'Koreatown': From Logan Into Olney

Posted: July 13, 1986

Several years ago, Philadelphia Korean community leaders like Hyon Chong Choe realized that their fledgling "Koreatown" on North Broad Street in Logan just wasn't going to last.

Although thousands of recently arrived Korean immigrants had poured into the area, setting up dozens of businesses, restaurants and organizations throughout the 1970s, they were fleeing from the area just as quickly in the 1980s.

There was too much crime, too much vandalism, they said, and the schools weren't so good. And just as important, the hard-working Korean people were prospering. They could afford more.

Over the last few years, a major exodus has taken place - with thousands of Koreans and the businesses serving them leaving Logan for the greener pastures of the nearby Olney neighborhood, Cheltenham, and the more distant suburbs.

"We needed a new place, some place that could be a center for the Korean people," said Choe, president of the Korean Association of Greater Philadelphia. "Nobody planned this, but everybody knew it was time to move."

It's an exodus that experts on Philadelphia ethnic affairs say is unprecedented in its speed: Never has a group of immigrants moved up and out of its original city neighborhood as fast as the Koreans.

In Logan today, fewer than 300 Korean residents are left, leaders say. In more prosperous Olney, however, as many as 5,000 Koreans now make their homes and dozens of Koreans have opened stores along Olney's commercial strip on North Fifth Street. The numbers have become so great, in fact, that Choe and other Koreans are now ready to proclaim this area the new "Koreatown."

Five of the six Korean restaurants that used to be on North Broad Street in Logan are now on North Fifth Street. Olney now has a Korean pharmacy, a Korean barbershop and a store that specializes in kimchi - spicy, pickled cabbage that is a favorite Korean dish.

Recently, Choe decided it was time to do something to symbolize the establishment of this new "Koreatown," and he concluded that installing Korean-language street signs along the North Fifth Street business strip was the answer. This week, the Korean signs will go up along a 20-block length of Fifth Street, from Rockland Street to Cheltenham Avenue.

"Like the Chinese did in Chinatown, we wanted to make a place with some Korean identity," said Choe, whose association is producing and paying for the new street signs. "Now we have maybe 40, 45 Korean businesses on Fifth Street, but that number will grow. I think this will be our home for many years now."

Choe says he hopes that North Fifth Street will serve as the cultural and business center for the Korean population of the entire metropolitan area, which the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations recently estimated at between 40,000 and 50,000.

The fact that the Korean community is now in the process of creating a new ''old neighborhood" - in effect, developing an ethnic center even though Korean leaders say a majority of the community has already moved into the suburbs - reflects the remarkable rise of Koreans here. That dynamic also is being seen in other, large American cities.

"Most Koreans have been in Philadelphia 15 years or less," said Mark Stolarik, president of the Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies. "The speed that they have gone through their first ethnic neighborhood is incredibly fast, faster than anyone else in Philadelphia.

"The Jews were the fastest before this, and it generally took a full generation for them to move out of their first neighborhoods."

The extraordinary upward mobility of the Koreans is generally attributed to their intense work ethic, their strong family and community ties and the circumstances under which they left their homeland.

While immigrants to this country have historically come here poor, little educated and unaccustomed to urban life, the Koreans who began arriving in the late 1960s - after U.S. immigration laws were changed to allow in more Asians - were often middle class, well educated, and used to city living. Some even came with substantial amounts of money from the sale of their Korean homes.

(The Koreans are sometimes confused by Philadelphians with the other Asians who have recently arrived here in large numbers - the refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. These refugees, however, usually arrive here penniless and traumatized by war and persecution, and they are not nearly as upwardly mobile as the Koreans.)

"Korean people want to come to America because here there is opportunity like we don't have," said Chee Young Lee, director of social services for the Philip Jaisohn Memorial Medical Center in Logan, which serves many of the area's Koreans.

"Our country is small and with so many people - even the people with

college education can't find the good jobs," she said. "Here they know that if they start a business and work hard and sacrifice, they will do well. And they have."

Their remarkable success, however, has not always endeared them to the Americans they live and work with. In Olney now, many older residents - most of whom are German - fear the Koreans and feel threatened by their arrival, said Margaret A. Kuns, president of the Olney Businessman's Association.

"I personally have had good relations with the Koreans, and I think they are doing good things for the area," she said. "There's a new shopping center going up near here, and if the Koreans weren't buying the stores (on Fifth Street,) I think many would be empty.

"But a lot of the older people get very angry when they talk about the Koreans. They resent their coming and fear they'll be overrun."

There is a similar bitterness among some residents of Logan. According to community leader Mary Cousar, many people think the Koreans made a good living in Logan, and are now abandoning it without any concern for the residents.

"We had big plans for developing North Broad Street, and the Korean restaurants and businesses were a key to it," Cousar said. "But now they're gone, and we have to start all over."

These kinds of complaints dismay Korean leaders, who say their people are trying hard to learn how to get along with their American neighbors and customers.

Korean Association president Choe said, for instance, that after some black groups complained that Koreans were taking money from their communities without putting much back, Koreans began to hire more blacks and to set up scholarships and other assistance programs.

But Choe had no apology for the large-scale Korean exodus from Logan, and their aggressive entry into Olney.

"In America, people are free to start businesses and close them as they please. This is what the economic system is all about," he said. "People also are free to move to better homes, to get away from crime.

"This freedom, this is what we like so much about this country."

comments powered by Disqus