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Koreatown: Glitter Babies Vs. Thugs 

Stylish throngs with dough pour into the area. So do muggers and killers

Thursday, Nov 8 2007
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“It’s a rough neighborhood,” concedes the doorman, a tall, heavily tattooed ex-New Yorker named Neal Schofield.

Francisco Sanchez, 29, smokes outside, near street signs in Korean and Spanish, and puts it another way: “A lot of bars, you find some real douche bags. Here the douche bags aren’t allowed in, because they don’t know the password.”

It’s not so much the douche bags that are a worry, it’s the gangsters. In Koreatown these days, predatory hoodlums — including both Asian and Latino gang members — seem to be waging a high-stakes game of one-upmanship with the monied forces of new development.

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K-town, as locals call it, is emerging as one of Los Angeles’ hottest nightspots. Wealth from Seoul, flowing in at record levels, has given flower to residential towers, karaoke bars and pulsating clubs. Awash in neon, jam-packed with trilevel mini-malls and traffic, the district is L.A.’s closest thing to the noir, futuristic vision of Blade Runner.

Rich young Koreans with tricked-out Nissans and SUVs line up to enter places like KarNak and the Velvet Room. Westside yuppies, drawn by the area’s exotic allure, cruise in to dine under the glow of hanging paper lanterns; you can pay $49.99 for a plate of halibut sashimi or sea cucumber.

All the while, Koreatown is grappling with what some say is worsening street violence. During the first two weeks of October, within a mile radius of one gleaming block of high-rises on Wilshire Boulevard, there were 11 aggravated assaults, seven violent robberies and a murder, according to Los Angeles Police Department crime maps. Some attacks are gang on gang, but innocent diners and club-hoppers are also targets. Flashy young Koreans, in particular, are a temptation to bad guys because of their cultural affinity for carrying cash.

“You don’t want to walk around in Koreatown — it’s dangerous,” says Lily Kim, 33, a reporter for the 200,000-circulation Korea Times. “I write those crime stories.”

Every Christmas, she writes about savvy gangsters and muggers who make holiday “business trips” to Koreatown to prey on locals, Kim says. Ethnic conflicts give rise to even more outbreaks of violence.

“Korean pop culture is really popular right now,” Kim goes on. “A lot of Vietnamese and Chinese come to Koreatown.” They don’t always mix well with young Koreans who are also liquored up. “They are young and stupid. .?.?. There are fistfights and stabbings.”

Yet Koreatown’s rich ethnic mix is also part of its draw. Despite its name, half the population is Latino, a fourth is Korean, and the rest is “Nicaraguan, Bangladeshi, Ukrainian, Pakistani, Khazakstan” and more, says Grace E. Yoo, executive director of the Korean American Coalition’s L.A. chapter. “It’s not white, black, brown and yellow. It’s so much more.”

New condos are priced up to a staggering $1 million, and the flow of dollars got a huge boost in January, when the South Korean government tripled its foreign investment limit for Koreans — to $3 million, Yoo says. Yet pockets of Koreatown still have some of the city’s lowest rents, and the area has yet to address its drifting garbage, abandoned sofas and filthy sidewalks. Racial tensions and simmering economic desperation create a frightening vibe that visitors and residents alike can feel.

“Where there’s money you’re going to find people trying to take advantage of that — in positive and negative ways,” says Los Angeles City Councilman Ed Reyes, who represents much of the area. “We know we need to step up and increase the presence of police.” Nor is Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s theory of “smart growth” panning out, as massive new Koreatown rental buildings attract car-driving residents who eschew the bus and feed the gridlock that has grown markedly worse under Villaraigosa’s two-year construction push.

Heather Hammill, a 28-year-old graphic designer, rented one of K-town’s cheap studios for $495 a month in 2002. She moved last year, glad to pay $200 more in Silver Lake. Among other unwelcome experiences, she had her clunky Toyota stolen by a man who apparently needed it to attend a bail hearing — his court papers were still in the car when police recovered it.

A dearth of parking amid the increasingly dense three- and four-story apartment houses and mini-malls means residents sometimes walk a dozen or more blocks to get home, she says. “I would park and see people trashed coming out of bars, and people sleeping on the curbs,” she says. One night, Hammill recalls hearing an “atomic” explosion as a minivan creamed a parked car on Third Street. The drunken driver emerged and proceeded to urinate on his own van.

“He had this glazed look and couldn’t focus,” Hammill says. “It’s amazing. I have hundreds of stories like that.”

A young professional named Mark, who rents in Koreatown, says he heard the gunfire from a recent murder and, like Hammill, is trying to move. Two killings hit his block last month, he says. Though never assaulted, he is so fearful of reprisals that he won’t give his full name, expressing concern that muggers might steal his wallet, learn his identity and punish him.

“This [crime] run that we’re on right now feels a whole lot more threatening than ever before,” he says. Blocks north of Wilshire are heavily tagged by 18th Street gangsters. “I’ve seen these guys tag on shrubs,” Mark says. “It’s unbelievable. On October 3, there were three violent robberies on the same day .?.?. probably a block away from each other. Were the cops just taking reports and driving away? Abandoning the neighborhood?”

THE LAPD’S SUCCESS IN QUELLING rising tag teams and driving out gangs has been spotty at best. But in Koreatown, the problems are exacerbated by language barriers, distrust of authority and nonsensical precinct boundaries that divvy up the vast district, just west of downtown, among the LAPD’s Wilshire, Rampart and Hollywood divisions. Many incidents are thought to go unreported because victims don’t speak English, or they have a cultural aversion to calling out the cavalry. Some are illegals.

Consequently, it’s tricky to identify the worst crime hot spots. After National Public Radio reported on a spike in violence in Koreatown a year ago, the LAPD Web site offered a defensive rebuttal, claiming there had been 533 fewer serious crimes than in 2005 — a 12 percent decline. The purported trend did not apply to murders, however, since a triple slaying at a Koreatown restaurant bumped up the year-to-year death toll from 15 to 21, according to the LAPD’s own data. On April 12, 2006, the Weekly reported on a spate of horrific murder-suicides ("Community in Pain") and other brutal killings ("A Cheap Life,") that rocked Koreatown last year. (The LAPD did not respond to requests from the L.A. Weekly seeking fresh crime data for 2007.)

Tensions between Koreatown residents and the police have been entrenched at least since the 1992 riots, when many buildings were burned to the ground. Residents have pushed for their own police station, with the expected opening of a $30 million facility on Vermont Avenue next summer.

Optimists like Laura Ramirez, who opened the R Bar six months ago with two partners, see an enormous opportunity and say the street thugs have not been an issue.

“There’s construction going on everywhere,” she says. “There’s the renovation of old apartment buildings. There’s the Wilshire/Vermont subway stop. It’s cool to see. It’s cool to be a part of that.”

At Frank N Hank’s, a dive bar on Western Avenue, the weekday crowd voices similar sentiments — albeit cautiously. “It seems iffy,” Dennis Wolfe, a young Westsider, says of the street outside. But he’s here all the same, laughing it up with pals Jeremy Rabb and Alexandra Fulton.

Rabb, from New York, compares Koreatown to parts of Manhattan. Fulton says she loves that it’s funky. “I parked down the street; I didn’t feel nervous,” she says, then adds, “I mean, I didn’t park six blocks away.”

Bicoastal music filmmaker James Salkind spoke of the new vitality spreading from Hollywood, Echo Park, Los Feliz and Silver Lake, converging on Koreatown. He thinks it’s going to get better and better. Overhearing him, a group of women agree.

“But,” says Chris Anderson, a vice president of Frederick’s of Hollywood, holding a cocktail, “we’re mentally prepared to lose a handbag.”

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