News in English

A Cultural Conduit

– Publisher aims to heighten investment and harmony in Detroit’s neighborhoods

At 53, his appearance is still boyish and youthful. Except for the dark blazer and glasses that give him a slightly professorial look, Tack-yong Kim, soft-spoken and gentle in demeanor, could almost pass for one of the students or 30-something regulars who filter in and out of the busy lunchtime crowd at Slow’s Barbecue on Michigan Avenue.

But today Kim has more than a blackened catfish sandwich on his mind. An advocate for the city of Detroit and also for the independent Asian businesses he frequently supports through his active membership in the Korean Chamber of Commerce and in his publication Michigan Korean Weekly, he hopes to help expand local opportunities. Particularly for Korean entrepreneurs and their largely Black customer base, Kim says there is room for mutual growth.

“We need to get connected, to get prosperous,” says Kim, his dark eyes reflective. “The main thing is to get connected, community to community and people to people.”

Having recognized cultural barriers that can divide and cause tension between Korean businesses in predominantly Black neighborhoods, Kim has dedicated himself to recruiting support on both sides of the cultural isle, to improve relationships. While he has been a spark plug for Asians seeking support and direction, he also recognizes the necessity of building a wider network of Detroiters dedicated to promoting investment and stable communities.

He wasn’t always a booster.

“For about 10 years I never went to Detroit because I did not understand the city’s culture,” recalls Kim, an Ann Arbor resident.

He’d traveled from Seoul, Korea to America in 1990, to attend Eastern Michigan University. It wasn’t until he was chosen to participate in a Detroit Regional Chamber leadership program, about five years later, that Kim evicted from his mind media myths and fears that kept him out of Motown when he began attending monthly meetings to learn about the city.

“I became an advocate for Detroit,” he says. “It was total ignorance. I had never tried to learn about Detroit, but now I learned about the struggles and what went on in the city, and the role Korean businesses played in the city.”

Detroit is home to about 300 Korean-owned small companies, predominantly drycleaners and retail hair care suppliers, Kim says.

Cultural miscues, such as the traditional Korean tendency, through their upbringing, to avoid direct eye contact with others, can be perceived as disrespect by customers, Kim adds. Conflicts often follow such unwelcome experiences when customers do not feel recognized, welcome or respected, he says. And when they do, Kim has often stepped in to help resolve differences. Although he has been successful in mediating countless occurrences, Kim recognizes the need to be more proactive, and makes efforts to rally local business owners and residents representing both cultures to generate dialogue and create strategies to improve relationships for Detroit’s mutual benefit.

Language barriers can also hamper interaction between patrons and proprietors like Young Son, who has operated J. Beauty Supply at Telegraph and Seven Mile Roads for 13 years. The store owner, who has experienced shoplifting and petty vandalism, also has been buoyed by positive experiences like the time a customer, who’d bought a $30 hair piece, returned the next day to tell Son she’d mistakenly billed $5 as the item’s cost instead of what should have been only a $5 discount.

“There are good customers like that in Detroit,” Son says, translated by Kim during a phone call. “Even though I’m still struggling with challenges , I know that not everyone is bad.”

Detroit organizer and activist Yusef “Bunchy” Shakur says, for Blacks, Koreans, and other ethnic groups in the city, mutual respect is crucial to mutual progress. Shakur, who has gained national attention for his community work, including multiple nominations for comedian Steve Harvey’s Neighborhood Awards, says goodwill from Asian, Middle Eastern, and other business owners in a predominantly Black city goes a long way.

“Even if you don’t live in that community, for eight hours a day you’re a part of it,” adds Shakur. “You should be contributing to the well-being of that community. That’s how you build respect.”

Gestures by businesses that both help their customer base and engender appreciation toward owners might include “adopting” a neighborhood park, hosting a school supplies giveaway for children, or creating a support fund for single moms, says Shakur.

“When a business raises $10,000,” he adds, “they can take it to a church and say, ‘We need you to match that.’”

Shakur doesn’t excuse neighborhood residents who shoplift or damage property, saying that both Koreans and Blacks are part of “oppressed” ethnic groups, but he says businesses can discourage resentment and envy of their success by acknowledging residents. Even without owning a commercial business, through his movement, “Restoring the ‘Neighbor’ Back to the Hood” on Detroit’s west side, Shakur has generated enough volunteer and donor support to give away 300 backpacks to students and serve meals to 700 people at summer’s end during each of the past five years.

“I’ve learned to be an advocate for my community. I have resources, I have character, I have respect, which is wealth, and people want to invest in that,” he adds. Shakur says he’s open to working with the Korean community.

Chris Chae, owner of Kimbrough Valet Service Cleaners, 1815 Van Dyke Ave., agrees that charity shows neighborhood dedication, and has contributed to efforts like the Korean Chamber of Commerce’s giveaway of 1,000 Thanksgiving turkeys. Chae says he has enjoyed positive relationships with his Black customers, including Detroit mayors, the past 24 years.

“I like Black people so much. They are so nice,” says Chae, “more than any ethnic group, better than even Koreans, better than my people.”

Chae wants city residents to understand that Koreans open shops for their own survival, not to exploit others: “We are a minority, too. Some Korean people, they come here with the language barrier, poverty problems, and they can’t get a city job. They have to do something.”

Far removed, mentally, from the days when he avoided the city, today Tack-yong Kim travels to Detroit on a weekly basis while maintaining his state-circulated newspaper’s office in Bingham Farms. Emphasizing similarities rather than differences, such as the fact that most Koreans, like most urban Blacks, are Christian, can close cultural gaps, he says, so he has begun reaching out to both Korean and Black churches.

Kim, who is well-connected with Asian investors, also hopes to court significant investment in Detroit and foster proactive business partnerships between Asian American and Black entrepreneurs.

Detroit, he says, can be a “mission field” for Christian service by people of all races and backgrounds looking to enrich the city through investment in neighborhoods and cultural education. The city and its unique challenges offer a divine opportunity, he adds.

“I think God wants us to do something great in Detroit,” says Kim.

By E. B. Allen


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