Flushing’s Koreatown Regains Its Popularity

Korean stores are lined up along 162nd Street in Flushing. (From Google Street View, via Korea Daily)

Flushing, NY, is definitely the most popular area and business district for Korean immigrants in New York.

Starting in the late 1970s when Korean immigrants flooded into New York, this Koreatown developed mainly on Union Street in downtown Flushing. The Koreatown of Flushing served as the hub for Korean businesses in the 1980s and 1990s. In the 2000s, there was a time when many Korean businesses relocated from downtown, eastward along Northern Boulevard due to the big influx of Chinese immigrants. However, Flushing is regaining its status as Koreatown while it is attracting visitors from many nations, encouraged by the popularity of Korean culture, known as the “Korean Wave.”

Expanding the target market

“Only seven or eight years ago, whenever we met white people on the street, we were cautious because we thought they were inspectors from the city,” said Young-Hwan Kim, a Korean owner of the Korean restaurant Hahm Ji Bach located on the Korean food street, which is known in Korean as “Mukja Golmok” (Food Alley), close to the Long Island Rail Road station in Murray Hill.

He added: “Nowadays, on weekends, almost 90 percent of our customers are of ethnicities other than Korean. I even have my own regular non-Korean customer who likes to have ‘Gamja tang’ which is a Korean pork-on-the-bone soup with potatoes, on rainy days. Traditional Korean dishes become more and more popular among non-Koreans.”

Various visitors also go to the Northern Boulevard area, which has lots of modern Korean restaurants, cafés, and bars. The Korean restaurant Picnic Garden BBQ Buffet is regarded as one example of a successful Korean business in the area. Jason Lee, an owner of Picnic Garden, said: “I launched my business targeting international customers at the outset. Now, nearly 90 percent of our customers are other ethnic people.”

He said that his business also benefits from the Korean Wave and K-pop. He added: “The popularity of Korean culture allows Korean food businesses to attract more people. A bad economy does not necessarily lead to lower sales. The number of customers is increasing as other ethnicities try Korean barbecue and introduce Korean cuisine to their family and friends. There is a good chance of winning in the future if we make numerous attempts to attract other races.”

Establishing a new Korean business district

With the continuous openings of Korean restaurants, cafés, and bars into downtown toward Northern Boulevard, Flushing is now considered to be “the second most popular Koreatown” after Manhattan’s Koreatown by non-Koreans who have belatedly recognized it. (Actually, Flushing’s Koreatown was developed earlier than Manhattan’s Koreatown and is larger.) In particular, a number of Korean stores have opened along 162nd Street, creating a new Korean marketplace.

Second-generation Korean Americans have played a great role in the development of Flushing’s Koreatown. Bringing their non-Korean friends out to Flushing, they have contributed to making Flushing the place for learning and trying Korean culture. Kevin Jung, who grew up in Flushing as a second-generation Korean American, said that a Korean bar on 162nd Street is the place he meets friends every weekend night. “I don’t need to go to Manhattan’s Koreatown, which is far away from Flushing, to look for Korean food. Flushing is the better area to enjoy authentic Korean food. It goes without saying that we can save more money.”

Monica Morales, 27, said that she visits “Mukja Golmok” on weekends to hang out with her Korean friends even though she lives in Jackson Heights, Queens. She added: “I know almost all the nice Korean restaurants and cafes in ‘Mukja Golmok.’ Speaking of new Korean cafés, they use high-quality coffee beans which are comparable to Manhattan’s cafes. Also, I can try Korean traditional desserts, such as Bingsu (a frozen dessert that comes in different flavors).”

More and more Korean daycare centers and pharmacies

By the 1990s, Korean businesses had dominated the market on Union Street. There was nothing that Korean immigrants couldn’t find. Thanks to Korean food stores, restaurants, bookstores, beauty salons, storefront schools, and hospitals, all things Korean were available on Union Street. However, with the enormous stream of Chinese immigrants starting in the 2000s, Korean businesses lost ground to Chinese businesses, and only 30 to 40 Korean shops remained.

However, some businesses are increasing in number. “Adult daycare centers and pharmacies are emerging Korean businesses in New York,” said Ik-Hwan Im, the director of the Union Street Small Business Association in Flushing. He added: “There are one or two pharmacies on every corner of [Union Street] in Flushing, many of which are Korean businesses.”

Michael Choi, who has been working as a real estate agent for 20 years in New York, said that there are more than 10 adult day care centers and three more centers are scheduled to open. (…) “Korean immigrants recognize the increasing demands from the elderly and the benefits of government subsidies,” he said.

Having a potential for growth

It is true that Chinese businesses hold sway over the business district from downtown to Union Street, but Korean businesses still have a great potential for growth. “We need to return to downtown. Although the rent in the downtown area is 20 to 30 percent higher than the rent of other areas, there is heavy foot traffic and potential customers from other countries,” said Im.

The store owners on Union Street have created the website eUnionSt Marketplace to get more customers by selling products throughout the U.S. In addition, they have been cleaning the streets and installing colorful lights along the street. This year, they plan to install a welcome sign of characters in Korean traditional “Hanbok” clothing in the Flushing Business Improvement District (BID).

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