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'Koreatown' Image Divides A Changing Annandale

By David Cho
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 14, 2005; Page A01

When a contingent of Annandale's civic leaders named their downtown "The Annandale Village Centre," they were aiming to re-create the experience of Old Town Alexandria, where people can walk to specialty shops on brick sidewalks along quaint streets.

The Annandale Chamber of Commerce's Web site and brochures published by Fairfax County try to convey old-fashioned charm, with photos of downtown scenes: a Civil War-era church, a rustic barn and a farmers market.

Kay Kim of CeCi Fashion says that 90 percent of her clients are Korean and that her supplies are imported from Korea. (Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)

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In reality, the face of downtown Annandale -- a collection of aging strip malls and low-rise office buildings -- has changed from white to Asian, and its unofficial, oft-invoked moniker is Koreatown.

Although a visitor wouldn't know it from the Chamber of Commerce fliers, signs with large Korean characters -- subtitled with tiny English words -- fill Annandale's urban streetscape. They advertise a wide range of businesses: electronic stores showing off the latest gadgets from Asia, plush lawyer and realty offices, incense-filled medicine shops, pulsing karaoke bars and dance clubs and 39 Korean restaurants.

The Giant Directory -- one of four Korean telephone books in the region -- lists 929 businesses in Annandale that cater to Koreans, nine times as many as in 1990 and about one-third of all Korean businesses in the Washington area.

Still, the term Koreatown offends some members of the area's civic associations who are mostly non-Asian and who protest whenever their hometown is referred to as a Korean enclave, especially because relatively few Koreans live there.

"Koreatown is a divisive word," said Eileen Garnett, a civic leader who has lived in the neighborhood for more than three decades. "We can be more than that, and we don't want to become that. . . . We like to see this as an inclusive place."

Yet many Koreans who work in the Village Centre and who run more than half its businesses said they feel slighted by such comments and ask: Why shouldn't the area be known as Koreatown? After all, many Korean business owners said, the downtown was faltering before they came along. Today, it is thriving.

"Many Korean Americans will say Annandale is Koreatown, but I don't think that should make anyone upset," said Young Kim, president of the Korean American Association of Greater Washington. "I understand why [non-Koreans] don't like that. I just hope they understand what Koreans have done for Annandale."

The naming issue that divides the Korean retail community and its predominantly white retail counterpart illustrates the tensions that have developed across the region as large-scale immigration transforms neighborhoods into ethnic enclaves. Strained relations are well-documented along residential streets, where immigrants have moved into neighborhoods. But if anything, those tensions are more keenly felt along Main Street, which often is the public face of a community.

Some longtime residents in Annandale say their downtown no longer feels accessible to them. In many shops, English is a second language. In some restaurants, menus are only in Korean.

"You don't feel you aren't needed here, but you definitely feel they can get along without you," Mark Mills, 46, a lifelong Annandale resident, said of Koreans.

Some Korean store owners say there are so many Koreans in the region -- 66,000, according to the 2000 U.S. Census -- that their businesses can prosper without serving the surrounding neighborhood or other ethnic groups.

Kay Kim, who runs CeCi Fashion along Little River Turnpike, said having a Korean sign outside her store is more useful than displaying an English one. About 90 percent of her clients are Korean and her supplies are imported from Korea, she said. The appeal of her shop is that it offers clothes that better suit Asian bodies, she said.

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