When Seo Jun and Sunhee Kim immigrated to Queens from South Korea in 1986, they hardly resembled the “wretched refuse” of Emma Lazarus’s famous poem. They were middle-class: he was an engineer, she a bank teller, and they had owned two condos back in Korea. But they believed that they and their seven-year-old son, Ron, would have a better life in America. So when an uncle learned that he could bring them over, they sold the condos, came to the United States—and opened a two-register grocery store called East of Eden Market on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. “That was the easiest thing to launch in terms of finding space and finding a network of people familiar with the process,” says Ron, now 31.
In the small space on 79th and York, the Kims sold fruit, vegetables, candy, cigarettes, “anything you could squeeze in,” Ron recalls. To compete with the Upper East Side’s other retail options, they sold their goods 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Seo Jun and Sunhee covered almost the entire 168-hour week. “My parents were always working,” Ron says. “On weekends, I’d even sleep sometimes in the corner to be around my dad when he was doing the night shift.” Ron would ride with his father to Hunts Point Market in the Bronx in the early morning, where they would load their truck with fresh produce from wholesalers. It was exhausting, but the store did well, as did two more grocery stores that the Kims later purchased in the Bronx and Brooklyn. Yet his father “always told me that this wasn’t something for me,” Ron says. “He wanted something better.” He got his wish: Ron never went into the grocery business, and his parents eventually got out of it. East of Eden Market is gone, too, as are most of the small businesses at that corner, the real estate converted into a Chase bank.
Similar stories have played out across New York over the past few decades. After the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 opened the door to consistent migration from South Korea, Korean greengrocers, with their neat stacks of canned goods and their “stoop line” (sidewalk) spreads of apples, oranges, and flowers, became ubiquitous in the city, particularly in blighted and dangerous neighborhoods lacking regular grocers. But more recently, these stores have been vanishing. The Korean Produce Association reports that it has 2,500 members in the New York–New Jersey area, down from 3,000 a few decades ago. Pyong Gap Min, a professor of sociology at Queens College and author of Ethnic Solidarity for Economic Survival: Korean Greengrocers in New York City , puts the number in the greater New York City area much lower, at fewer than 1,500. The drop has been even more pronounced in neighborhoods like Harlem and Flatbush, where Korean-owned groceries, fish stores, and produce stands once flourished.
What happened? There are two stories behind the Korean greengrocers’ disappearance. One involves a changing New York economy over the last 20 years. The other, a particularly Korean saga, is a story of how immigration can work in America—a testament to how far these new Americans have come in a single generation.
Korean immigrants came to dominate New York’s greengrocer business more by chance than by design. Korean culture has not historically embraced entrepreneurs. In Confucian tradition, Min notes, business owners have a relatively low social status—below doctors, lawyers, engineers, and civil servants. But even professionals like Seo Jun and Sunhee Kim seldom spoke fluent English when they arrived here, and Korean professional certifications didn’t transfer, creating a barrier for resuming higher-status occupations. So well-educated Korean immigrants often “chose small business ownership as an alternative to low-wage employment,” says Kyeyoung Park, a professor of anthropology at UCLA and author of The Korean American Dream: Immigrants and Small Business in New York City .
Small grocery stores made economic sense. They required minimal capital to open, particularly for those brave enough to rent storefronts in areas that other merchants—spooked by New York’s skyrocketing violent crime in the 1970s and 1980s—were fleeing. Signing a lease, hanging a shingle, and stocking up could cost as little as $5,000 in Brooklyn or the Bronx. These stores also filled a real need. Before the modern obsession with organic produce, even supermarkets in nicer areas seldom carried truly fresh fruits and vegetables, and poorer areas often lacked grocery stores entirely. Further, the businesses generated cash fast: you can’t store a banana long, so people shopped often. The same factors had made groceries appealing to Jewish and Italian immigrants a generation earlier. Sometimes, in fact, Korean immigrants bought their businesses from retiring Jewish or Italian families.
Communal self-help was the rule: once a few Koreans opened stores and began employing fellow Korean immigrants, neighbors or church members would share news of available locations and talk other aspiring merchants through the regulatory process. “With Koreans, when you come to New York, whatever your friends are working for—a nail salon, dry cleaner, a grocery—you go into that business,” says Charlie Khim, who immigrated in 1985 with his brothers. They had just $300 among them and needed work immediately. So they worked in Korean friends’ grocery stores all over the city until they amassed enough capital to open their own in Williamsburg.
Despite Korea’s traditional attitude toward entrepreneurs, Korean immigrants, coming from a country torn apart by its battle against Communism, embraced the American dream. A survey that Min conducted in 1992 found Korean merchants far more likely than blacks or whites to agree strongly that “in this country, anyone, regardless of race, sex, or national origin, can make it if he or she works hard.” And work hard they did, scrubbing their produce and stacking cereal boxes into picture-perfect pyramids—perhaps as a bulwark against the chaotic neighborhoods around them. When Park did her fieldwork studying New York’s Korean community in the 1980s, she often had to interview people at 10 pm, the earliest they could get off work. And she still remembers babies crying inside trucks at Hunts Point Market at 4 am, when the parents (who couldn’t, of course, afford child care) were already at work again.
The Koreans also struggled to make sense of the low-income, high-crime black neighborhoods where they worked, such as Harlem, Flatbush, and Jamaica. Facing labor-market barriers, Korean immigrants had started their own businesses and then worked long hours to support their families. Wondering why their customers failed to take similar steps and fearful of the violent robberies that a 24-hour grocery could attract, many developed suspicious attitudes toward blacks.
In 1992, Min found that 61 percent of Korean merchants in black neighborhoods believed that “black people are generally less intelligent than white people,” while nearly 70 percent believed that “black people are more criminally oriented than white people.” Black customers would complain of merchants following them around, watching for evidence of shoplifting. Korean greengrocers typically hired other Koreans or Latinos rather than local blacks, whom they believed to be poorer workers. Perhaps, too, the grocers realized that Latinos were less likely to report labor-law violations: in spring 2001, Eliot Spitzer, then the state’s attorney general, sued three Korean delis for paying their employees, most of them Latino, as little as $2.61 an hour, well below New York’s minimum wage.
Black residents had their own prejudices against Korean store owners, sometimes viewing them as alien intruders in their neighborhoods. When Min sent students to interview black residents in neighborhoods with Korean-owned stores, they found that 45 percent agreed that “Koreans are overly concerned with making money,” while roughly the same percentage agreed that “Koreans care only about other Koreans.” About 23 percent felt that “Koreans are in general rude and nasty people.”
Starting in the early 1980s, this long-standing mutual distrust, coupled with advocate-led campaigns that encouraged blacks to shop at black-owned businesses, culminated in a long series of black boycotts of Korean-owned stores. The longest of these was an infamous boycott of two Brooklyn stores: Family Red Apple and Church Fruits. Sparked by a January 1990 argument between Family Red Apple’s owner and a Haitian immigrant customer over how much she’d paid for her plantains and peppers, the boycott lasted 17 months. Notorious activist Sonny Carson sent demonstrators out with signs reading don’t shop with people who don’t look like us. Mayor David Dinkins’s tepid response to the boycott and his inability to end it played a part in his eventual political downfall. The Korean community rallied around the targeted stores: the Korean Produce Association contributed about $8,000 a month to keep them open, and churches took special offerings. “They cannot close,” the manager of a nearby fruit-and-vegetable stand, Byong Yong Chon, told the New York Times . “We could be next.”
In the end, the stores didn’t close, though their ownership and names eventually changed. And the racial tensions that characterized the 1980s and early 1990s ebbed, in part because New York neighborhoods became more ethnically diverse, so that the “us” on Sonny Carson’s signs no longer made much sense. In 1980, 23.8 percent of Brooklyn residents were foreign-born; by 2006, that figure had risen to 37.8 percent. What’s now called Church Fruit Farm anchors the very multicultural corner of Church Avenue and 19th Street.