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Korean Neighborhood Works Towards Official Koreatown Recognition

Hub of Asian culture begins to expand
Photo by Matteo Winandy
The New York Bakery owner Sang-min Lee restocks products before opening the store for the day. Lee moved to Los Angeles from South Korea and hopes to expand his business as well as bring attention to other flourishing Korean businesses in the area. “I want to expand the [bakery]. Many Korean bakeries appear every and it’s good [for the community],” Lee said.

9 Rabbits Bakery, a traditional Korean bakery on Royal Lane, fuses Korean culture with modern European culture. With tasty treats ranging from big to small, this bakery has been open since 2016 after owner Grace Koo took over. 

Originally, the space was taken up by one of the oldest Korean bakeries in Dallas, but has gone through a number of changes over the years under various ownerships.

“When I took it over, I did a full revamp, full interior decoration and changed the menu to  [bring] it into more of a modern, more European-based mix of flavors,” Koo said. “[I wanted it to be] not just Korean to reflect the neighborhood we’re in.”

The neighborhood she references is one of Dallas’ oldest hubs of Korean businesses, decorating Royal Lane with bakeries, restaurants and stores rich in culture. Koo says she believes in the importance of sharing cultures with people who may not have had the chance to experience them.

“We get about roughly 100 to 200 people a day, so we get a wide range of people, not just the Korean community,” she said. “I really enjoy meeting the different range of people that come in from all walks of life, such as students and of course people who work in the businesses surrounding the bakery.”

Since Royal Lane’s unofficial Koreatown is located right next to a highway, people from Oklahoma and South Dallas traveling through the area often make pit stops in the neighborhood. Some customers purposely stop by to visit their favorite bakery, while others come across the neighborhood by accident. 

“I love seeing how people enjoy Korean culture and they come to 9 Rabbits to kind of physically touch it or really see it for their own eyes instead of just on T.V. or Youtube,” Koo said. “It’s really exciting to educate and build a sense of community [and] it’s exciting to take something that’s traditional and just make it a little bit more modern and more fun.” 

9 Rabbits Bakery is just one of the many businesses in the neighborhood advocating for the expansion of this Korean community and creating a larger impact. This informally known Koreatown community has a history that goes beyond 9 Rabbits Bakery. 

For over 50 years, Korean immigrants have flocked to Royal Lane and the area around it to start new lives, businesses and homes. John Lee, a member of the Board of Directors of the Greater Dallas Korean American Chamber of Commerce (GDKACC) and the Chair of Koreatown Initiative community, has been advocating for the neighborhood to be recognized as Koreatown and understands business owner’s roots and history. 

“One by one, [the neighborhood’s founders have] set up shop and it became a very booming business venture for Korean wholesalers,” he said. “Although the wholesale business is slowly dying away now due to the online opportunities for commerce, there’s still restaurants and cafes and other types of experiences. We wanted to pay homage to those previous generations of businessmen that actually established that area for Koreans to conduct business.”

Although the area is filled with many diverse businesses, the neighborhood has begun to crumble slightly over the years due to lack of recognition. Despite there being an increase in Korean immigrants in the past few years, the number of customers dwindled and poverty and homelessness began seeping into the neighborhood. 

It’s really exciting to educate and build a sense of community [and] it’s exciting to take something that’s traditional and just make it a little bit more modern and more fun

— Grace Koo

The COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated the situation, causing many of the small, family-owned businesses to close or face incredible profit loss. However, with help from Greater Dallas Korean American Chamber of Commerce (GDKACC), Royal Lane’s Koreatown is beginning to grow again. Slowly, the organization has been pulling the community together, largely through their goal of official recognition.

On Friday, Jan. 13 2023, new bilingual street signs were unveiled by the City of Dallas. The intersections of New Kirk, Royal Lane and Harry Hines Boulevard now have street signs labeled in both English and Korean. This is just the first step towards the neighborhood gaining better recognition as a cultural center and, as the residents hope, official designation as a Koreatown. With a steady increase in the number and success of Korean-owned businesses and with more designations from the City of Dallas, Lee hopes to draw customers back in. 

“I had a vision about 10 years ago when I was on staff with some other presidents,” he said. “I thought that the Dallas Korean population has really grown and an increase in Korean-owned businesses was significant enough that we ought to pursue a designated Koreatown for people to know that we exist and for people to try the different types of things that they can experience in the Korean community.” 

Business owner Sang-min Lee says communication is the main reason he chose to move to  Royal Lane’s Koreatown and says he’s grateful for the relationships he’s formed with people in the community.

“I’m happy to talk to customers and of course I love American customers, but sometimes my English is slow,” Sang-min said. “It’s not easy to be friends with [new customers], but with Koreans, it’s easy to become friends. There is a difference.” 

Sang-min immigrated from South Korea to Los Angeles where he originally set up a business. Over time, competition became too much and upon hearing about the opportunities in Dallas, he moved to set up his business in Koreatown. His business, The New York Bakery, has improved since. 

The New York Bakery sells traditional Korean goods as well as coffee and boba teas. Soon, Sang-min hopes to expand the bakery or create a new business. 

“Many Korean bakeries appear every year and business is good,” he said. “I want to open a second bakery or I want to open another business.”

Although he dreams of expanding business inside the neighborhood, with the community and its people, he says it all depends on the area’s designation. Now that this neighborhood is one step closer towards its official Koreatown designation, residents and business owners can look towards future goals and improvements. 

“We would like to see a lot more vigorous attention to improving the district by providing cleanliness,” Lee said. “We [have] to find a solution for them, to make it a little more safer and cleaner, provide better lighting, provide better logistics, and provide better signage of the highways to recognize Koreatown.” 

In addition to making new changes and strengthening the community, Koreatown hopes to bring back old traditions that existed before COVID-19, as well as creating new ones.

“I think that once we establish [ourselves] as [Koreatown], we will have events for [the] Chuseok [festival and] maybe Korean-American Day,” Koo said. “We used to have a parade down Royal Lane. Hopefully we can start that again and [have people] just attend events, be [interested and] show interest in the businesses that are existing there.”

As Koreatown continues to strive and grow, Lee explains that others can help and participate by visiting the neighborhood to learn about the community and culture. 

“If you haven’t had a chance to experience Korean culture, whether it’s K-Pop, the arts, the movies, the music, the dramas or the food, [come to our neighborhood and try] it,” he said. “You can [come] to Koreatown and enjoy a different flavor of the city.”

About the Contributor
OS Keijsers Koning, Reporter
What are you looking forward to on the staff this year? Expanding my writing skills and hanging out with the Newspaper staff. What are your favorite TV shows/movies? Knives Out and New Girl What are your hobbies? Running, archery, and my writing internship with DONE Magazine