Twenty Years After the L.A. Riots, What's Changed For Yong Kim And For The City

arrival story yong kim with mar medium view.jpg

Yong Kim with Crown Shoes employee Mar Rodriguez

Editor's Note:

Yong Kim was born the year of the Watts Riots.

The South Korea native and small business owner was reborn, in a way, during the L.A. Riots.

"In one day," Kim said about April 29, 1992, "I learned more than four years in college."

Kim told the above to KCET Departures columnist Jeremy Rosenberg back when Rosenberg was writing "The Secret City" column for latimes.com.

The quote was part of a May, 2002 column headlined, "Yong Kim's Decade of Change." The story talked about Kim's family history (from North Korea to South Korea to Paraguay to L.A.) and some of his early experiences in the city.

But most of all, Kim spoke in that piece about the Riots -- where he was when he first heard what was going on, how he reacted that day and how the events changed him and needed to change many others still.

Ten years later, on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the Riots, Rosenberg checked back in with Kim and asked what has changed in the intervening years about Los Angeles -- and what hasn't.

Story continues below

The original 2002 column is immediately below. Then please continue reading underneath for Kim's 2012 observations.

Yong Kim's Decade of Change
Wednesday, May 15, 2002
The Secret City on Latimes.com

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."

"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.

"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 like...one 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."

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."

Yong Kim, Revisited -- An April 2012 Update

"In one day, I learned more than four years in college," Yong Kim said ten years ago about the events of April 29,1992.

So what has Kim learned during the decade since? For one thing, he says, that change is the new status quo.

"There was a time," Kim says, "that if you were born a butcher's son, you'd die as a butcher's son. That's not it anymore."

Kim lists various industries that have suffered during the years since the L.A. Riots -- including, he notes with a grin, newspapers and independent retail stores.

"You have to be more flexible and willing to change and accommodate than ever before," Kim says. "That's one thing I've learned in the past ten years -- don't count on anybody to come help you. You've got to make yourself useful."

Photo by Pete Zarria used under a Creative Commons license

Toward that end, Kim's business -- Crown Shoes -- remains open as it has since 1985. His father still spends many days in the shop. His employees have been with him for as many as twenty years.

But Kim has shifted a significant part of the enterprise away from selling sneakers and into the "team athletic" business, providing customized logo shirts to high schools all across the L.A. basin.

Ten years ago, Kim spent many of his days working at his store. Now, with the high school business, Kim's regularly out and about in various near and more distant cities and neighborhoods.

During his travels, he says he's observed demographic changes throughout the Southland. "The Riots were the starting point [of] a mass exodus of African Americans from South Central," Kim says.

Kim's a born talker, and he says he meets and speaks with people during his travels to places such as Fontana, Riverside, Rialto and Perris who departed the area now known as South Los Angeles. "Everybody in South Central just got fed up and they started leaving," he says.

Meanwhile, ten years ago, Kim was already noticing a changing population in Echo Park, where Crown Shoes is located.

Kim -- who was born in Korea and raised in Paraguay and then L.A. -- said back then that various Latinos in the neighborhood who he'd known for years were moving out. "Some to suburban dream plots," as the column described, "others, he speculates, being priced out or worse, Kim fears, being forced out by opportunistic landlords."

"That," Kim says today, "already has happened." He adds: "You want to see a lot of out-of-state license plates? Come to Echo Park."

Kim also says that while during the Riots, he traded sneakers to customers who were also gang members in exchange for help protecting his store, in 2012 that would be less likely to happen. Why? In part because there are less gang members around, pushed out, he says, by rising housing costs. "This gentrification, these landlords did what LAPD Gang Unit couldn't do," Kim says.

Ten years ago, Kim also said that in the aftermath of the Riots, merchants who prosper in poorer neighborhoods should quit flaunting their own riches, driving Mercedes to work, for example, while their customers pay with food stamps.

Such flaunting, Kim says, has dissipated. "They don't do that anymore," Kim says. "I cannot speak for other races, but at least among the Koreans, they stopped doing that."

Kim also sees deeper and more substantive changes being made by various merchants he speaks with. "They are more part of the community. They have this belief that these are our neighbors," Kim says. "Not that these are people I can make money off and move on."

On the other hand, Kim says he doesn't see any progress on another suggestion he made ten years ago -- increased dialogue between Korean and Latino leaders.

"That hasn't happened," Kim says. "But fortunately, there was no escalation of any animosity either. It's like zero plus zero is zero. That's the kind of situation it is."

So ten years later, all things considered, what's Yong Kim's gut feeling? Does he think that conditions have changed enough to prevent -- 47 years after Watts, 20 years after L.A., the same day he's viewing internet footage of current riots in Greece -- a new generation's Riot from taking place? The short answer is no.

"As long as human beings live, there will be injustice," Kim says. "There will be riots. It's just a matter of time."

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