We used to get 김치 on the corner....
January 18, 2011 8:03 AM   Subscribe

In the 1960's, 70's and 80's, urban decay and high crime rates caused retail chain supermarkets to flee New York City. (google books link) Korean immigrants filled the gap with corner grocery stores. For nearly two decades they were ubiquitous -- symbols of the group's ongoing quest to achieve the American Dream. But 30 years later, Where Did The Korean Greengrocers Go?

A shorter version of this article appeared in the New York Daily News earlier this week.

Some blame New York City's "growing chain-store massacre" (in part.) But other cities are seeing a decline in Korean-owned grocery stores as well:
The situation is widespread and brings with it serious implications. In Philadelphia, for example, the grocery business has been almost single-handedly responsible for building up the economy of the Korean-American community. Ever since the earliest days of Korean immigration to America, grocery stores have been the entry-level business of choice for countless numbers of Korean immigrants. Through the steady presence of their groceries, Koreans have added stability to neighborhoods experiencing ethnic change. Grocery stores provided Korean immigrants not only a precious foothold in their new country, but the opportunity to achieve economic independence. These ma-and-pa-run groceries have become almost cultural stereotypes in inner-city life. In some ways, Koreans inherited the role once held by local, neighborhood Jewish merchants. Through hard work and sacrifice, Koreans in Philadelphia managed to increase the number of groceries to over 1,000. Now, however, there are as few as 150 left.
posted by zarq (19 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Like the jewish delis before them.
posted by crunchland at 8:09 AM on January 18, 2011

A couple of random links found while researching this post:

Cooking Korean food with Maangchi: Korean cooking, recipes, videos and blog. (No one has yet turned that site into an FPP. It totally deserves one, imo.)

Sociologist Pyong Gap Min is mentioned in the main article. Information on Korean-American immigrant wig makers and other businesses can be found in one of his books, available through Google.
posted by zarq at 8:18 AM on January 18, 2011 [3 favorites]

Many Philly Koreans have moved to places like Cheltenham Twp, Upper Darby PA and Cherry Hill, NJ where they are busily owning and running other small businesses. Restaurants, travel agencies, bakeries, a local mini golf place/driving range, newspapers, a radio station...
posted by fixedgear at 8:31 AM on January 18, 2011

In the late 80s and early 90s there were boycots against Korean owned stores.

Here is one article from New York Magazine May 28th 1990

Most of these tiny corner stores (I hesitate to call them bodegas and they are certainly not green grocers) are now almost universally run by middle-easterners, every one of these stores is referred to as "Habibbi's" and every one of the men who work in these are refered to as Achmed or "Ach" for sort.
posted by Ad hominem at 8:34 AM on January 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think the issue is that South Korea is no longer sending diaspora to the United States in the same numbers. It's a politically stable economic powerhouse with plenty of entrepreneurial opportunity and modern social services... there simply aren't as many Korean immigrants as there were in the 60's, 70's and 80's. Second generation kids are very integrated, and more likely to enter white-collar career tracks than their parents were.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:35 AM on January 18, 2011 [3 favorites]

To Pal. Park, NJ. Retired, now that their kids (my former classmates) are through med school.
posted by Eideteker at 8:36 AM on January 18, 2011

The short version: without affordable living there is no place for the artists and the immigrants.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 8:41 AM on January 18, 2011

Ad hominem: "In the late 80s and early 90s there were boycots against Korean owned stores. "

Yep. It's mentioned in two of the articles that after a fight between a Korean grocery manager and a Haitian customer in '81, there were 15 boycotts of Korean grocery stores by African-American customers organized by Sonny Carson from '81 to '95:
Dr. Min attributed the boycotts to a number of factors, including mutual prejudice, language barriers, frequent shoplifting, the high rates of unemployment among customers, the ideology of “black nationalism,” racial stereotypes about Koreans. But he also said that Korean grocers harbored significant prejudice; a 1992 survey of 93 Korean merchants found that many harbored negative stereotypes of African-Americans as generally less intelligent, lazier, less honest and “more criminally oriented’ than whites.

Why have black-Korean conflicts largely vanished from the news? Dr. Min offers several reasons. In Harlem, rezoning laws have encouraged the opening of big-box stores that have pushed smaller groceries out of business; non-Korean immigrant business owners have increasingly set up retail stores alongside Koreans; and a large influx of nonblacks (who comprised about a quarter of the population by 2000). Moreover, entrepreneurialism is on the decline among the children of Korean immigrants. The children are pushed to pursue higher-status, more lucrative professional and managerial jobs in fields like medicine, law, and engineering.

posted by zarq at 8:53 AM on January 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Where am I going to get my D batteries?
posted by Burhanistan at 8:55 AM on January 18, 2011

The Myth of the Successful Koreatown Grocer suggests that these people are now doing what the are actually qualified for.
posted by three blind mice at 9:22 AM on January 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Opportunities for any new wave of immigrants (especially ones whose original country/culture is not English-speaking) are at a premium. If some of them do find a workable economic niche I would expect word to spread pretty fast and see that niche filled rapidly. But one doesn't expect particular flavors of immigrant to remain entry-level forever, and their children less so. I'm told that manicure parlor workers in the U.S. are heavily Vietnamese right now but I expect (and hope) that doesn't last either. You go, Vietnamese gals, the theoretical physics of tomorrow needs you even more than my ragged cuticles do.
posted by jfuller at 9:37 AM on January 18, 2011 [3 favorites]

I always just assumed their industrious progeny got good grades and went on to promising careers, while the parents retired and sold their bodegas to Indians and Pakistanis who were tired of driving cabs.
posted by Afroblanco at 9:50 AM on January 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Without reading the article, I'm pretty sure it's because their kids are now in white-collar office/professional jobs, and they're getting old/uppity and retiring to the suburbs.

It's what happened with my and my friends' Korean families.
posted by qcubed at 10:05 AM on January 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

My mother told me they got out of the grocery biz and opened Kia car lots.
posted by Postroad at 11:16 AM on January 18, 2011

A similar trend is at work in the UK (old link but the trend is unlikely to have reversed) - except that instead of Korean, such corner shops were primarily South Asian.
posted by Electric Dragon at 11:46 AM on January 18, 2011

"there simply aren't as many Korean immigrants as there were in the 60's, 70's and 80's."

True, but South Korean parents still dream of sending their kids to the States for their education, and they certainly keep their fingers crossed that they'll get into a prestigious American college.

There's a reason why wealthier Korean moms like to fly to America when they're eight months pregnant for a "vacation."
posted by bardic at 9:32 PM on January 18, 2011

Nice post, thanks. I remember returning to NYC in late 1985 after 15 years living abroad and was amazed by the excellent changes in the city after all those years away. On the top of the list of improvements I noted were the Korean grocery stores.

What a gigantic difference from the cockroach infested, sloppy, unattractive, sparsely stocked veggie and fruit stores of late 60's. The Koreans had comparatively immaculate stores, brightly lit, efficient, well run, organized, polished every single apple, clipped every bunch of grapes to perfection, had sumptuous buffets of fresh and wholesome food. All of a sudden gourmet and health food everything was available 24 hours a day on almost every street corner. I think the health of New Yorkers must have changed dramatically for the better from the time the Korean stores sprung up because of the availability of fresh fruit salad, mixed greens, veggie juices.

But, in my experience, these stores were both expensive and the people who ran them, though incredibly hard working, not especially friendly or not especially community minded. One Korean grocery clerk changed my life for the better in a small but meaningful way. It was my birthday and I was living alone in the city, no contact with any family and hadn't had time to make real friends yet. I mentioned it was my birthday to the clerk as I paid for my groceries and he told me to take any bunch of flowers I wanted. Tears of thanks sprang to my eyes. And from that time on I realized that store clerks in the neighborhood were part of my community and I part of theirs, that I saw them more frequently than any family member or friends. So, over the years here I've become friends with the store clerks, feel thankful for their friendly presence and every day since in this neighborhood has felt good in a heartfelt way.

In Hell's Kitchen the Yemenis have taken over almost all of the Korean places and the prices of the food available have dropped (yay!). The local Z Deli on Eighth Avenue has awesomely delicious and substantial lunch platters for only 4 bucks. The Yemeni families learned a *lot* from the Koreans in terms of having a varied, upscale selection with health foods, organic merchandise etc and then added their own friendly, more affordable and friendlier spin.

The culture layers in NYC are so wonderfully complex and interesting. I'd love to read a website with good infographics on how the various immigrants chose their professions on arriving here and then morphed into other fields over time. Like Yugoslavian day laborers, into building supers into building contractors into ...and which culture groups meshed well with each others as they found their roots in this country. It seems like certain cultures meld with others in unexpected ways.

Anyway, food for thought. Thanks for the interesting post, zarq.
posted by nickyskye at 5:41 AM on January 19, 2011

Yeah in (north/east) London nowadays many of the shops that used to be run by south Asians are now run by Turks, just as many of the cafes once run by Italians are now run by Turks, or dingy drinking dens run by whoever are now run by Turks.
posted by criticalbill at 9:11 AM on January 19, 2011

nickyskye: " The culture layers in NYC are so wonderfully complex and interesting. I'd love to read a website with good infographics on how the various immigrants chose their professions on arriving here and then morphed into other fields over time. Like Yugoslavian day laborers, into building supers into building contractors into ...and which culture groups meshed well with each others as they found their roots in this country. It seems like certain cultures meld with others in unexpected ways.

I'd truly love to see a website like that, and wish I had the time and resources to set one up. I think it would be a fascinating project.

I'd also love to see a site which documents the progression of various immigrant groups from one region to another generationally. Starting in the 60's and 70's, the Main Street area in Flushing (Queens) used to be mostly Ashkenazi European Jews, then mostly African American, then predominantly Latin, then Chinese, then a mix of Chinese and Korean. Now there's also been an influx of Japanese. As each group ceded the area to another, they would slowly take over another section. So the Jews moved down the road to Kew Gardens Hills, where they settled in, etc.

When I was growing up in Queens, you could see the progression of various ethnic groups as they moved from section to section. It was very apparent when you traveled down either Roosevelt Avenue or Northern Boulevard. This section was mostly Latin (and usually associated with a specific country.) Another section was predominantly Indian. Another was Japanese. Or Greek. Etc., etc. Some areas change from generation to generation, others stay the same. Astoria isn't mostly Greek-Americans anymore. But I suspect they still make up a significant segment of the population.

Anyway, food for thought. Thanks for the interesting post, zarq."

Thanks. And you're welcome!!
posted by zarq at 2:12 PM on January 21, 2011

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