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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.