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A Slow Return From the Ashes

KOREAN STORE OWNERS REACH OUT

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In the back of his Sunset Boulevard grocery, Jin Hyuk Chang says he still has not come to grips with the economic and racial problems he encountered during the civil disturbances of 1992.

Having just purchased a grocery store in the South Central section of Los Angeles, Mr. Chang watched the store burn to the ground along with 2,000 other Korean-American businesses there. He has since moved several miles away to a neighborhood where he feels more comfortable.

And in the aftermath of the fire that destroyed his first business, Chang had to take out a second loan to open his new grocery.

"I am now carrying two loans, and the payments are very, very difficult to make," he says, standing in a back room full of boxes.

"The sad part is that I was one of the lucky ones," he adds. "Most of my friends were unable to reopen their businesses and have gone back to Korea or left the state."

Many of the area's grocery and liquor stores were owned by Korean-Americans. When the community outcry over the presence of so many liquor stores grew, these owners were hurt. After the riots, a local coalition sought stricter enforcement of existing laws that could keep liquor store owners from rebuilding.

"Residents simply felt that these stores did nothing positive for the community, while attracting drug dealers and homeless people," says Karen Bass, director of the Community Coalition, a nonprofit violence-prevention group.

Working through the permitting process, activists pressed for additional restrictions governing lighting, signage, restricted selling hours, and on-site security. With so many stores existing on tight economic margins, the costs of such changes have meant nearly 200 stores have not been able to reopen.

This fact has exacerbated race relations between African-Americans and Korean-Americans despite five years of formal attempts by community leaders to heighten cultural awareness and understanding between the two groups.

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