Gentrification: A Primer for Korean Americans

Esther Kim, Koreatown resident

Gentrification is one of those words. We all agree on the surface level that it’s a bad thing, it displaces whole communities and strips cities of generations-old culture. But when in the comfort of our own homes and around those we trust, maybe we don’t think too negatively about gentrification. It takes shitty streets and turns them into new. It brings in hipsters and high-end coffee and homemade soap and an asinine amount of mason jars filled with shit that we didn’t know we wanted until we saw it in storefronts. It brings in new businesses and flashy high rises that make us feel more accomplished. It takes what was derelict about our community spaces and supplants something newer and fresher into the mix.

Most of my friends are young millenials, up-and-coming entrepreneurs, recent college and graduate school grads. I guarantee you that a good 90% of those friends agree with the above paragraph. As much as I would like to agree with what is written above, I’m not made to think that shinier and flashier is necessarily better. I invite you to consider what gentrification really means for our communities.

When your neighborhood is gentrified, it means that someone is looking to increase the property value of your neighborhood. If you own your own home, good for you. Maybe you’re looking to sell one day and the value goes up and you can sell it for a lot more money than you paid for. But what if you want to stay and raise kids there, have your kids raise their kids there, and then their kids after that? By then it might be an old ass home, but it’s the one that you spent your blood, sweat and tears to obtain. It’s the one that has culture, tradition, and above all else, a surrounding community. So let’s say that you want to stay, and that you’re a little excited about all the shit that’s coming into your neighborhood–like that new sandwich shop down the street–even if it means that you got some random white people included in there too. In your eyes, they are newcomers to your neighborhood – the neighborhood that your community fought like hell to get. That history means a sense of pride and ownership over the area that you call your home.

But we are human, and we aren’t made to be satisfied with the status quo. Even though your neighborhood is rich with culture (think of the Korean-only signage plastered throughout outdoor Koreatown malls), there are improvements that can be made. Ktown is kind of poor-looking and we intermix with other poor people. We aren’t Beverly Hills. We want it to look ritzier, be fancier, and become a place that rivals Beverly Hills or the Pacific Palisades. We want to do it by making massive high rises and inviting big business to take reign over our areas.

We are also inviting other young (practically trust-fund-baby status) millenials to take advantage of the “exotic” that is Koreatown and turn it into another one of their hipster projects. The high-end coffee shops displace our mom and pop Korean bakeries that have been there for over a decade. The homemade soaps and mason jars take businesses that our parents trusted, goods that our communities relied on for survival and replaces them with trinkets that appeal to folks that don’t actually want to take part in the community that’s been long established. The stores replace what represent us with things that represent folks who don’t care about what lies within our spaces. They want a takeover. They want to move into the flashy new high rises that were built after our grandparents were kicked out of their rent-controlled apartments, after our friends’ parents were swindled out of the corner they began calling home years ago. Gentrification makes life a lot more expensive to live.

Congratulations to the tiny sliver of the current Koreatown population that can still afford to live here. The rest of us feel like we’re told we don’t belong here anymore. Our homes and apartments are being offered to the rich white folks who can match the “rising property values” (on which I call bullshit). Businesses are changing to match their lifestyles. Pretty soon, Koreatown will be the next Silverlake, Echo Park, Elysian Heights. It will be a place that we once knew before we realized that we were letting other people take what we built over so many decades.

Where will you watch the World Cup games or send your kids for weekend volunteering? Where will you go for bilingual services for you and your parents?

Koreatown is uniquely ours, and it’s imperative that we keep our culture alive, and intact. We must only embrace change that includes us.

One thought on “Gentrification: A Primer for Korean Americans

  1. Is this an Onion piece? I remember Koreatown in the 80s when there wasn’t a single Korean sign. I remember Chapman Market on 6th and Alexandria when it was mostly vacant, boarded up with a couple of artists studios. Then the Koreans came fixed it all up put fancy bars and restaurants with signs and menus in Korean only presumably excluding all non Korean speakers. But I’m not complaining. I welcome the diversity. Now the writer is acting as if nothing should change ever.


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