By Diana Tao
Outside the 7 train’s last stop is a neighborhood unlike any others found in Queens. Locals walking down Main Street crowd, nudge and bump heads; heads covered in black hair. They walk inside restaurants, cafes, and multi-level malls demarcated by Korean and Chinese characters. Conversations sound like white noise to non-Korean or Mandarin speakers, and regardless of the time of day, a constant stream of people enter and exit the “Flushing – Main Street” station, carrying bags of groceries from Han Ah Reum and Hong Kong Supermarket across the street.
In the past couple of decades, Flushing has transitioned from a predominantly white neighborhood into one of New York’s largest Asian cultural centers. According to the 2010 US Census, one in five Queens residents is Asian, totaling 22.8 percent of Queens’ 2.2 million residents.
Within Flushing’s Asian community, one of the fastest growing ethnic groups is that of Korean immigrants. With a current Korean population of around 64,107 out of Flushing’s overall population of 184,343, Koreans comprise approximately 34.8 percent of Flushing’s residents. With this change in the population, comes changes in the issues taking place within the Korean community.
For older generation Korean immigrants, the English language represents the most significant barrier. Although some choose to use Korean language services, the proliferation of the Korean community has meant more signs in Korean—street signs, store signs and private practices.
The surge of Koreans in Flushing has also given rise to a thriving culture unlike that of Manhattan’s Koreantown, a small pocket of space spanning from 5th Avenue to Avenue of the Americas on Manhattan’s 32nd Street.
Manhattan’s Koreatown has been popularized by celebrity-owned restaurants like Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong and trendy bars and lounges like Maru Karaoke Lounge and Players Sports Restaurant. These venues, although Korean-owned and staffed, are primarily a tourist destination.
“K-Town [in Manhattan] is pretty much commercial,” says Jay Hwang, a first-generation Korean from Seoul. “People go there to enjoy Korean culture and stuff, but it’s not like Flushing, where it’s a regular living area for Koreans.”
Hwang emigrated from Seoul to attend Indiana University as an Economics major. After graduating, he moved to Flushing to work on Northern Boulevard at Cafe de Cupping through a personal connection. For the past three years, Hwang has worked as the store’s manager and lived in the neighborhood surrounding the cafe.
“Most of the Koreans living in this area are first-generation and do business here. There’s a community here not like [that of] Manhattan’s K-Town,” he says.
Businesses found on Flushing’s Northern Boulevard are separated from the human traffic of Downtown Flushing, catering to residents in surrounding, predominantly Korean neighborhoods that are more suburban.
“Most of the people who come to these restaurants and cafes are the older generation… Korean grandmothers and families,” says Edwin Kim, a student at Queens College in Flushing.
Kim describes Flushing as being almost entirely populated by Koreans and Chinese, with the Korean side beginning at Parsons Street, stretching from 149th Street to 172nd Street and Northern Boulevard.
On 161st and Northern Boulevard is a restaurant and cafe called Cafe Originale. Miyoung Park, founder and owner of the cafe, immigrated to New York from Gwangju in 1991 with plans to be an entrepreneur.
After arriving, she worked in Manhattan’s Koreatown for eleven years. Park owned a cafe and bar called “Space 212,” a venue which she sold four years ago. Upon selling her store, she scouted places in Brooklyn, New Jersey and Downtown Manhattan, finally choosing to start a new business in Flushing.
“I knew a lot of Korean people live around here, and I was focused on opening up a business for Koreans. Flushing was the right place,” she says.
Park describes the atmosphere of Manhattan’s Koreatown as “totally different” from Flushing’s Koreatown due to factors such as tourists and price.
“I think it’s harder to work here because [Koreans] expect more. Good services, good food and good prices. They want good quality food, but if it’s too expensive, they’re unwilling to buy anything,” she says.
She adds, “In the city, they don’t really care. People are more willing to spend and [they] are easier to work. Here, they want authentic Korean food or they go somewhere else.”