[Viewpoint] Last stand in FlushingU.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson stood in front of the Statue of Liberty in New York City on Oct. 3, 1965, to sign a new immigration and nationality law known as the Hart-Celler Act.
The United States had been stunned by the surge of Chinese immigrants in the 19th century, who came as laborers to build the transcontinental railroad.
And since 1924, the United States had prohibited the immigration of East Asians and Indians under the Johnson-Reed Act. The Hart-Celler Act repealed the Immigration Act of 1924 and abolished the National Origins Formula. Every year since the Hart-Celler Act went into effect in 1968, thousands of Koreans have crossed the Pacific with their own American dream in their hearts. And Korean immigrants began moving to New York in earnest.
However, New York was hardly a land of opportunity and promise. Most of the first-generation immigrants did not have advanced skills or English proficiency.
It was Flushing, Queens - a neighborhood near New York’s LaGuardia Airport - that allowed Korean immigrants to achieve progress. It was earlier settled by Jews who had migrated from Europe in the 1930s. They were later succeeded by Italian and Greek immigrants to Flushing.
Koreans were persistent and diligent. They endured discrimination and suffering, and they worked hard at odd jobs to put down their roots. In the mid-1970s, New York City was going through a serious economic slump, and businesses in the commercial district of Flushing struggled.
Then Koreans began to fill the empty spaces. Korean-owned businesses started to spring up on Main Street and expanded eastward. What we call Koreatown today was established at that time.
In the center of Koreatown is a public parking lot. Offering convenient parking, Koreatown became the center of the Flushing business district, and Main Street - where Korean businesses were concentrated - had been transformed into the third busiest street in New York City.
Thanks to their solid foundation in Flushing, Korean immigrants were able to establish a Koreatown in Manhattan as well, centered on 32nd Street in Midtown. To many first-generation Korean immigrants who settled in New York, Flushing was like their second home. Yet, as their lives became more prosperous, Flushing began to lose its influence. The major turnoff was the poor quality of the local schools.
Koreans moved out of Flushing to nearby Nassau County on Long Island or Bergen County, New Jersey, in search of better school districts.
After finding new neighborhoods, Korean immigrants did not have much incentive to hold onto commercial real estate in Flushing even though they still ran businesses there.
As a result, the Chinese began to fill the vacuum in Flushing. Whenever a commercial space in Koreatown is put on the market, it is almost always purchased by a Chinese person. Korea Village, the last remaining pride in Flushing’s Koreatown, is about to be purchased with Chinese money. The street that once had been filled with Korean signs is now covered with Chinese characters.
The final blow to the Korean businesses in Flushing came at the end of last month. The city council approved a plan sponsored by Taiwanese investors to build a large-scale residential and commercial complex called Flushing Commons at the site of the public parking lot once provided the center of the Korean community. Many businesses are left with no choice but to leave Flushing.
By the time Flushing Commons is completed, the area might be transformed into another Chinatown. The commercial and business district that first-generation Korean immigrants had built with their sweat and blood is about to be handed over to the Chinese.
Korean immigrant society is hopelessly watching this aggressive takeover by the Chinese. It leaves a bitter taste because Flushing is not likely going to be the only case of Korean immigrants losing their community. We are soon going to see more Korean immigrant neighborhoods taken over by other ethnic groups.
*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is the New York correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Jung Kyung-min