the Maryland Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights had produced a report—years in the making—that found that, while problems persisted between the African-American and Korean-American store owners, “some merchants enjoy friendly relationships in the neighborhoods where their stores are located . . . ” The report, however, also found that “city agencies can do more” to provide services without bias. Not that there wasn’t work needed on the store owners’ side.

“There are cultural differences between the West and East,” says Jin Wook Kang, a restaurant owner and lower Charles Village liquor-store operator. “In our home country, making eye contact is viewed as disrespectful in certain relationships, for example, between a student and a teacher; with a police officer or government official. We listen, but we look down. In our home country, we put change on the counter and push it toward a customer—it’s considered more polite than touching someone’s hand. But here, someone would tell police, ‘They’re rude, they put the change on the counter and push it toward you.’ The opposite was true. It was a misunderstanding. But things have improved a great deal.”

Jay Park arrived in Baltimore as a 17-year-old in 1973, at the start of a Korean boom following the 1965 Immigration Act, which abolished nation-based immigration laws giving Europeans preference. Ninety-five percent of Korean-Americans consist of post-1965 immigrants and their children. In the Baltimore region, the Korean-American community has grown from 2,000, Park estimates, when his family arrived, to 60,000.

“My father dreamed of a better life, a better life for his family—the land of opportunity—and he applied for immigration,” says Park, a fit and young-looking 57, casually dressed in a maroon golf shirt tucked into gray slacks at KAGRO’s office at North and Maryland Avenues. He speaks in accented but perfect English, smiling as he recalls his family’s early struggles to acclimate and make ends meet in their third-floor Patterson Park apartment. “Immigration was open to ‘skilled labor’ immigrants and he was an auto mechanic. He brought the whole family and only had $400. I think about it—there were seven of us—five siblings. Where does anybody get that kind of courage?” he says, shaking his head. “I don’t think I could’ve done it.”

His father eventually landed a Sparrows Point union job, where he punched a clock for 15 years. Park graduated from Towson in 1980 with a business degree, and, after a series of entry-level retail jobs, including door-to-door sales, he decided to strike out on his own. It was not just a desire to be self-employed; it was almost a necessity, he says.

“All of us have a family . . . counting on us, and this is the one thing we know.”

“First-generation Korean-Americans, we don’t have a lot resources when we arrive,” Park says. “People may have a lot of education in Korea, but they don’t know anyone and might have limited language skills. So, people pull resources together. We pull our own funding together, sometimes through a gye—a fund community members contribute to each month and then have access to. That’s how a lot of Korean-American merchants start—even today—though less than before.”

Michelle Ha, current KAGRO president, has been here since 1980 and lives above her East Biddle Street liquor store, which she’s owned for 15 years—not far from where Park’s family first settled. She throws an annual spaghetti block party, collects school supplies for neighborhood kids, and gives away Thanksgiving meals. “I love doing those things,” Ha says. A community council member, she works closely with Eastern District police—she has the commander’s cell-phone number—and officers know her by name. She also puts together an annual summer Day of Hope festival at Bocek Park, which includes children’s activities and rides.

“She’s a fixture in that community,” says Lt. Col. Melvin T. Russell, commander of the department’s community partnership division. “When I need help, she is one of the first people I call. She serves as a go-between with the small businesses [and police], and I know she provides holiday meals for hundreds of people. The city needs more people like her.”

Ha, however, is concerned about her future. Baltimore may need committed activists like Ha, but city officials don’t want the kind of business she owns in residential communities anymore. Part of the city’s massive rezoning effort entails scaling back the number of liquor licenses. Proportionally, the rollback will hit the Korean-American community, which owns the majority of corner “Class A” liquor stores, hardest.

Currently, there are 1,330 liquor licenses in the city. About 300 are “Class A” licenses, of which 128 are slated for cuttng. Thomas Stosur, Baltimore City’s director of planning, notes studies showing a correlation between crime, violence, poor public-health outcomes, and the number of liquor stores in densely populated residential areas. He adds that the last time the city underwent a rezoning overhaul was in 1971 when the 128 current liquor licenses the city wants to remove were “grandfathered” in. “We refer to them as ‘non-conforming’ because, under current law, they wouldn’t qualify for a liquor license because they are in a residential area,” Stosur says. “That’s where that number comes from.”

Stosur adds that many “Class BD-7” licenses (bars that do a majority carryout business) will be affected as well and are not typically Korean-American owned. In both cases, he says, the city intends to assist storeowners in retooling their business, if possible, so they can remain. Owners may sell their licenses, though that won’t be easy, Stosur admits.

Councilman Nick Mosby, who successfully sponsored a bill last year to stop liquor-store sales of candy, soda, and snacks to minors, says the effort to remove liquor stores from residential streets is overdue. “At the end of the day, this is an opportunity to build healthier communities,” he says. “Our juveniles grow up surrounded by liquor stores to a point where it becomes normalized. I ask people, ‘Where do you live? Would you put up with it on your block?'” Mosby acknowledges many owners have developed good neighborhood relationships, but says rezoning liquor stores out of residential areas and away from city schools is just common sense. Mosby expects the proposed rezoning to come before the City Council this fall—hearings last spring were emotional and contentious with KAGRO members voicing opposition—with a vote next spring. Owners “will have had 3 to 4 years to make necessary adjustments,”he says.

Still, Park, Ha, and KAGRO members feel they were excluded from the rezoning discussions. Park points out that while many businesses fled in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, the Korean-American business owners stayed. Many in the Korean-American community did move their residences to Baltimore and Howard Counties, but still worked with city officials to reduce crime and improve neighborhoods where they owned businesses. Station North, where KAGRO’s office is located, never quite became “Korea-town,” as Park puts it, but remains the center of the city’s Korean community and includes popular restaurants that date back to the 1980s. Those restaurants and the Korean community helped keep Station North viable before its Arts & Entertainment District designation and recent boom. “Now,” says Park, “they don’t need us anymore, and it’s goodbye.”

Of course, most of Park’s children, like other store owners’ kids born here, don’t have an interest in taking over the family business. Not after watching their mothers and fathers spend seven days a week, 12 hours a day, operating a corner store in a gritty section of town, often stuck at a cash register behind bullet-proof glass.

“Our kids don’t want that,” Park says. “They want professional jobs.”

Their parents, however, can’t afford to lose their stores, where their income and retirement remains tied up.

“All of us have a family and people counting on us, and this is the one thing we know how to do,” Ha says. “Once you start, you have so much money and time invested. How do you get the return that you have worked hard for?”