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Curious City

A Sign From The Past: What Happened To Chicago's Koreatown?

A peculiar brown sign sits off to the side of the Kennedy Expressway and it’s easy to overlook — not just because many drivers are rushing to O’Hare International Airport, but because the sign almost blends into its surroundings. Still, that’s not what makes the sign peculiar.

What’s strange is that it guides people to a place that pretty much doesn’t exist anymore: Chicago’s Koreatown on a stretch of Lawrence Avenue.

“I opposed the sign from the beginning and I think it should be removed,” says veteran Korean-American journalist Kwang Dong Jo. “People see it, and when they get there, they see there really is no more Koreatown and they’re disappointed and feel deceived.”

That’s pretty much what happened to a guy named “Andy” who sent in this question to Curious City:

I've seen signs for Koreatown near Albany Park, but there doesn't appear to be a Korean population there. What's the deal?

Well, Andy, the deal is mostly suburbanization.

Like a lot of Chicago’s immigrants, early Koreans first settled in urban enclaves for social and economic reasons. But as they adjusted to living in Chicago, prospered and had children, many sought greater upward mobility, better schools and larger homes in the suburbs.

But Andy’s question is still a fascinating one because, compared to most ethnic neighborhoods, Koreatown, as a residential area, enjoyed an astonishingly short life. By the time Koreatown was recognized by the city with signs like “Honorary Seoul Way” in 1993, more than two-thirds of Chicago Koreans had already moved to the suburbs.

And by 2004, when then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s administration put up the “Korea Town” sign near Wilson Avenue on the Kennedy, the area had faded to a shadow of its former self.     

So why did Koreatown last for less than 20 years as a residential area when other ethnic enclaves in Chicago, like Chinatown, have thrived as commercial and residential districts for more than a century? The answer lies in global economics, cultural cohesion and educational priorities.   

In 1993, three Chicago aldermen worked to install Honorary Seoul Drive signs across a 14-block stretch of Lawrence Avenue in Albany Park. Some say they are no longer relevant in a decreasingly Korean area. (WBEZ/Monica Eng)

Origins of Chicago’s Koreatown

To understand how Chicago got its Koreatown, it’s useful to take a look at the history of Korean immigration to Chicago.

The U.S. Census Bureau didn’t list any Koreans in Chicago until 1920, when they numbered just 27.

Many of these early arrivals were students, including Bernard Kyung Kim, who is believed to be Chicago’s first Korean resident, according to Jo, a veteran Korean journalist and former editor for Chicago’s Korea Times.

“He came here as an architecture student but built his fortune as a cafeteria designer and owner," Jo says. "His biggest restaurant was the popular Washington Cafeteria at State and Randolph Streets,” which operated in the ’20s and ’30s.

Through the early ’60s, Korean immigrants slowly trickled into Chicago and were mostly sugar plantation workers from Hawaii, Korean war brides and students, all of whom totaled just 500 people, according to the 1960 U.S. Census.

This all changed with the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which lifted longtime restrictions on Asian immigration to the U.S. By 1972, the Chicago Korean population had ballooned to 10,000, mostly from urban areas of South Korea. (Few North Koreans immigrate to the U.S.) The immigrants were mostly professionals, graduate students and some Korean workers who had been living in Germany and South America, according to Inchul Choi, the former executive director of Chicago’s Korean American Community Services.

Many of these post-1965 immigrants initially lived and started businesses (including the Korea Times newspaper) in Lakeview, where a Japanese community had already been established. Korean grocery stores and restaurants operated alongside Japanese and Swedish shops in the heart of Wrigleyville.  

Veteran Korean journalists Kwang Dong Jo (left) and Byung Chan Ahn (right) stand in front of the Korea Times building on Clark Street. (Courtesy of Kwang Dong Jo)

But by the late ’70s, many Koreans had migrated further northwest to areas including Lincoln Square, Bowmanville, North Park, Hollywood Park, West Ridge and especially Albany Park, where the area around Lawrence and Kimball avenues had fallen on hard times. The majority of Lawrence storefronts were vacant, and the city was offering incentives for businesses to locate there. Chicago’s Koreans heeded the call and soon filled Lawrence Avenue with thriving shops, which were founded by and for Koreans.

“We had groceries, restaurants, insurance companies, video stores, bakeries and travel agencies,” Jo remembers of the bustling ’80s and ’90s commercial area.  “We had every business you needed on one street.”

By the early ’80s, Albany Park hosted Chicago’s biggest Korean community, which had doubled from 1970 to 1980 citywide to nearly 22,000, according to the U.S. Census. By 1990, it had grown to 35,000.

Korean-American nightclubs, bars, cafes and singing rooms (called noraebangs) sprang up on the Northwest Side to serve the young, increasingly affluent immigrants and children of immigrants who had a foot in both cultures, called the 1.5 generation.  

But by 1992, more than 22,000 of the area’s roughly 36,000 Koreans had left the city for the northwest suburbs, according to a Chicago Tribune analysis. And a lot of this was about their kids.

(WBEZ/Katherine Nagasawa)

The Fall of Koreatown

“Education has always played an important role for Korean-Americans,” says Kyu Park, an associate director of international programs at Northeastern Illinois University and author of Korean-Americans in Chicago. “So many families moved out to the suburbs for better schools very soon even if their business was still on Lawrence.”

Jo, the veteran journalist, says he moved his family from the Northwest Side to Skokie for the schools in the late ’80s.

“I don’t know any Korean families who didn’t do it,” he says.

Jin Lee, the business director at the Albany Park Community Center, says when he was in high school in the ’70s, Koreans were still sending their kids to Chicago Public Schools.

“I went to Lakeview and there were a lot of other Koreans who went there and to Lane and Senn,” he remembers.

But by 1990, his family also moved to the suburbs. Today, just about the only Koreans still living in Albany Park are in the senior homes, he says.

“If you look at Korean attendance in local [Albany Park] schools,” he says, “you don’t really see any Korean students.”

Even though many Koreans were leaving Chicago, the Korean business district in Albany Park continued to stay strong, Lee says.

“You had many businesses stay even through the early 2000s,” he says. “People would still meet here and go to restaurants. If Koreans were coming home from work on the South Side, they could stop in Albany Park for a meal or a meeting.”

But he says businesses declined after decades without local Korean residents. He says the retirement of merchants, whose children had moved on professionally, and the 2007 Great Recession also played a role.

According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, Albany Park was home to 428 Korean-owned businesses in 1991.The Albany Park Community Center, however, recorded just 158 in 1997, and that number dropped to 50 by 2014. Many of the remaining businesses have survived by adapting to the area’s large Latino population, Lee says, but their numbers continue to fall.

“I am trying to remember to take photos of the remaining businesses because they are fading,” Lee says. “I want people to remember when there were still Korean stores here.”

Although many Korean businesses have left Lawrence Avenue, others are hanging with fading signs. (WBEZ/Monica Eng)

Koreatown vs. Chinatown

So what other factors contributed to the fast disappearance of Koreatown compared to other ethnic enclaves, like Chinatown?

Jo says Chinese tend to “stick together” more and run restaurants, which often serve as anchors in their community. But in terms of local Korean merchants, “the invisible economic backbone” has been wig, beauty supply and apparel stores on the South Side along with dry cleaners.

“We don’t usually live where we have businesses,” Jo says. “Instead, we are always searching for the best school area. Also, if we make a self-criticism, we are a little more individualistic, competitive and independent. That is part of our culture, but it makes it hard to create any long-term strategy for our community.”

It should be noted that many Chinese immigrants have also moved out to the suburbs; some even moved straight to the suburbs as immigrants. But Chicago demographer Rob Paral says the Chinese community still has an important ingredient needed to support urban enclaves.

“You need a constant inflow of immigrants but, the last time I looked at the numbers, it seemed that Korean immigration to Illinois just cratered at a certain point,” he says.

Indeed, economic stability in South Korea slowed outmigration by the ’90s. And those who did immigrate gravitated to areas of California, New York, New Jersey and Virginia, whose Korean immigrant populations on a county level now surpass Cook County’s, according to the most recent U.S. Census figures. Korean populations in Texas, Georgia and Washington have also recently neared or surpassed Illinois’.  

Another factor Paral points to is the swift upward mobility of second-generation Korean immigrants. Many of their parents arrived as professionals whose language skills or lack of equivalent accreditation prevented them from resuming their original occupations. Many, instead, opened small businesses with the aim of reestablishing their children in professional jobs through education. And they largely succeeded.

“Second generation Koreans on the whole have achieved very high education rates,” Paral says. “And so it’s no surprise that they are no longer living in Albany Park.”

Suburban future

Although Lee and Jo lament the loss of a thriving Koreatown on Lawrence Avenue, their own histories reflect the community’s trend of moving to the burbs. Both arrived in the ’70s and settled in North Side neighborhoods. But by the time their children were ready for school, they moved to the suburbs, put down roots and have stayed there.

“I really don’t go to Lawrence Avenue much anymore at all,” says Jo, who, along with many other Koreans, has relocated to north suburban Wheeling. “There aren’t many cultural meetings there any more, and I can find everything I need in the suburbs.”

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Many of the businesses that are now needed by the core of Korean immigrants reflect the age of the first-generation population.

“These days, the population is growing older and you see a need for more senior homes and funeral homes,” says Choi, the former executive director of Korean American Community Services.

Choi says many seniors who would have retired to facilities in Albany Park are now dominating certain senior homes in Glenview, Morton Grove, Northbrook and other suburbs. Korean churches, community centers and newspapers have also followed.

Even if the flow of Korean immigrants has flattened, some notable Korean businesses continue to flourish — especially in the suburbs. These include the sauna sensation King Spa & Sauna, the all-you-can-eat Woori Village Korean BBQ and enormous H-Mart mega stores in Niles, Naperville and, soon, the West Loop.

The Civic Center Plaza in Niles features an H-Mart supermarket and the Korean spa King Spa Sauna. (WBEZ/Monica Eng)

Jo says he believes these businesses continue to thrive because they cater to non-Koreans and still get the support of the young Korean-Americans.

“The second generation is still coming to the restaurants and the grocery stores,” Jo says, echoing the sentiment of other community veterans. “But outside of groceries and restaurant, there is no cultural participation, no community participation.  They only want the food.”

With so many Korean businesses sprouting up around Golf Road and Milwaukee Avenue in Niles, some are suggesting new signs may be in order.

“Some people say we should bring the Seoul Drive [signs] to the suburban area,” Park says. “They were thinking that Golf and Milwaukee is more proper to have Seoul Drive these days.”

But given the mobility of Chicago’s Korean community, there’s no telling when the signs might have to move again.

Monica Eng is a WBEZ food and health reporter. Follow her at @monicaeng or write to her at meng@wbez.org

Correction: An earlier version of this story misquoted Inchui Choi concerning some Korean workers' origins before arriving in the U.S. According to Choi, some of these workers were from South America. 

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