Close-Up on Koreatown

Like most of the city's so-called ethnic neighborhoods, this one wasn't planned. But unlike other enclaves, Koreatown hasn't become a caricature of its former self. K-town, as it is known by insiders and outsiders alike, is still the real deal.

It all started with a bookstore and a couple of all-night restaurants that served New York's burgeoning Korean population—who emigrated to this country in three distinct waves starting in the early 1900s—and who famously ran New York City's market on late-night grocery stores and delis.

That was 25 years ago, when this neighborhood had cheap rent and featured just a few restaurants to feed those night dwellers, and when neighborhood pioneer Koryo Books was only making about $30 a day. Nowadays, Koryo still stands (at 35 W. 32nd Street and doing well), but so too do a dizzying array of karaoke joints that are a must on a big New York night out, scores of well established Korean BBQ restaurants that draw folks from all over the city, and self-serve delis loaded with enough kimchee and noodles and seasoned tofu to sop up the beer at the end of the night.

Seoul food: Watch, then eat—it'll fuel a karaoke rendition of "The Winds of Change"
photo: Holly Northrop/hnorthrop.com
Seoul food: Watch, then eat—it'll fuel a karaoke rendition of "The Winds of Change"

In other words, not only is Koreatown a refuge for the city's roughly 100,000 Koreans, but it's a place for everyman. "I like hanging out here," said one young karaoke staffer on a thumping Thursday night. "I've never even been to my home country, but I don't really feel like I need to go there now."

Not to mention goodness beneath the Korean, like the turn-of-the-century French Renaissance buildings along 32nd Street, including the Martinique Hotel, designed by the architect of the Plaza and the Dakota.

Start your tour on 32nd Street, and it literally could take you hours to reach the next intersection. It's only about a block long, but every layer of K-town provides.


BBQ joints and salons roost in and around the checkered columns of the old Bergdorf Goodman building on 32nd Street.
photo: Holly Northrop/hnorthrop.com

Boundaries: Technically, it's 31st and 36th streets, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues

Transport: Subway: B; D; F; V; Q; N; R; W. Buses: 2; 3; 4; 5; 6; 7; 32.

Main Drags: There's only one: 32nd Street, between Broadway and Fifth Avenue.

Prices to Rent and Buy: Unless you can score a Midtown hovel, K-Town isn't much of a residential scene. Most of the hand-written ads for apartments you'll see outside the 32nd Street delis are listings in Koreatown, Queens. Your best bet to rent is nearby Murray Hill, where one-bedroom apartments go for $1800 to 3000, two-bedrooms for $2000 to 4000, and condos for about $400,000 to 750,000.

What to Check Out: The beauty of this neighborhood is that it exists on the vertical. For every variety store on the ground floor, there's bound to be a Korean art gallery, a 24-hour BBQ joint, or spa up above. At the corner of 32nd and Fifth Avenue, a portrait of a slain Afghan warlord beckons you to the third floor, where owner Ali Sardar repairs rugs and dreams of returning to Mazar-e-Sharif; next door to his shop is a Korean-Christian-charismatic church-cum-café; on the second floor is one of K-town's ubiquitous salons; and downstairs is a tchotcke store manned by a new Bangladeshi arrival. Walk a little further down 32nd street, stand just between Koryo Video and the Liberty Bank, throw back your head, and look up for an astounding ant's-eye view of the Empire State building.

Hangouts, Parks, Restaurants: It's all about karaoke. But here there's none of that bar business, where strangers have to suffer through your rendition of "The Rose." K-town's got real Asian karaoke—where a reasonable hourly rate gets you a room, a couch, a microphone, a flat-screen TV, a songbook in myriad languages, and, if you're lucky, a battery-powered tambourine and the ability to BYOB. For food, you can't miss the BBQs, many of them open all night. Kum Gang San, 49 West 32nd Street, might be the loveliest, with live traditional music that's even piped outside; but the oldest and likely best is Kom Tang Kalbi at 32 West 32nd Street. For cheap eatin' don't miss the tiny Oz Deli, at 2 West 32nd Street, with a nice list of $4.50 "rolls." Possibly the largest selection of miso ever can be found at the stunning Han Ah Reum Asianmart, 25 West 32nd Street. For great people watching, sit on the benches outside of Kang Suh, at 32nd and Broadway, which also is one of the city's best deals on sushi.

Crime: Statistics are only available for the wider area around K-town—the Midtown South precinct, which includes Times Square. There have been no murders this year; four reported rapes, down from 10 this time last year; 134 robberies; 72 felony assaults; and 266 burglaries—these last three figures on par with last year's.

Politicians: City Councilmember Christine C. Quinn, State Senator Liz Krueger, State Assemblyman Richard N. Gottfried, and U.S. Representative Jerrold Nadler, all Democrats.

 
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