Oakland's Koreatown Isn't Your Typical Ethnic Enclave 

Welcome to Koreatown, which was the vision of one man, includes very few Korean residents, and employs an African-American "street ambassador."

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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.

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