Although they may appear ubiquitous, Korean grocers, with their outdoor fruit and flower displays and inventory of everything from Clif Bars to Cup Noodles, are actually far less common in New York City than they were two decades ago.
Earlier today, WNYC’s Brian Lehrer interviewed Laura Vanderkam, a journalist whose recent article in City Journal asked, “Where did the Korean greengrocers go?” Although many Koreans came to the city and opened stores following the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965, the Korean Produce Association has experienced a drop in membership from 3,000 a few decades ago to 2,500 now. One Queens College sociology professor estimates that the number is more like 1,500, and notes that the decline is particularly noticeable in places like Flatbush and Harlem.
Vanderkam’s fascinating article explores why there were so many Korean greengrocers in New York and why their numbers have dropped. She finds that many well-educated Korean immigrants chose small-business ownership to avoid taking the low-paying jobs typically available to immigrants — no matter what their education — and opened grocery stores in part because the start-up capital was low, particularly in neighborhoods blighted by crime.
Today’s decreased numbers of Korean grocers can be attributed to a few factors, Vanderkam finds. Rising rents and the incursion of big-box chain stores and fast-food franchises, for one, is making it hard for many small-business owners to succeed, regardless of ethnicity (see, for example, last year’s closure of Graceland on Avenue A). But success itself has also played a part: The children of those shopkeepers have done well enough in school to become white-collar professionals, while economic opportunities in South Korea have become plentiful enough to deter further emigration to the U.S.
Other grocers, of course, have simply assimilated with high-end organic goods — which explains why shopping at Khim’s Millennium Market in Williamsburg can feel as costly as a trip to Whole Foods.
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