Vol. 16, No. 23 Nov. 20 - Dec. 3, 2003


Faces Change on 204th But Little Korea Remains


Nestled between busy Mosholu Parkway and the Grand Concourse is a little slice of quiet. On East 204th Street, cars cruise at a leisurely pace and few radios blare from buildings. But what does reverberate is the liveliness of the epicenter of Bedford Park's -- and the entire Bronx' -- Korean community.

"This is a good area with parks and trees and hardworking people," said Jeffrey Goo, 46, sitting in the education center -- part of the Kumon Math and Reading Center chain -- his wife started three years ago. Outside the modest building, banners depicting school books with Korean characters flapped in the wind. Smells from the Hangangsool Korean restaurant wafted into the room.

Spending much of his young life in Bedford Park, Goo still appreciates the intimacy of his first American home. "It's a small community, we know each other," he said.

The Korean community of Bedford Park first sprang up some 30 years ago, and at almost 1,000 residents, it is the largest concentration in the Bronx, according to the 2000 Census. It continues to draw new arrivals, and their yearnings for opportunity. 

But by the very nature of the Korean immigrant experience -- working hard and moving on -- East 204th Street is a victim of its own success. Behind the block's established commercial corridor is the knowledge that more will come and others will leave. 

Stores foreign and familiar
Bedford Park's Korean businesses are new and old, foreign and familiar. The nail salon and deli are typical enough, but the acupuncturist -- with a filing cabinet full of medicinal substances -- is more exotic. 

Suzie's Oriental Grocery is at the heart of the strip, as it has been for decades. It was the first Korean grocery store in the city, giving it celebrity status for Koreans all over the tri-state area, according to current owner Tae Kim.

"My father started this business 30 years ago," said Kim, who took over the store in the mid-'80s. "Then, like now, it features Korean products."

Though a new Bedford Park resident, Soon Hae Park is an expert at finding her favorite items within the store's packed aisles. She passed by rows and rows of Oriental sauces: chili, cold noodle, oyster. Above them, a shelf of Goya products with aging labels looked less popular.

With lettuce in hand, Park pointed out some favorites: frozen dumplings, tofu, and mixed seafood. Serve any of them with "kimche," a pickled cabbage condiment and Korean staple. For her two children, Park goes to Suzie's for the two rows of rental videos crammed in by the registers. 

The multipurpose institution also acts as a meeting spot. "Suzie's is well known," Goo said. "People put up signs outside of the store, say, if you need a job."

Unlike many Koreans who follow the tide of family or friends to Bedford Park, it was Suzie's that brought Miae and Sang Choi to the area 12 years ago. The couple stumbled upon the community while looking for neighborhoods to realize their dream: opening a music school. 

"We saw the Korean grocery store and said 'wow,'" said Miae Choi, 42. Both lifelong musicians, the Chois had already ruled out Flushing (too many other schools) and Manhattan (too expensive). "We looked around the block and thought it was a nice area," she said.

The building that now houses the cozy Bronx School of Art was once an abandoned barber shop. Choi's husband, who is an opera singer, built the walls. The couple has lived upstairs ever since, giving Choi a bird's eye view on the neighborhood and its changes.

"Before there was no barbershop or beautysalon," she said. "There are more businesses now."

Reverend Christopher Ponnuraj of Bedford Park Congregational Church has also watched a newly formed Korean congregation in his church grow. "Last Sunday was good, there were about 40 people," he said. The Bedford Park Presbyterian Church hosts two Korean services with about 50 congregants total. 

Goo met his wife, Kay Lee, at a Korean Catholic Mass formerly held at St. Philip Neri Church. He was finishing school at Columbia at the time, and they shared a common pursuit: engineering. 

'Education is everything'
While his parents never went to college, Goo embodies Korean immigrants' emphasis on education. 

"For Koreans, education is the most important thing," said Goo, noting that many 
parents, like his, send their children to America for school. "The first generation didn't get to study. They expect the child to do that. It is to fill their parents' emptiness, I feel."

Kim's father used the modest revenue from Suzie's to send him and his four siblings to college. "[Parents] spend a lot of money on the kids," he said. "It's the same thing among many ethnic people."

Choi is a strong believer in a varied education for children. "I see the kids growing up here without any music knowledge, and I know it's important for them," she said. About 80 students are taught music or art by 12 teachers at the school.

Another 100 students attend supplemental and after-school classes at the tutoring center Goo's wife opened. "Education is everything," he repeated.

Education, and hard work, that is. Even for newcomers like Park, finding work and saving for a better life are immediate pursuits. While she is a part-time cashier at a Jerome Avenue deli, her husband works at the Hunts Point wholesale market. "We do as much as we can," she said. 

Business sours
But fulfilling the American dream is not easy. Kim has watched business sour recently. "I used to have lots of workers, now I'm down by half," he said between long cigarette drags. "People are not buying produce. They've gone from three plums to one."

Kim typically starts his day at the crack of dawn in the Hunts Point market. Sometimes he doesn't finish until 10 p.m.

"You said it, it's insane," he said. "These are backbreaking hours." 

For all the economic strains, Koreans and other Bedford Park Asians tend to do better than other ethnicities. With a 20 percent poverty rate and median household income of almost $37,000 (in 1999), Asians fared a few notches above average. 

But as in Park's case, language can slow the economic ascent. When she tried to return the DSL in her home, Park believes she was ripped off. And a trip to the hospital can be doubly frightening. "There no translators there," she said. 

Many Koreans feel especially concerned about their inability to communicate with the police. At a recent meeting of the Bedford Park Neighborhood Alliance, safety was the predominant issue raised by a number of elderly Koreans. "We need help reporting to the precinct," said Richard Lee, a local senior. "We've got to do something."

In the meantime, the community feels vulnerable. "There's like one [burglary] a month in our apartment building," said Anne Kim, an active Alliance member. "Who can live like this?"

To stay or go
Kim left his home in Bedford Park in 1986 for Westchester. Goo also moved north after his oldest child reached middle school. "Koreans come to the Bronx, they work hard, maybe they open a business, and then they move," he said in one breath. "It's like a procession. If you're still here in 10 or 20 years, then you are having a hard time."

But those vacant spots don't remain empty. Sung Hyo Hwang came to the area five years ago, following in the footsteps of his family. He established Gohyang Zip, a bakery and deli, near Suzie's. While he still misses home, and business can be slow, Hwang remains optimistic. 

"American people are good," said Hwang, 55, as a steady stream of customers bought Friday lottery tickets. "American people smile, say good morning and good evening." 

While numbers have declined somewhat since 1990, Hwang and other Koreans (along with Asians of many nations) continue to come to Bedford Park as others leave, according to 2000 Census data. Over half of the neighborhood's Asian population arrived in the last decade. Nearly two-thirds are not naturalized citizens, and over a third of Asian adults speak little to no English.

"It's a classic pattern," said Bill Bosworth of Lehman College's Bronx Data Center. "In the Bronx, relatively few people seem to stay put once they are on an upward movement." 

Younger Koreans do assimilate quickly. All Bedford Park Asians who are young speak some English, according to the Census. But many young Koreans don't shed their cultural heritage in the process. Jiwoong Kim, who goes by Jim, moved to Riverdale but still visits Bedford Park. "I always get kimche," said the 25-year-old. He also volunteers at the Bedford Park senior center, where many older Koreans go.

The closeness of their community, and the uniqueness of their culture, can isolate 
Koreans from other ethnic groups. And unlike those in Flushing, Queens -- home to one of the city's largest Korean populations -- Bedford Park's community is not wedged within an Asian domain. In the Bronx, "groups like Koreans may feel a little more marginal than they would elsewhere in the city," Bosworth said. 

Regardless, most Koreans spoke favorably about their neighbors. And many others exhibit goodwill, or at least benign curiosity, toward the Korean population. Joelle Autrino, who just moved to Bedford Park this year, stopped into Suzie's for the first time recently. "I heard the spinach was fresh," she said while walking through the aisles of foreign products. After indiscriminately putting items into her cart, Autrino carried away five full shopping bags.

While Kim was pleased to see the business, he harbors doubts about keeping Suzie's. A number of Latino business people have offered to buy the grocery. "When you have to struggle, you got to think about it," he said.

But Choi is steadfast in her ambition to keep, and grow, the music school. "We have a dream to build up this place to make a real music school, like a conservatory," she said.

"It takes time and patience, but that's our dream."

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