photos by Nuri Vallbona/Herald staff
article by Oscar Corral firstname.lastname@example.org
Woo Ho Lee's footsteps echo in the empty Wynwood warehouse as he hurries past a dark stage furnished with a 1970s electric organ and a lone microphone stand.
Up a flight of wooden stairs, in an office lit by pale, buzzing neon lights, Lee has posted a map of Miami's well-known Fashion District dotted with different color stickers. The red ones represent the properties and stores owned by Koreans. Most of the map is red.
I want this all to become Korean,'' Lee said recently, as he stood by the map. ``But I don't want it publicized too much because if people know, they won't want to sell.''
The warehouse is the spot where Koreans who owns stores in the Fashion District party once a year with their non-Korean colleagues in the neighborhood, and where they meet regularly as an association.
It's also the headquarters where Lee has fostered - and to a certain extent, masterminded - the birth of the state's only Korean business district. At the same time, the Fashion District is becoming the epicenter of South Florida's Korean community, although few, if any, Koreans live in the neighborhood.
In the past decade, Koreans have become the predominant business owners in the Fashion District, a five-block sliver of stores and warehouses just south of the Miami Design District that has long been a favorite shopping destination for clothes and shoe retailers from around the Caribbean.
In 1990, 13 stores in the area belonged to Koreans. Today the number has jumped to 45, and they own almost every building and most of the shops and wholesale stores on Northwest Fifth Avenue, the district's heart.
Lee, president of the Korean American Fashion District Business Association, said it's the largest Korean-owned business district in the state, and probably the third largest in the country after sites in Los Angeles and New York.
``They've done a tremendous job,'' Miami Mayor Manny Diaz said. ``That area a few years ago, like a lot of other areas, had been really run-down. That's what makes our city so exciting, that you have these pockets. It reminds me a little bit of New York.''
How a group of low-key, hardworking South Koreans, many of whom have been in this country less than two decades, came to own a stake in a city known more for its cafecitos and ceviches than its kimchi and pibimpap is a lesson in ethnic unity.
Since Korean businesses began moving into the area more than 20 years ago, they have spread the news about the Fashion District through word of mouth to colleagues in Korea, New York, Los Angeles and the Americas.
As trade with the Caribbean and Latin America accelerated, many of them relocated to Miami because of its proximity to the area.
Many followed family members into Wynwood, taking over shops from parents, or partnering with siblings. Most of the business owners' homes are scattered in other parts of South Florida: Miami Lakes, South Miami, Broward County.
Several times a year, the association meets in the warehouse on Northwest 28th Street, which abuts an auto body shop. Members talk about a range of things, including neighborhood enhancement ideas, crime issues and expanding the Korean presence in the area, Lee said.
``I am trying to make a model case of how ethnic groups can contribute in business development of a community,'' said Lee, who owns the warehouse and a store, Fashion Village. ``We are proof that an ethnic group can come together and do well. Some people might not like it. But it's much easier and more convenient than doing everything on your own.''
The district is snuggled between Interstate 95 on the west, Northwest Second Avenue on the east, Northwest 29th Street on the north and 24th Street on the south. It's close to Miami International Airport, the Port of Miami-Dade and Miami Beach.
Despite its location, the area wasn't always so appealing to business owners. It erupted in violence in December 1990, after six Miami police officers were acquitted of the main charges in the beating death of Wynwood resident Leonardo Mercado, a Puerto Rican drug dealer. But the neighborhood stabilized after that unrest, and Koreans began arriving in larger numbers.
Non-Korean business owners credit the Koreans for helping stimulate interest in the area. Before they started moving en masse about a decade ago, the area was a virtual wasteland, with vacant stores and high crime, said Shelly Bloom, who owns Fashion Clothiers, one of the oldest stores in the neighborhood.
``They basically came in and took over this place,'' Bloom said. `They brought in a lot of customers. Rent prices were $3 per square foot before they came. Now it's $12 a square foot.''
Added Harry Singh, the Indian owner of Four Seasons Fashions on Fifth Avenue: ``If the Koreans were not here, this place would be dead.''
Christine Morales, the administrator of the city's Neighborhood Enhancement Team office in Wynwood, said the police department dedicated two officers full time to the area, making it safer than in the past.
``They [Koreans] really pay attention to the details, such as the cleanliness not only of their own business but of the sidewalk and median,'' Morales said. ``I barely have any overflowing dumpsters of dumping issues in the area.''
Most of the stores have nondescript names like I Love Kids and Casa Bonita. Many employ bilingual Hispanics as store managers and sales representatives. The only obvious evidence of the Asian presence in the area is the Korean letters which appear next to some store names.
Korean Min Chung, for example, owns Casa Bonita, a woman's fashion boutique on Fifth Avenue. She imports clothes from China and South Korea and exports it to South America and the Caribbean.
``Before, this place was almost empty,'' Chung said. ``The Koreans, they worked hard, opened businesses and rebuilt it.''
But some think there are too many stores on the strip jostling for pieces of the same market. In today's slow economy, some of the stores are doing poorly.
``There's too much competition,'' said Hong Kim, owner of East West Fashion. ``We're killing each other.''
Like New York City's Chinatown, the Fashion District's Fifth Avenue is where shoppers go to find cheap stuff. But unlike Chinatown, few of the products are imitations of expensive brands. The stores do mostly wholesale business, but many also sell retail.
Fifth Avenue has always been popular among retailers in the Caribbean and Latin America. But it is now become the epicenter of shopping for Koreans in the Americas who own retail stores.
In a recent afternoon, Sin Kwon Kang ducked in and out of Fashion District stores, searching for clothes to sell at Easy Look, his store in Jamaica.
`Someone recommended Fifth Avenue for import-export,'' Kang said. ``Everybody in the Caribbean knows about Fifth Avenue.''
And Korean restaurants are springing up in the area.
During lunch, many people convene in the area's only Korean restaurant, Choice Cafe, which gives no indication on the outside of the kind of food it serves inside. The menu, the food and the customers are purely Korean.
Kevin Lee, 24, came to Miami from Korea 10 years ago, and said he retreats to Choice Cafe when he craves an authentic meal.
``I get the feeling this restaurant is meant only for Koreans,'' Kevin Lee said. ``I'll eat hamburgers or pizza, but sometimes I just have to have Korean food.''
Woo Ho Lee said the area should be renamed.
``We want the tourist maps to call this area Korean Business Town or Asian Business Town,'' Lee said. ``There is nothing else like this in Florida.''
Illustration:color photo: Woo Ho Lee (a), Kyung Il Lee moves boxes of clothing outside his Viva Fashion store (a)
Woo Ho Lee (a)
PHOTOS BY NURI VALLBONA/HERALD STAFF PROSPERING: Woo Ho Lee, owner of Fashion Village in the Miami Fashion District, where Koreans own 45 stores.
ON THE GO: Kyung Il Lee moves boxes of clothing outside his Viva Fashion store the in Wynwood business district.
NURI VALLBONA/HERALD STAFF BIG PLANS: Fashion Village owner Woo Ho Lee says he would like to see the Fashion District renamed to reflect Korean businesses.
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