The Local: It's Koreatown! Immigrants Keep It Real, But for How Long?

Editor’s Note: Every week, Observer reporter Lysandra Ohrstrom will detail a New York City neighborhood in a new feature called The Local.

Koreatown’s answer to Bungalow 8 is hidden on the third floor of a shabby commercial building amid the BBQ and karaoke joints lining 32nd Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues.

On a recent Saturday night (verging on Sunday morning), I passed through two layers of doormen and rode a rickety freight elevator up to a futuristic, bi-level, all-white lounge, with translucent glass floors, a two-story waterfall, and thumping techno.

The scene was straight out of a Brett Easton Ellis book by way of Seoul. Twenty-something Korean hipsters sipped martinis from white-leather banquettes in the tunnel-shaped bar, while people sang karaoke from private, plasma-TV equipped rooms upstairs.

Maru opened in 2005 to cater to the younger generation of Korean students and professionals living in condos around Herald Square and embodies the changing dynamics of the neighborhood.

While many other ethnic enclaves in Manhattan have caved amid encroaching development or survived by becoming tourist attractions, Koreatown has thrived over the past 15 years and has managed to maintain its cultural identity, thanks to a stream of young Korean immigrants to the city.

“It was a small town 15 years ago and then, all of the sudden, Koreans started coming to New York,” Maru’s manager, Sonny Lee, explained below the purple and black flashing lights in one of Maru’s karaoke rooms.

“A lot of rich people from Korea send their kids to New York and L.A. to learn English or go to school now, and they spend a lot of money here,” he said.

Sylvia Lee, a broker at CiCi Realty, on Koreatown’s main strip, said young Korean students “love to live in midtown.”

“Manhattan for Koreans is what Hong Kong used to be, not British or Chinese, but independent,” explained Ms. Lee. “More money is coming from Korea now and parents are sending their kids to college here, plus Korean currency is doing really well, so there is a higher standard in the neighborhood.”

The luxury rental buildings have drawn scores of Koreans to settle in the neighborhood, said Joseph Jerome, a principle at JEMB, the developer of Herald Towers.

“Because of the proximity to Koreatown, we have a huge population of Korean renters, a lot of students and people working at Ernst & Young,” he said.

JEMB Properties led the residential transformation of Herald Square when it opened Herald Towers, a 700-unit rental building, in 2000. The Gotham Group followed with the 48-story Atlas rental building on 38th Street in 2002. Pennsylvania-based developer Pitcairn Properties opened the 34-story Magellan in 2003, and the 41-story Tower 31 opened in 2006 on West 31st.

“Since we bought property the whole strip between 23rd Street and 34th Street on Sixth Avenue has turned into a rental residential market,” said Mr. Jerome. “The complexion of the neighborhood changed into a place that is acceptable to live, so rents have ticked up.”

In 2000, rents in Herald Towers were averaging the mid-$30’s a square foot, Mr. Jerome said, and now they are averaging the mid-$50’s.

The Atlas has also seen rents increase from an average of $50 per square foot in 2002 to about $65 a foot now, said Katherine Sabroff the vice president of marketing for the Atlas Group.

Absent from the media buzz surrounding Herald Square’s revitalization is the fate of the small businesses in Koreatown.

Ms. Lee said retail rents have doubled in Koreatown in the past two or three years. Nonetheless, she thinks, the neighborhood has benefited from residential development in Herald Square and the northward migration of the Chelsea gallery scene.

The Koreatown of today is certainly a far cry from the 32nd Street of 1982, when the first Korean restaurant opened to feed the city’s 100,000-person immigrant community. The buildings on 32nd Street are stacked four floors high with hair salons, Korean art galleries, Internet cafes, bookstores, and shops selling all manner of Asian products–from Korean kitsch to books, movies, and CD’s. Most seem geared to younger customers.

On a frigid January evening, the Korean restaurants along 32nd Street were all packed with Koreans in their mid-20’s, chatting easily in English mixed with Korean. Most of the older shop owners, however, spoke no English.

Restaurants and shops come and go regularly on 32nd Street, claimed long-time Koreatown employees, save for a few mainstays like the AM record and bookstore on the corner of Fifth. But, aside from a new Pinkberry, most are still Korean-run.

This could change soon, said Mr. Jerome, when long-term leases on 32nd Street expire. He would would not disclose retail rents in JEMB’s Herald Center, but said 34th Street has seen a 30 to 40 percent increase since last year.

“Post 9/11 was a different market and if they took them 10 years ago, retail wasn’t that strong then,” he said. “I would think it’s going to be hard for them once leases expire because there’s just so much going on in that neighborhood.”

The Local: It's Koreatown! Immigrants Keep It Real, But for How Long?