Trade Barriers Community: From behind the protective glass, Korean-American grocers Ki and Sung Yi cast a wary eye on crime in the city.

February 08, 1997|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

In their corner grocery in East Baltimore, Ki Nam Yi and his wife, Sung Cha Yi, measure out their 13-hour days in small sales of soda pop and potato chips, white bread and homemade iced tea, candy and cigarettes.

The first-floor windows of the worn old rowhouse at the corner of Luzerne Avenue and Preston Street are boarded up. The overhead sign still says Green's Grocery; in the early '60s, a couple of guys named Isadore and Ruben Green owned the store, and nobody's bothered to change the sign since. A variety groceries and confectioneries have occupied this corner for at least 50 years.

In their windowless store, the Yis work behind a locked door and Plexiglas shielding that gives the shop the atmosphere of a bunker or a guard post, a checkpoint on some hostile border.

The Yis deal with their customers through rotating Plexiglas windows, like monks withdrawn to a cloistered monastery, getting paid before handing over an order. Behind their murky Plexiglas they seem watery and indistinct as creatures in an aquarium. Beyond the barriers, their customers seem equally remote and shadowy.

"One of my friends came in and said it's like a prison," says Chang Hun Yi, the Yis' 30-year-old son. He's a tae kwon do master who runs his own White Tiger School in Parkville, but he sometimes helps his folks out in the store. Today he's the family spokesman. His parents' English is understandable but limited.

Since the middle of January, two Korean-Americans have been killed and a third seriously wounded in a series of holdups of stores like his parents'. Behind their barrier, the Yis are not exactly fearful. But they are very, very careful.

"When we first came," Chang Yi says, "we had people come in and do their shopping. They'd check out and they'd leave.

"Neighbors came in and actually told us we shouldn't let people in here. Nobody comes in any more. We get all their stuff for them."

Business fell off. Some people complained.

"You want to let them in," Chang Yi says. "I do understand how they feel about not being able to come in. It's a fun business when you interact with people and get to know them.

"But what you worry about are strangers and what's going to happen."

Korean-Americans like the Yis run about 1,500 small businesses around Baltimore, mostly neighborhood groceries, carry-outs, dry cleaning shops, liquor stores and small clothing and jewelry stores. In the two square blocks around the Yis, there are four stores, three owned by Korean-Americans, one by an African-American.

There is a perception that the Korean merchants in the inner city are prosper- ous. That is dead wrong, according to Jai P. Ryu, a sociology professor at Loyola University and Mayor Schmoke's liaison with the Korean community.

Since about 1992, he says, businesses like the Yis' store have been struggling, because of cuts in public assistance and welfare payments and competition from chains such as Safeway and Revco.

A once brisk turnover in corner groceries also has virtually stopped. Ryu says some who bought homes based on earlier income levels now face foreclosure.

Many store owners are in a "dire situation," he says. "They're pretty stuck."

Chang Yi says his parents' generation found a place in these small businesses because you can go into them without any specialized skill or training, and perhaps most importantly, you don't need much English. Start-up costs are manageable; hard work counts.

"They came for the education of their children," Chang Yi says. "For our education."

Careful words and conduct

The recent holdups and shootings have Korean shop owners talking constantly about the best way to take better care of themselves, to be prepared, be careful.

"One thing I'm glad they're not doing," Chang Yi says, "they're not blaming the black community. Many people in the city want to stop the violence. That's what the Korean community wants, too. It's not that we're being targeted. It's just that there is too much violence."

Ki and Sung Yi themselves were held up twice at gunpoint in a carry-out they ran for 13 years on Reisterstown Road near Fordleigh Avenue.

"The first time the guy came in wearing a mask," says Chang Yi. "My dad thought it was a joke. He thought it was somebody he knew. He laughed and tried to pull off the mask.

"But then he realized it was the real thing. Luck was on his side. The guy didn't pull the trigger. Usually when you grab a guy, they shoot. They told him to give them the money. Then they told them to lie down on the floor. And they did.

"Nowadays, you give them the money and they still shoot anyway," he says, an edge of bitterness in his voice.

"After an experience like that, you kind of think differently about the people you work with every day," Chang Yi says. "You look at them differently. You wonder if they're going to rob you. You get a different feeling. Even these days [my father] thinks about that every day."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.