Yong Kim's Decade of Change
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Features column:In our columnist's final Secret City offering, he visits an Echo Park shoe store owner... a contemplative man once reborn by the riots, but feeling just so-so about the future.

Wednesday, May 15, 2002

BY JEREMY ROSENBERG, Special to Calendar Live

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Ten years ago last month, Yong Kim was loading sneakers into a rented U-Haul.

The city was burning; fellow merchants were standing on rooftops with shotguns; and the owner of Crown Shoes in Echo Park knew he had a store full of rubber soles to relocate--and fast.

On a recent weekday afternoon, Kim sits at a small wooden table in the back inventory room of the footwear shop that his family has run for 17 years and ponders a decade of change.

Kim calculates change in terms of local politics and law enforcement. In inter-ethnic relations. In the neighborhood where he works. Certainly, in sneaker styles and consumer purchasing patterns. And, most significantly--and closest to home--the change in his own mind, heart and worldview.

"In one day," Kim says, thinking back to April 29, 1992, "I learned more than four years in college."

Kim is personable, gregarious and contemplative. When business is slow, he pulls out a history book. He works in snappy light blue... light blue fleece shirt with a white T-shirt underneath, jeans, white sports socks and brown loafers.

He reaches over and borrows a notepad from a visitor, draws a letter from a language with pictographic roots. It's the Chinese character for "human"--two lines, slanted and coming together like a crooked teepee.

"There's a meaning why [the letter] has two sticks like this, standing together," Kim says. "Because they need each other."
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Il Jum Oh Se Dae. "One-point-five Generation." That's the demographic slur of sorts that Kim says he gets labeled in Koreatown, branding him as a cultural 'tweener--neither adult immigrant with his heart still in Korea, nor second-generation American with zero interest in the traditional ways.

"I've got old values," Kim says and chuckles. "I'm not really Korean Korean, but I'm not really American either."

Kim and his family moved to Los Angeles from Paraguay in 1980. He was 15 years old and spoke Korean and Spanish.

His father haled from north Korea--note the lower case of the compass direction. Kim was born in Seoul, South Korea, two decades after the nation was divided at the 38th parallel.

Kim's grandfather and uncles remained in what became North Korea. His father never felt comfortable in the south, and in 1974, on the advice of an uncle's friend, moved his family to Paraguay. Six years later, they arrived stateside. High school was different in Los Angeles--Kim met schoolmates who were pregnant, witnessed a student wounded by a bullet who lay bleeding on the school's steps.

In 1985, the Kim family purchased Crown Shoes, on Sunset Boulevard near the corner of Echo Park Avenue. According to Kim, he took more of an interest in the business than his brothers did. Kim attended CSUN as a commuter. Worked the store. Watched shoe styles come and go.
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When Kim first heard about the riots, he was bowling in Alhambra. It was his day off.

The next morning, April 30, he kept the store open until noon, figuring that the 10 freeway would provide a geographic barrier to the violence. He watched the news on the black-and-white television, saw Koreatown stores owned by people he knew being torched. Received worried phone calls from his mother. Realized the situation was serious.

"We came to the conclusion that we should go on a contingency plan, which was to go rent a U-Haul," Kim says. "And when we came back it wasn't getting better, it was actually getting worse, and there was no police, no national guard. By afternoon we figured that we wouldn't be here."

There was vandalism, but no rioting in Echo Park. People were milling about in the streets, and Kim recalls an uncertain air in a city already choking on smoke.

One of Kim's brothers, minding the store while Kim relocated the merchandise, recruited gang members who were longtime patrons of the shop; each was offered a pair of sneakers in exchange for helping to protect the shop.

"Their original intention I don't think was to come protect," Kim says. "[I think] they came down just for the heck of it. But then again, we all knew gangs, those guys shopped here, so they knew if they really did anything we could point [a] finger. So they took care of the place."

Kim waited nine days to re-open Crown. He wanted to make sure the city was safe, that people were ready to shop again, and that the hastily removed shoes and sneakers could be put back in proper order.

He was 26 years old then and a cocky know-it-all, he says.

"Before that, my opinion was, like, everybody take care of themselves," Kim says. "Affirmative action meant you didn't work hard enough. I didn't think about the economic aspect of life, or achieving something when you are economically disadvantaged."

Ten years later, he figures: "There's got to be a balance in this world, in this society, especially in L.A. It's not group of people is better than another."

Still, Kim is worried that all the lessons of the recent past have not sunk in.

He says merchants who prosper in poorer neighborhoods shouldn't flaunt their own riches, driving Mercedes to work while their customers pay with food stamps. He worries that it's happening in areas where the small businessmen are ethnically Korean, the majority of the residents, Latino.

"There is some fuel building," Kim says. "Because [Latinos] keep shopping at the same Korean store all the time and they might say, 'Oh these Korean guys take my money all the time, take my paycheck all the time.'

"People start thinking, and someone just strikes a match. I wish that Latino leaders and Korean leaders would get together and at least get some dialogue going. So that if somebody really wants to [cause a rift], someone is prepared to diffuse the situation."
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For the first time during his 17 years here, Kim says, Echo Park is changing. People from Silver Lake, one neighborhood west, are moving in. Latinos whom Kim has known for years are moving out--some to suburban dream plots, others, he speculates, being priced out or worse, Kim fears, being forced out by opportunistic landlords.

Kim, for one, isn't going anywhere. He just signed a new long-term lease.

Despite his concerns, Kim is fiercely loyal to his work neighborhood--and to L.A. as a whole. He says his customers are, too. The posters and uniform jerseys that quilt the walls at Crown depict '80s and '90s superstars--mostly Lakers, Dodgers and Raiders. No flavors of the month or expansion teams.

"I like it here," he says. "If I didn't like it, I would have quit a long time ago.

He hasn't. The city has moved forward again, slowly, he says. Thankfully, he hasn't needed that U-Haul. Kim's more at peace, personally, and he thinks his city is, too. Still, there are limits.

"I wish I were living in a utopia," he says. "But that's not going to be achieved."
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This is the final installment of "The Secret City" column on It's been a great run and I'd like to thank everyone for reading, contributing and critiquing. Special thanks to column editors Robert Niles, Elaine Zinngrabe, Laura Flores, John Forgetta and since day one, Shayna Sobol. Thanks also to photo editor Jerome Adamstein, who somehow managed to make my lousy shots look sharp.

Jeremy Rosenberg can be reached at