Practical economics and the need for a convenient supermarket have driven an impoverished Anacostia neighborhood and two enterprising Korean grocers into a delicate partnership strained by distrust and frustration.
The two have come together to keep open the Anacostia Safeway store, which closed Friday and is to open later this month under Korean management.
Anacostia, a predominantly poor, black community, is unaccustomed to Koreans. And the Koreans are unaccustomed to Anacostia. The two grocers who have leased the store now run markets that serve middle-class, mostly white neighborhoods in the District and Asians in the suburbs.
Mutual self-interest brought the two sides together.
"It seems to me we don't have much of a choice if we want a grocery store," said the Rev. Willie Wilson, president of a citizens committee that searched unsuccessfully for nine months for a black grocer who would take the supermarket.
And the Koreans feel they, too, had little choice. They wanted a larger store and the Anacostia Safeway at 14th Street and Good Hope Road SE was one of the few available.
"He wants to move up," said E. Soo Kim, who acted as interpreter for Young Kil Lee, one of the two new supermarket operators. "He's very energetic and he wants to make something else. It is the nature of man."
The few candidates turned up by the search for a black grocer either had no money or no interest in leasing the store, which is surrounded by 10,000 low-income residents within walking distance of the Safeway.
Without the store, many would be forced to stop at small and more expensive neighborhood markets or ride public transportation to the nearest supermarket a mile or more away.
The District government, which has forced downtown developers to take in minority partners, said it could offer the community its advice, but it had no money to subsidize a private takeover of the store.
The Anacostia Economic Development Corp., a nonprofit organization founded to stimulate business development south of Good Hope Road, told the community it had no money either. Moreover, the corporation had little interest in the store because the market was considered a low-yield and risky investment likely to fail.
Anacostia's dilemma is not unique. Last week, Bishhop Smallwood E. Williams of the influential Bible Way Church, faced a similar decision. e
Unable to attract a black grocer to the church-owned Golden Rule Supermarket, which has been closed for three years, Williams leased the store, on K Street between First and North Capitol Streets NW, to three Korean grocers.
"It is regrettable that blacks cannot capture our community economy," Williams said. But he added, "I'm happy we consummated (the lease) because the community needs the service very badly."
Koreans now own or operate an estimated 50 percent of the small "mom and pop" groceries and carryouts in the District.
In Anacostia, the two Koreans, for the first time, found a citizens group, though small and loosely organized, that was vocal about the fate of the supermarket.
(A third partner Sun Kun Chang, an Arlington tax consultant, dropped out after he had difficulty obtaining his share of the financing and developed doubts about community support for the store.)
The citizens search committee wrote Lee, the owner of the Metro Market near Dupont Circle, and Hyung Byung Yoon, owner of the Super Asian Market in Arlington, welcoming them to the community and emphasizing the need for blacks to be hired and for cooperation on "equal terms."
Lee and Yoon have said they want and need community support. But they have also said they are running a business and would hire qualified community residents, who, they expect, will work hard and make sacrifices along with them to help the store succeed.
Lee said half the 15 employes at the store would be black. Usually the Koreans have hired only relatives or other Koreans. He said he knows blacks dislike and distrust Koreans when they first open a store in a black community.
"Some of my friends and relatives have stores in black communities and they found it hard at the beginning," Lee said. "Wherever we go we encounter some rough people. But once they know you they treat you like everybody else," he said.
Some of the distrust appears to springs from jealousy felt by some blacks toward the newly arrived immigrants, who have become successful merchants despite the fact many of them speak little English.
Much of the distrust is also triggered by the Koreans' reputation for charging high prices, Lee said, a criticism generally leveled at most small grocers.
When the Anacostia citizens group compared the prices of 38 items at Lee's market, 2130 P St. NW., and the Safeway, they found the cost $8 higher at Lee's.
"The prices are high here because we pay high rent but at that place over there [Anacostia] we can reduce prices" and accept a reduced profit margin for the first year, he said.
In Anacostia, Lee inherits a store that was plagued with problems Safeway failed to overcome. These included thievery and loitering groups of drug addicts and winos who intinidated shoppers.
Eugene Kay, former president of the Korean Businessmen's Association, has leased the Golden Rule market with Lee's uncle and a third man.
"Operating these stores will not be easy. They are in low-income areas. There are security problems and that's why the chain stores are moving out. We will work hard and try to establish good relations with the local people.We will make it where the chains cannot because we work harder," Kay said.