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."

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."

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