|Vol. 16, No. 23
||Nov. 20 - Dec. 3, 2003
Faces Change on 204th But Little
By HEATHER HADDON
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
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
"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,"
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
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
'Education is everything'
While his parents never went to college, Goo embodies Korean immigrants' emphasis on
"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
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.
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
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
"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
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
"It takes time and patience, but that's our dream."
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