City Journal

Laura Vanderkam
Where Did the Korean Greengrocers Go?
The entrepreneurs who nourished New York have moved up and out.
Winter 2011
A greengrocer in 1985, when the Korean stores were a common sight in many neighborhoods, including some of the poorest
Ted Thai//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
A greengrocer in 1985, when the Korean stores were a common sight in many neighborhoods, including some of the poorest

When Seo Jun and Sunhee Kim immigrated to Queens from South Korea in 1986, they hardly resembled the “wretched refuse” of Emma Lazarus’s famous poem. They were middle-class: he was an engineer, she a bank teller, and they had owned two condos back in Korea. But they believed that they and their seven-year-old son, Ron, would have a better life in America. So when an uncle learned that he could bring them over, they sold the condos, came to the United States—and opened a two-register grocery store called East of Eden Market on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. “That was the easiest thing to launch in terms of finding space and finding a network of people familiar with the process,” says Ron, now 31.

In the small space on 79th and York, the Kims sold fruit, vegetables, candy, cigarettes, “anything you could squeeze in,” Ron recalls. To compete with the Upper East Side’s other retail options, they sold their goods 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Seo Jun and Sunhee covered almost the entire 168-hour week. “My parents were always working,” Ron says. “On weekends, I’d even sleep sometimes in the corner to be around my dad when he was doing the night shift.” Ron would ride with his father to Hunts Point Market in the Bronx in the early morning, where they would load their truck with fresh produce from wholesalers. It was exhausting, but the store did well, as did two more grocery stores that the Kims later purchased in the Bronx and Brooklyn. Yet his father “always told me that this wasn’t something for me,” Ron says. “He wanted something better.” He got his wish: Ron never went into the grocery business, and his parents eventually got out of it. East of Eden Market is gone, too, as are most of the small businesses at that corner, the real estate converted into a Chase bank.

Similar stories have played out across New York over the past few decades. After the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 opened the door to consistent migration from South Korea, Korean greengrocers, with their neat stacks of canned goods and their “stoop line” (sidewalk) spreads of apples, oranges, and flowers, became ubiquitous in the city, particularly in blighted and dangerous neighborhoods lacking regular grocers. But more recently, these stores have been vanishing. The Korean Produce Association reports that it has 2,500 members in the New York–New Jersey area, down from 3,000 a few decades ago. Pyong Gap Min, a professor of sociology at Queens College and author of Ethnic Solidarity for Economic Survival: Korean Greengrocers in New York City, puts the number in the greater New York City area much lower, at fewer than 1,500. The drop has been even more pronounced in neighborhoods like Harlem and Flatbush, where Korean-owned groceries, fish stores, and produce stands once flourished.

What happened? There are two stories behind the Korean greengrocers’ disappearance. One involves a changing New York economy over the last 20 years. The other, a particularly Korean saga, is a story of how immigration can work in America—a testament to how far these new Americans have come in a single generation.

Korean immigrants came to dominate New York’s greengrocer business more by chance than by design. Korean culture has not historically embraced entrepreneurs. In Confucian tradition, Min notes, business owners have a relatively low social status—below doctors, lawyers, engineers, and civil servants. But even professionals like Seo Jun and Sunhee Kim seldom spoke fluent English when they arrived here, and Korean professional certifications didn’t transfer, creating a barrier for resuming higher-status occupations. So well-educated Korean immigrants often “chose small business ownership as an alternative to low-wage employment,” says Kyeyoung Park, a professor of anthropology at UCLA and author of The Korean American Dream: Immigrants and Small Business in New York City.

Small grocery stores made economic sense. They required minimal capital to open, particularly for those brave enough to rent storefronts in areas that other merchants—spooked by New York’s skyrocketing violent crime in the 1970s and 1980s—were fleeing. Signing a lease, hanging a shingle, and stocking up could cost as little as $5,000 in Brooklyn or the Bronx. These stores also filled a real need. Before the modern obsession with organic produce, even supermarkets in nicer areas seldom carried truly fresh fruits and vegetables, and poorer areas often lacked grocery stores entirely. Further, the businesses generated cash fast: you can’t store a banana long, so people shopped often. The same factors had made groceries appealing to Jewish and Italian immigrants a generation earlier. Sometimes, in fact, Korean immigrants bought their businesses from retiring Jewish or Italian families.

Communal self-help was the rule: once a few Koreans opened stores and began employing fellow Korean immigrants, neighbors or church members would share news of available locations and talk other aspiring merchants through the regulatory process. “With Koreans, when you come to New York, whatever your friends are working for—a nail salon, dry cleaner, a grocery—you go into that business,” says Charlie Khim, who immigrated in 1985 with his brothers. They had just $300 among them and needed work immediately. So they worked in Korean friends’ grocery stores all over the city until they amassed enough capital to open their own in Williamsburg.

Despite Korea’s traditional attitude toward entrepreneurs, Korean immigrants, coming from a country torn apart by its battle against Communism, embraced the American dream. A survey that Min conducted in 1992 found Korean merchants far more likely than blacks or whites to agree strongly that “in this country, anyone, regardless of race, sex, or national origin, can make it if he or she works hard.” And work hard they did, scrubbing their produce and stacking cereal boxes into picture-perfect pyramids—perhaps as a bulwark against the chaotic neighborhoods around them. When Park did her fieldwork studying New York’s Korean community in the 1980s, she often had to interview people at 10 pm, the earliest they could get off work. And she still remembers babies crying inside trucks at Hunts Point Market at 4 am, when the parents (who couldn’t, of course, afford child care) were already at work again.

The Koreans also struggled to make sense of the low-income, high-crime black neighborhoods where they worked, such as Harlem, Flatbush, and Jamaica. Facing labor-market barriers, Korean immigrants had started their own businesses and then worked long hours to support their families. Wondering why their customers failed to take similar steps and fearful of the violent robberies that a 24-hour grocery could attract, many developed suspicious attitudes toward blacks.

In 1992, Min found that 61 percent of Korean merchants in black neighborhoods believed that “black people are generally less intelligent than white people,” while nearly 70 percent believed that “black people are more criminally oriented than white people.” Black customers would complain of merchants following them around, watching for evidence of shoplifting. Korean greengrocers typically hired other Koreans or Latinos rather than local blacks, whom they believed to be poorer workers. Perhaps, too, the grocers realized that Latinos were less likely to report labor-law violations: in spring 2001, Eliot Spitzer, then the state’s attorney general, sued three Korean delis for paying their employees, most of them Latino, as little as $2.61 an hour, well below New York’s minimum wage.

Black residents had their own prejudices against Korean store owners, sometimes viewing them as alien intruders in their neighborhoods. When Min sent students to interview black residents in neighborhoods with Korean-owned stores, they found that 45 percent agreed that “Koreans are overly concerned with making money,” while roughly the same percentage agreed that “Koreans care only about other Koreans.” About 23 percent felt that “Koreans are in general rude and nasty people.”

Starting in the early 1980s, this long-standing mutual distrust, coupled with advocate-led campaigns that encouraged blacks to shop at black-owned businesses, culminated in a long series of black boycotts of Korean-owned stores. The longest of these was an infamous boycott of two Brooklyn stores: Family Red Apple and Church Fruits. Sparked by a January 1990 argument between Family Red Apple’s owner and a Haitian immigrant customer over how much she’d paid for her plantains and peppers, the boycott lasted 17 months. Notorious activist Sonny Carson sent demonstrators out with signs reading don’t shop with people who don’t look like us. Mayor David Dinkins’s tepid response to the boycott and his inability to end it played a part in his eventual political downfall. The Korean community rallied around the targeted stores: the Korean Produce Association contributed about $8,000 a month to keep them open, and churches took special offerings. “They cannot close,” the manager of a nearby fruit-and-vegetable stand, Byong Yong Chon, told the New York Times. “We could be next.”

In the end, the stores didn’t close, though their ownership and names eventually changed. And the racial tensions that characterized the 1980s and early 1990s ebbed, in part because New York neighborhoods became more ethnically diverse, so that the “us” on Sonny Carson’s signs no longer made much sense. In 1980, 23.8 percent of Brooklyn residents were foreign-born; by 2006, that figure had risen to 37.8 percent. What’s now called Church Fruit Farm anchors the very multicultural corner of Church Avenue and 19th Street.

But the greengrocers are unquestionably rarer now than during the boycott era. Min has conducted several counts of Korean-owned businesses in historically black neighborhoods, and all of them show declines between 1991 and 2006. For example, central Harlem—125th Street between St. Nicholas Avenue and Madison Avenue—was home to 55 Korean-owned stores in 1991, including seven stores selling produce or groceries. In 2006, Min counted only 14 Korean-owned businesses in the same area, including just one produce store. The Korean Produce Association reports that only 40 to 50 percent of the buyers coming to Hunts Point these days are Korean, down from 80 percent two decades ago.

New York’s economic evolution drove some of this change. The city once had few chain stores, but “Gap came in and did extremely well,” says Jonathan Krivine, a director at real-estate services firm Newmark Knight Frank. So did a few other pioneering retailers, particularly as the Giuliani-era crime turnaround made the city feel safe for shopping. Their success tempted others. In New York today, commercial properties are increasingly rented by chains: CVS, Starbucks, fast-food franchises like KFC, the national banks. “It’s very difficult for independent entrepreneurs and small companies to compete when the city is being picked over by nationals,” says Krivine. “The landlord dream is always a corporate signature. They want to get a check out of a computer.”

As chains moved in and New York became ever more livable, retail rents rose—54 percent from 2001 to 2008, according to the Real Estate Board of New York. That growth has flattened somewhat in the recent downturn, but even blighted neighborhoods have gone through periods of gentrification, with reports of landlords doubling rents when leases come up. Manna’s Soul Food Buffet and Salad Bar, owned by pioneering Korean-American businesswoman Betty Park, lost its lease at its 125th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard location a few years ago, during the height of Harlem’s redevelopment craze. The restaurant joined a lawsuit over the displacement, and after the economy weakened, it received an invitation back, though the real-estate situation remains in flux. In recent months, signs plastered all over this utilitarian restaurant, with its buffet lines of fried chicken and mashed potatoes, noted that it would soon move half a block north.

Rising rents aren’t the only challenge for independent retailers. New York’s many taxes excessively burden those firms too small to afford the fancy financial planning necessary to escape them. Gotham extracts its pound of flesh in other ways, too, from parking fines for delivery trucks to sanitation fines to fines for putting too many words on a store awning. And then there’s the city’s new Green Cart initiative, which gives permits to mobile stands offering cheap produce—a direct threat to surrounding greengrocers. The big chains can absorb these costs or lobby for better treatment; meanwhile, little guys operating on the margins—particularly those whose minority status or lack of English skills makes them a prime target for harassment—face great pressure to give up.

But there is another story behind the declining number of Korean grocers—one of economic success. For starters, South Korea itself has grown phenomenally since the early 1960s. Back then, annual per-capita income in the war-torn country was around $100 in that era’s dollars, on par with many African nations. By 2008, according to the World Bank, South Korea’s per-capita income had risen to about $20,000. (Ron Kim calculates that if his father had held on to his South Korean real estate, he might have made just as much money as he did in the grocery business in the United States.) In short, today’s South Korea offers plenty of opportunities for ambitious people, meaning that fewer Korean immigrants come to New York. Immigration to the U.S. fell from a high of 35,849 in 1987 to 26,155 in 2008.

More fundamentally, there’s the Korean narrative in America. As Americans debate immigration policy yet again, Korean-Americans have shown exactly how immigration should work, vaulting several rungs up the U.S. economic ladder in one generation. Duke professor Jacob Vigdor’s 2008 report for the Manhattan Institute, “Measuring Immigrant Assimilation in the United States,” found Koreans economically indistinguishable from native-born Americans. The children of Korean immigrants aren’t manning cash registers late at night; they’re in lines of work that pay more and that their parents see as higher-status.

Ron Kim’s parents never even asked him to work at their stores. “It was only when I volunteered my time,” he says. His job was to focus on academics and athletics, and he landed enough scholarships to attend Hamilton College and play football there. He now works for the executive branch of New York’s state government. This “education-is-everything ethic,” as Patricia Lee puts it, pervades Korean immigrant culture. Lee arrived from South Korea in 1976, and when she was growing up, “I didn’t spend any time in the kitchen,” she says. Her family “didn’t want me to do anything except schoolwork. My job was to be a good student. That’s sort of how Korean kids were raised, with parents saying they’ll do anything for you to be successful at school. In Korea, it’s like a virtue to be up all night studying. Whatever you need, your parents will support you.”

Outsiders marvel at stories of Korean “cram schools” in the U.S., where young children spend afternoons and weekends studying. But there is a big payoff. While Korean-Americans are a small percentage of New York City’s population, they regularly make up more than 10 percent of the enrollment at Stuyvesant, one of the city’s elite high schools. The high expectations continue through college. “Koreans want to be able to tell friends and folks back home that ‘my children went to Ivy League schools,’ ” says Oak Atkinson, who came to New York City in the late 1970s. She attended Colgate; her sister went to Cornell. When her father returned to Korea to visit friends, there was no question which college’s sweatshirt he would wear there.

Parents push the professions—law, engineering, medicine—hard. “Becoming a doctor is very important” to Koreans, Pyong Gap Min notes, just as in other Asian-American communities. Asians make up 4 percent of the American population but about 20 percent of graduating medical students. The parental preference for secure professional employment is reflected in Koreans’ falling self-employment rates. Min’s analysis of the New York and New Jersey census data for 2000 revealed that while 27.7 percent of Korean immigrants were self-employed in 1999, just 5.1 percent of the next generation was—less than half the rate for the region’s American-born whites (10.9 percent).

Plenty of Korean-Americans still own businesses, but they, too, demonstrate upward mobility. More recent immigrants tend to run nail salons: like grocery stores, they require little capital to start, but they cater to a more upscale clientele than the groceries do and aren’t expected to stay open around the clock. After Seo Jun and Sunhee Kim left the grocery business, they joined some relatives to open several nail salons and spas.

Other Korean greengrocers have become chains themselves. A Korean businessman who owns 14 grocery stores donated $200,000 anonymously to fund Min’s Research Center for Korean Community at Queens College. The national H Mart chain began as Han Ah Reum in Queens in 1982 and now has 34 locations around the country, including a small store in Manhattan’s Koreatown, packed with Asian staples like soup stock, dried anchovies, and sweet rice cakes.

Another option for the greengrocers is aiming at a higher-end demographic than their forerunners did. Charlie Khim and his brothers now own several Khim’s Millennium Markets in Brooklyn, offering organic and natural foods. A visit to the flagship store on Driggs Avenue reveals aisles wide enough for a shopping cart. But “I’ve never seen anyone in there with a cart, stocking up for the week,” reports Amanda Bauman, a Brooklyn resident who visits Khim’s frequently for lunch at the vast salad bar: the prices are too high. The clientele is mostly “hipsters and new parents,” Bauman says, who might spring for Green Sprouts’ BPA-free toddler cups ($8.99), a bottle of lavender body wash ($12.99), or a carton of Rice Dream drink. Still, Khim works seven days a week, sometimes for 15 hours at a stretch. “I don’t want my son or daughter working like this,” he says. He wouldn’t mind if they ran businesses (“They can do whatever they want”), but he doesn’t want them running his business.

One summer day, business owner Angela Jia Kim’s baby daughter is hanging out in her store, just as Ron Kim used to linger in East of Eden Market. But far from napping in the corner while her mom tends the till, little Sienna Lucy has come to organic skin-care store Om Aroma for some pampering—namely, a baby massage class, which Angela is participating in with several other moms and their tots. During busy times, Kim, a former concert pianist, does pitch in at the store (featured product: a $129 three-step skin-care regimen involving white truffle and caviar extract). But she has hired enough workers that she doesn’t have to be there 15 hours a day. “They make me look lazy,” she says of Korean-American entrepreneurs before her, but “they were doing it to survive. I’m doing it to build a brand. It’s a very different mentality.” Hers is a more confident, well-financed approach to entrepreneurship—one born of feeling economically and culturally secure in America.

Research for this article was supported by the Brunie Fund for New York Journalism.

Laura Vanderkam is the author of 168 Hours: You Have More Time than You Think. She writes a career blog for BNET.com and is a member of USA Today’s Board of Contributors.

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