It was in San Francisco that the first Koreans to touch United States soil landed in 1883, as a result of the treaty of Amity and Commerce, signed the year before. (This was thirty years after the gold rush populated the SF bay area with people from New England and all over the world. Oakland was already populated by a majority of “foreign-born” residents at this time because of the international appeal of California’s gold. ) This treaty was the first signed treaty between Korea and any western power, and enabled the US to expand its export market in East Asia. It also included a proviso pertaining to the immigration of Koreans to the US. Before the passage of the Oriental Exclusion Act of 1924, over 7,000 Koreans had come to the U.S. and were living in Hawaii and along the coast of California. Most were farm workers. (The U.S.’ history of immigration as it pertains to Asian immigrants is an offensive one. For more Korean immigration history before 1960, including on the Oriental Exclusion Act of 1924, see sources below. )
In the most direct sense, the Koryo Village Center (and Oakland’s nearby Koreatown) exists because of the growth of dot-com businesses in San Francisco in the late 1980’s and the resourceful and innovative Korean Community Center of the East Bay (KCCEB). Here’s one version of its story:
In the late 1980’s, as dot-com businesses started thriving and multiplying in San Francisco, much of the Korean population moved elsewhere in the Bay Area. Over the course of the next decade, Korean-Americans opened 110 small businesses on Telegraph Avenue between 20th and 35th streets, establishing the area as the Bay’s new “Koreatown.” The Korean Community Center of the East Bay, created in 1977 by five community activists inspired by the civil rights movement, provided many services to Korean-speaking folks and immigrants of all designations. One of its multifarious projects opened the “business incubator project” that is Koryo Village Center in 1989, at the beginning of this period of dot-com-inspired Korean relocation to the East Bay. Koryo Village Center houses several popular Korean and Japanese restaurants and bars and a popular Korean-style karaoke spot called Jaguar. Although there are quite a few Korean-owned establishments along this strip of Telegraph Avenue, the Village Center is actually ten blocks north of what is now the official Koreatown-Northgate “community benefit district.”
What is a “community benefit district,” you wonder? I did, too. Community Benefit Districts (CBDs), formerly called Business Improvement Districts, are neighborhood-created partnerships formed when residents and business-owners of mixed-use neighborhoods want to pay an additional tax to “improve the overall quality of life.” CBD members opt to “create a new tax assessment and pay for supplemental services that are traditionally provided by local government. This includes services as innocuous as additional street sweeping and graffitti clean-up, but also more substantial things like private security and public restrooms,” all of which the Koreatown Northgate (KONO) CBD has implemented, minus public restrooms.
According to the KONO neighborhood website, property owners in the KONO CBD opted in to “ensure the district is safe, clean and promoted” :
"They were unhappy about the long economic decline of the area and wanted to band together for positive change. The goal was to create a strong advocacy group that would bring resources and attention and make the area more attractive for visitors."
Once an area has voted to establish a CBD, local property owners are levied a special assessment to fund improvements to their neighborhood. The funds are administered by a non-profit organization established by the neighborhood.
The KONO CBD was the vision of one man who wanted to improve the reputation, safety and cleanliness of this neighborhood. His name is Alex Hahn. The ethnic/racial make-up of both the CBD board and the neighborhood itself is in fact only about half Korean, the other half comprising mostly African-Americans and Muslims. Though the name “Koreatown” fails to represent the identity of half of its residents, Hahn argues the designation is key in attracting new Korean investors.