Koreatown works on business, diversity

Marketplace Staff Aug 13, 2009

Koreatown works on business, diversity

Marketplace Staff Aug 13, 2009


Kai Ryssdal: As state and local governments have cut back on services in the face of the recession, small businesses and property owners have largely been left to fend for themselves. One way they’re doing that is by picking up on the concept of business improvement districts. Where those businesses tax themselves to pay for things like extra security and landscaping. Making sure districts get the right name is an important first step, as Mina Kim found out in a mostly African American neighborhood in Oakland, Calif.

MINA KIM: Ever since this stretch of Telegraph Avenue became a business district, it’s seen a lot of positive change: freshly painted store fronts, trash-free sidewalks. But when bright, blue-and-orange banners were installed recently touting its name, it upset some of the locals. That’s because the banners declared the district “Koreatown.” And they have a tagline that says, “Oakland’s got Seoul.” Only Seoul is spelled S-E-O-U-L.

AKILAH ZAINABU: The initial reaction was one of just being offended and feeling disenfranchised.

Akilah Zainabu is a notary and graphic artist here.

ZAINABU: This area is majority black, but we didn’t never decide to say, OK, this is Africa Village. No. Koreatown played the race card by putting up banners that say Koreatown-Northgate. It doesn’t include anybody else that’s here.

There are clusters of Korean businesses, but they make up less than 20 percent. Now, Zainabu and others are circulating a petition to bring the banners down. But Alex Hahn says the name is needed to lure more business here. Hahn is president of the business district’s board.

ALEX HAHN: If it’s called Koreatown, a lot of Koreans are going to invest here.

Hahn says Koreans associate the name with success, after a booming Koreatown in Los Angeles and already, a Korean hotel company and supermarket chain are interested in the neighborhood. Hahn is often credited for being the visionary of the district. The extra tax paid by property owners generates about $280,000 a year for things like removing graffiti, sweeping streets, and adding police patrols.

HAHN: Somebody has to do something make sure this place better to business. We done it, and why don’t you give us a chance?

One person who’s been willing to give them a chance from the get-go is Dermelle Davenport.

DERMELLE DAVENPORT: I feel what Koreatown is doing is an excellent thing because they’re bringing revenue. They’re trying to find ways to make it really nice for everyone.

Davenport’s a dialysis technician who’s lived here for eight years. When property owners started organizing, he went to their meetings. Davenport was vocal and engaged. The Koreatown board soon realized his involvement could help prevent racial tensions. So the group hired Davenport to be its official “neighborhood ambassador”. It’s a part-time paid position.

DAVENPORT: Hey, buddy, how are you today, man?

On a walk through the district, Davenport chats up the owner of a dry-cleaning shop. Before the banners went up, Davenport invited residents to discuss them at community meetings. Though he understands the resentment, he says in these tight times, people should care more about their businesses than what’s written on a banner.

DAVENPORT: It just gives the area a particular name, but it doesn’t take away what it really is.

The Koreatown board is hosting a street festival in September, to showcase the neighborhood’s diversity. Davenport says a barbecue cook-off will be part of the fun.

DAVENPORT: No matter if it’s Korean, whether you’re Hispanic, whether you’re white. If you can barbecue, and you know your food is good, well come on out.

Davenport hopes outreach like this will help end the flap over the Koreatown banners.

In Oakland, I’m Mina Kim for Marketplace.

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