Keun Bae Yoo stands in front of a large splotchy painting resembling a Rorschach inkblot. It’s the evening after New Year’s Day during the monthly Art Murmur, when Oakland art galleries collectively open their doors to the public. Yoo, a Korean-American real estate investor dressed in a Polo pullover sweater, slacks, and dress shoes, looks just a tad out of place among the twenty- and thirtysomething hipsters milling about the gallery Johansson Projects.
After a moment of quizzical inspection, he asks, “What is this?”
A young woman standing nearby, watching over the artwork, looks puzzled.
“Excuse me, what is it?” asks Yoo’s associate, Ben Schweng, trying to be a little less blunt. At 34, wearing a Cal sweatshirt, jeans, and roughed-up boots, Schweng looks slightly less conspicuous than Yoo.
“What is the material?” the woman asks, trying to clarify the question.
“No. What is the picture?” Yoo asks again in his heavily accented English.
“I dunno,” she replies, unsure of how to respond. “It’s supposed to be abstract. What do you think it is?”
“I think it’s a lake,” Yoo states, and then walks on.
The Korean-American community and the art crowd may occupy the same Telegraph Avenue neighborhood — the same block, even — but they don’t often interact. So when they do, it can be a bit awkward. But tonight, Yoo, at the suggestion of Schweng, is here to breach that boundary. Both are board members of the Koreatown Northgate Community Benefit District, a newly formed organization made up mostly of property owners whose goal it is to “promote and improve the area.” They’ve come to Art Murmur to recruit folks to help plan their upcoming Koreatown street festival in the fall.
It’s not the kind of outreach one might expect to see in an ethnic neighborhood. But then again, this isn’t your typical enclave. Unlike other ethnic neighborhoods, Oakland’s Koreatown isn’t majority Korean — or even residentially Korean. It didn’t arise organically. Nor was it the result of a wave of Korean immigrants settling in the same neighborhood, with mom-and-pop businesses sprouting up to cater to them. This Koreatown was planned out — largely by one man.
About fourteen years ago, real estate developer Alex Hahn decided he wanted to create a Koreatown in Northern California. Today, after years of owning businesses, buying and selling property, and making money, Hahn is finally seeing his vision come to fruition. Last year, property owners of Telegraph Avenue — stretching from 20th to 35th streets and including about 150 Korean-owned businesses — agreed to increase their taxes to form the community benefit district. The district has allowed them to increase security and street cleaning. Earlier this month, they unveiled new banners to demarcate Koreatown, with the slogan “Oakland’s Got Seoul.” Besides the upcoming street festival, other plans include starting a farmers’ market and attracting a Korean hotel.
Some believe the changes have helped improve a neighborhood that for years has been characterized by homelessness and crime. “From 1991 to 2009, it’s a three-sixty — in a good way,” said Alex Jones, the Arab-American manager of Telegraph Quality Market, who grew up in the area. “It was terrifying out here. … I see a lot of improvement, cleaning. Got a lot more patrol since the taxes went up.” Wayne Harris, the African-American owner of Telegraph Cleaners, thinks Koreatown will be successful. “Hopefully it’ll be an increase in business and a decrease in crime and people who hang around,” he said.
Yet, as with any new ethnic enclave — especially one in which the ethnic community is still very much in the minority — not everyone has been so receptive. Some businesses are upset with the name “Koreatown,” and say the community benefit district doesn’t embrace the neighborhood’s diversity, which includes Muslims, African Americans, artists, homeless people, and industries such as social services, health care, and auto repair.
Led by Hahn, the board of the Koreatown Northgate Community Benefit District — whose members are about half Korean — insists they’re trying to improve the community for everyone, but that the naming and branding of Koreatown is necessary to attract more Korean businesses, investors, and residents. Yet they also believe that in order to succeed — and to avoid the fractionalized atmosphere that erupted in Los Angeles’ Koreatown during the riots in 1992 — they have to proactively embrace the whole community. Which is why, among other reasons, they’ve hired an African-American “street ambassador” to help spread the word — and keep the peace.
The story of how Oakland’s Koreatown came to be starts with Hahn, who has the kind of immigrant success story that’s almost cliché. He arrived in the United States in 1966 as a member of the South Korean Olympic fencing team with just $50 in his pocket. Now he lives in the affluent community of Blackhawk.
The tall, sprightly Korean American was ambitious and enterprising from the get-go. When his Olympic dream failed to materialize, Hahn started a wig business in Los Angeles. But that didn’t work out either, so he relocated to the Bay Area and earned a degree in hotel restaurant management at City College of San Francisco.
In the decades following, he operated a string of businesses, including a restaurant and grocery market. “You name it, so many,” said Hahn, whose first language was Korean and who still retains a thick accent. “Sometimes fails, sometimes big success.” Most all of his businesses were in predominately black neighborhoods in Oakland, where he learned to reconcile cultural differences with mutual respect and “street smarts.”
Being the owner of a small business involved long hours and little pay. So about fifteen years ago, Hahn entered the fray of real estate development. “I realized I have to be involved in real estate because when I have a lease from the landlord, oh, I’m paying so much money. Looks like I’m working hard, fourteen hours a day, and landlord, they don’t work. I work for him. Why don’t I be landlord, that’s the best business.”
He started slowly buying up properties — a shopping center, the I. Magnin building — when prices were still reasonable in Oakland. “I have a vision, actually — real estate booming. Nobody believed it at that time, fourteen years ago.”
His instincts were right — Hahn made quite a bit of money. But he wasn’t satisfied just making a profit; he wanted to do something for the Korean-American community, too. “I liked to create Koreatown for the next generation,” said Hahn. “Also, the Korean community trying to organize something … just like Chinatown. We try to build up our own dreams.”
He set his sights on Oakland as the perfect location for a Koreatown. Using LA’s thriving Koreatown as a model, he decided San Jose was too big and San Francisco didn’t have a large enough Korean population. Telegraph Avenue, he reasoned, was centrally located, close to transportation, and had ample parking.
First, he bought property on Telegraph at 27th Street, which was then the old Sears tire center. He developed the property, leasing it to the restaurant Samwon BBQ House and a Korean pool hall, and then sold it. Next, his Koreatown needed a Korean grocery store, so he lured Kyopo Market from San Jose. The owner sold it to the current owner of what is now the hugely popular Koreana Plaza. Hahn also is responsible for attracting Nara Bank; the Korean newspaper Hankook Ilbo; and, with the help of investors from Korea, the KIA dealership on Broadway. In turn, those helped draw other Korean businesses and investors.
Keun Bae Yoo and his wife Suk Hee Yoo were two of them. The real estate investors lived in San Francisco for more than twenty years, but moved to Oakland after Hahn convinced them to do so. “Twelve years ago, Alex Hahn was keep talking to us about good idea to invest in East Bay, especially in Oakland area, thinking one day we need to have this Koreatown, like Los Angeles,” Suk Hee recalled, sitting at the kitchen table of one of their properties on Piedmont Avenue. “So one day we decided to invest in Oakland area.”
The couple sold all of their San Francisco property, and bought a home and a few investment properties in Oakland, including the lot from Hahn that houses Samwon BBQ House, which they also later sold. They currently own three properties in Koreatown, one in which their son lives, and are part-owners of the building that houses Neldam’s Bakery and Smokey Blues Bar-Be-Que. Hahn, meanwhile, owns about six properties in Oakland, including two parcels in Koreatown.
But developing Koreatown into a bustling district hasn’t been easy. It’s taken a lot of hard work, and now the downturned economy and a weakened Korean won are stalling its progress.
On top of that, Oakland still has some major image issues to overcome. Many Korean Americans in the Bay Area have settled over the hills in the suburbs, and they consider Oakland a dangerous, high-crime city with a poor school system. Getting Koreans to move here would entail changing that, Hahn says. The community benefit district has tried to help with the first problem — having hired extra security, with more on the way — but the second issue is in the hands of the city. “We have to improve that, then Koreans more coming in,” he said. He also believes Koreatown needs a large Korean grocery store chain on par with the Chinese supermarket chain 99 Ranch Market to serve as the community’s anchor.
Hahn is reassured by the formation of the community benefit district. Since Korean Americans own only 7 percent of the properties in the district, he considered that the biggest hurdle to his plans. However, non-Korean property owners were largely in favor of creating Koreatown.
But property owners aren’t generally the people who actually inhabit an area. Some Korean business owners who were lured by the prospect of a Korean customer base are finding that their clientele is predominately non-Korean. Constance Ng, who is of Japanese and Korean descent, opened 31 Plaza in January to appeal to international students and shoppers of Koreana Plaza, which sits just across the street from her. Yet five months later, Ng’s swanky cafe/department store — which is modeled after shops in Asia — has mainly attracted neighborhood kids who use the space to do their homework. Now, Ng is thinking of remodeling her business plan and turning the space into something more resembling a community center. “I’m going to cater to them more — probably add more tables,” she said. “Do something for the kids. I’d rather do that than make money.”
And although the neighborhood is slowly changing, it’s still frequented by homeless people, drug dealers, and other folks who might serve to detract potential investors. So someone has to be the eyes and ears on the ground in Koreatown.
That’s where Dermelle Davenport comes in.
On a Thursday afternoon in April, Dermelle Davenport embarks on his daily walk through Koreatown. Dressed in a blue medical scrub shirt, jeans, and shiny blue sneakers, he doesn’t look like he’d be a representative of Koreatown — and that’s the point. Turns out, he’s its official cheerleader.
Today, he’s going door-to-door handing out fliers that advertise the upcoming banner-unveiling ceremony. His goal isn’t just to spread the word, but also to make sure that the merchants feel included in Koreatown’s development.
As he heads down 27th Street, where he works at the dialysis center RAI Peralta, toward West Grand, Davenport encounters the full range of elements that make up the neighborhood: a Korean restaurant, diner, adult video store, African-American hair salon, Vietnamese-run nail salon, Buddhist temple, Korean bookstore, and eyeglass shop. It’s a reminder of just how diverse Koreatown really is — and the challenges that he faces.
“Hey buddy, how are you today?” he calls out to Wayne Harris, as he steps inside the storefront of his dry-cleaning business, Telegraph Cleaners. Davenport hands him a flier and explains how the mayor is invited and what TV media are scheduled to show up.
“If you wanna step out for 20, 25 minutes, come on through,” Davenport says.
“Okay, thanks for making me feel welcome,” Harris responds with a smile, as Davenport ducks out to continue his fliering.
Across the street, the dialysis technician veers down 23rd Street to Providence House, a supportive housing facility for people with HIV/AIDS. Although the facility is not technically within the Koreatown district, Davenport feels it’s important to include it. “In order to have the businesses, you need to involve the community,” he reasons. “These are your customers.”
As Koreatown’s official “street ambassador,” Davenport takes his job very seriously. He isn’t a property owner, but he works and lives there. Not only does he want to make the area a better place to live, but he believes that the Koreatown Northgate Community Benefit District can help make that happen. Of course, he has his own opinions, too.
“I feel as though I have a way with people,” explained Davenport, sitting in a plush corner office in the dialysis center prior to his walk. “And people need some assistance, you know, that’s what I’m here for. I interact very well with the public, and for a lot of the board members, they’re really not from Oakland. They live outside of the area. So they’re really not familiar. So part of my responsibility is to maintain the streets.”
Davenport first learned of the Koreatown community benefit district from board member Kathy Beallo, who owns the building where he works. “One day, it was a lot of trash in her parking lot, stuff like that, and I said, ‘Hey, you know, I’ll pick that up for you.’ So me and her became very close in a way where she began to trust me in doing things, not only because I work here but because my boss gave her a good report of who I am and what I’ve done to make things better for the dialysis center.”
Beallo invited Davenport to one of the district’s monthly board meetings. He continued to attend, and was very vocal on sharing his thoughts and ideas. A few months later, he was voted onto the board.
It soon became clear that Davenport had a unique perspective and position in the community that could benefit the board’s mission. “My thing was that I could probably work with the people on the streets because I have a way with people and also because I was born and raised in the inner city, so I know how to relate with them, as opposed to other people that … didn’t live that type of life, may not know how to go in there. It’s all about speaking.” Plus, he added, “It’s good with me being black, also it gives balance. If it was all Korean, you may not get feedback. I can relate to them. I try to keep the peace.”
The board members seem to be counting on it. “What Dermelle does goes a long way to prevent what happened in Southern California, which is not what I want,” said district board member Ben Schweng, referring to the LA riots, known by Korean Americans as Sa-I-Gu, or, literally, 4/29.
As the board’s street ambassador, Davenport is primarily paid to report graffiti and illegal dumping to the city. But he also interacts with neighborhood kids and other residents, including the homeless. He tries to prevent homeless from panhandling in front of businesses or loitering around bus stops.
But Davenport goes a step further. He’ll give a homeless person a few dollars if he has money in his pocket, or tell them about the shelter on West Grand and San Pablo where they can get hot meals twice a week. Sometimes, he said, he walks with them to ensure that they get there.
His effort was evident the other day when, while passing out fliers on Telegraph, he ran into an older homeless man pushing a shopping cart. He told the man to meet him at the car wash down the street where he would pay him to wash his car. The man seemed reluctant at first, but Davenport kept pushing the issue until he agreed.
“Because homeless people are homeless, they’re still people,” said Davenport. “And my thing is, I treat everyone the same whether you homeless or whether you have a nice big home and a business over here. … And so I try to interact with them, and I also try to let them know what we’re trying to do within our community and that they are a part of the community.”
Sometimes, however, Davenport’s tactics can be a little too touchy-feely for the board. He said he once hired homeless people to pass out fliers for the board, and wanted to hire them to help clean up after their street festival this fall. But his good intentions didn’t pass muster with the board.
“This is the down-and-dirty work that I do out here,” he said, adding that some board members seem hesitant to interact with the community. “It’ll get better once the board gets more comfortable.”
As for Davenport’s incentive? He doesn’t seem as concerned with luring Korean businesses or residents as he is with making life better for the people who live here. Besides helping the homeless, he also wants to start a Boys and Girls Club or create a park for the neighborhood kids.
While he clearly enjoys the challenge of his job, Davenport also understands the limitations. Despite his best efforts, not everyone is thrilled with Koreatown, particularly the name and the banners. He chose to skip passing out fliers to a couple of businesses. “They don’t like the whole word Koreatown,” he said. “They said this was Northgate before it was anything and that’s what they want it to be. They feel as though Koreans have come in here and bought most of the stores up along Telegraph, and they bought a lot of the property, and because a lot of the property has been bought with Koreans that they’re pushing them out.”
It’s a complex issue because most of the merchants who are upset are African American, just like Davenport. He may be Koreatown’s official cheerleader, but he understands the frustration of some of the merchants, too. “I can relate to it to a certain extent because I feel like maybe in the beginning it should have been done a little bit differently to get more people in the community involved before we just came up with a name,” he continued. “But, unfortunately, Koreatown, they went through all the right channels to establish what we are to this very day. So I support it 110 percent.”
The tensions between proponents and opponents of Koreatown aren’t black and white, or, in this case, black and Korean. But the fact that the district is being branded as an ethnic community makes race an inherent factor. Some merchants and residents interviewed said they feel the Koreatown name and banners exclude the reality of Telegraph’s diversity.
“To me it’s discriminatory and not reflective of the community,” said Akilah Zainabu, owner of Business and Media Services, who noted that there are very few Korean-owned businesses between 27th and 35th streets, where her business is located. “The attitude of it, too, is kind of insulting. A flag — meaning our ownership, our agenda. What does that say for the rest of us that are here?”
Community activist and organizer Marilynn Mackey, who was born, raised, and still lives in the neighborhood, agrees that everyone should have a voice in shaping the area. She also takes issue with the banners being paid for by Oakland’s redevelopment agency, and says there’s a petition circulating to take them down. “The banners oughta come down,” said Mackey. “And I believe the banners will come down when the citizens of Oakland find out that their redevelopment money is going to that.”
Mama Buzz Cafe owner Jade Venetatos said that even with the community benefit district doing outreach, she feels the naming of the district as Koreatown automatically alienates people. “If you want to build community, you have to organize people from the grass roots,” she said. (She’s been recruited to become a district board member because they have one spot reserved for a non-property-owning business owner, but she’s not so sure she wants to join.) She also added that the district hasn’t greatly improved things. “There’s still crime, a lot of crime, and crackheads. There’s all kinds of stuff that happens all the time.” Increased police presence, she said, “doesn’t stop anything from happening.”
Resident Tao Matthews, who identified herself as part Native American, part Asian, and part white, said she feels that the board is “not abiding by the wishes of the community.” The street sweeping and graffiti abatement are programs that the city already provides, she argues, and police and fire services are nearby. “We don’t really need duplication of services,” she said.
Matthews also wonders whether the community benefit district is exceeding its limitations as a nonprofit entity. “They’re supposed to help; they’re not supposed to take over,” she said. “It’s not a convenient excuse to start monopolizing.”
So what about other ethnic neighborhoods in Oakland? Few people mentioned having concerns with the mostly Latino Fruitvale area or Chinatown, citing their larger and more historical roots. Koreans aren’t numerous enough yet, or perhaps the larger community is still adjusting to their more-recent immigration.
“They should humble themselves,” said Matthews. “This is not Seoul, Korea. This is Oakland, Northgate.”
The most vociferous Koreatown critic is Carl Jackson, owner of Smokey Blues Bar-Be-Que, next to Neldam’s Bakery. He’s not just against naming the area Koreatown, but he also accuses his Korean landlords of trying to run him out of business.
“What I am upset about is how this can be named Koreatown,” said Jackson on a blisteringly hot afternoon. “It’s just not fair. They’re not good landlords. They’re very, very arrogant.”
Jackson says he has sent letters asking his landlords to fix his lights and his torn awning, but that nothing has been done about it, and it’s repelling his customers. He says it’s part of an effort to force him out. “They don’t believe in leasing to minorities,” he said. “If you’re not Korean, they don’t bother with you. It’s a very racist situation.”
He also says Korean gangs put a note on his door, which read “get out, this is Koreatown,” and that they etched graffiti into his window using acid, so he can’t remove it. He alleges that his Korean landlord came and threatened him. “I’m not sure if they wanted the property back or to break the lease,” he said. “They killed my night business.”
His landlords, however, vehemently deny Jackson’s accusations. “He is lying actually,” said Suk Hee Yoo, who added that her husband Keun Bae went to introduce himself when they first bought the building along with three other owners but that Jackson accused him of threatening him. The couple says that the light was fixed and that they tried replacing his front window three times, but each time Jackson failed to show up. Now, they say he won’t talk to them without pointing them to his lawyer.
“Because we use ‘Koreatown,’ people think they are being isolated,” Yoo said. “This is not true, you see. What kind of ethnic group is willing to invest in that area? Who’s willing to improve the area? … That’s why I’m kind of upset when they say, ‘Why you using Koreatown?’ Then use your name then. Come here and improve it, put the effort like we did. Without putting their effort, why they are complaining about it?”
Such sentiments are nothing new to Alex Hahn, who operated businesses in majority African-American neighborhoods for years. “We have to understand: if you non-black community, you get in there, they think you invade their territory,” he said, adding that the situation is the same no matter what race the majority community is.
That’s why he says it’s important that the Korean businesses include everyone, and be sensitive to their concerns. “I think we owe them because we make money from their community,” he added. “We have to give them opportunity.” When he operated Acorn Market in West Oakland, Hahn said the majority of workers he hired were from the neighborhood. When young people came and vandalized his store during the Rodney King riots, he chose not to call the police because he said it would have made the situation worse.
Whether business owners and residents like it or not, Koreatown doesn’t appear to be going away. In fact, it’s growing. It has the support of the city, the majority of property owners, and has the added resource of investors in Korea.
Residents, board member Ben Schweng said, have always been invited to add their input. “None of this went on beyond closed doors,” he said. “The city council has known about this — they approved our name.”
That might not please everyone, but Schweng believes it will ultimately benefit them. “Democracy doesn’t mean that you always get what you want,” he said, adding that there have been disagreements among board members, too. “We want to be judged on what we’re doing for the neighborhood, which is a lot I think.”