(46) Mass exodus from big cities

The exodus of Caucasians from big cities began to clearly appear in the U.S. in the 1970s. Caucasian families seemed to believe that when an African-American family moved into their neighborhood, the neighborhood would soon become akin to Harlem, causing the value of their houses to plummet. Caucasian towns would use all kinds of ways to block African-Americans from moving in. This was not because they did not want African-American neighbors, but more because they were worried about the value of their houses.

An African-American walking around a Caucasian neighborhood would often be stopped by a Caucasian policeman on patrol, and in some severe cases would bring them to their police station and only release them after a needless investigation. This sent a strong message for African-Americans not to come near Caucasian neighborhoods.

However, there was only so much they could do, and if there was a sign of African-Americans moving into their neighborhoods, Caucasians with money would quickly sell their houses, even at lower prices than market value, to move out to the suburb. As a result, African-Americans began to dominate big cities, and housing prices plummeted there. As major department stores began to move out to the suburbs, brand new larger cities began to form in the U.S. at that time.

One example of this was Los Angeles. Its inner city, once part of a beautiful tradition, became a mess in the 1970s. The main streets of the city became like those of a Mexican city on the weekends. Hispanic songs blared from every store, everyone would talk loudly in Spanish, and the streets were filled with the odor of Mexican food.

People on the streets were mainly Mexican, African-Americans and Asians, which meant that the occasional Caucasian walking around looked out of place. It was an unpleasant area full of homeless people who begged for change, would bother pedestrians, and would demand money from drivers after the unwanted washing of their car windows. Come Monday, the city would return to a typical American big city full of well dressed people. However, soon Caucasians in LA would move out to the suburbs, to places like Orange County and the San Fernando Valley.

As this cycle continued, the once-beautiful LA gradually turned into a not pretty city. The famous Wilshire Boulevard was no longer flourishing, and the beautiful old European-style houses, where famous actors used to live, were sold at below market prices to African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians and other immigrants. The Biltmore Hotel, a luxurious hotel with a long history, was also sold to Japanese investors.

Hollywood was in decline, and places for families to go on weekends gradually disappeared. Congress, in response, established the Community Redevelopment Agency to help revive downtowns. The idea was to set up a tax-exempt area downtown for redevelopment and draw the middle class back into the city. That was the time when the reinvestment of tax increment money began, and downtown LA was where this program was the most successful.

I once watched a news report about the concentration of the Korean population in Seoul. It said that half of the Korean population lived in Seoul and its nearby areas, and that almost 80 percent of the Korean economy was concentrated in Seoul. This was the opposite of the U.S.’s urban situations: as everyone came to Seoul, the population of rural areas reduced, local schools were closed, towns rapidly declined, and people had to bring their spouses from overseas.

Even building a new city outside of Seoul and moving government agencies there did not seem to stop the population increase in Seoul. People said that they would rather commute by KTX (bullet train) than leave Seoul, because of the major difference in education, medical services, and cultural life.

The problem in America was to bring the middle class families back to the big cities. To do this, LA built the now-famous Bonaventure Hotel, and the new area of high risers centered on the hotel was connected to downtown, changing the skyline of LA totally.

Following the government blueprint, as high rising condominiums and apartments with swimming pools and tennis courts were built in the inner city, the idea of enjoying city life appeared. As young couples, tired of commuting, began to move into LA’s downtown, it began to regain its own form.

However, it was not easy to give up residential areas with their open spaces, endless-looking lawns, good schools, and large trees. As expected, there was a limit to how much downtown LA would regain its old form. No matter how much money the government would pour into there, it fell short of drawing those still happily living in suburbs to the high risers in the city.

So the big cities of the U.S. play the role of a place to work for people who would commute there during the day and return home to their families 20-30 miles away in the evening. The American middle classes are satisfied with the suburban life, where they don’t have to send their children to crowded schools, while enjoy beautiful parks and big shopping malls with their families on weekends, even if they have to suffer traffic jams on weekdays.

From the early 1990s, young working couples began to return to inner cities, due to rising energy costs and ever-growing traffic jams. As Caucasians gradually returned to the big cities after 30 years, the life patterns of these cities began to change. Americans adapted to the busy life of big cities, where many races lived together.

Through this process, the negative opinions about Asians (especially Koreans) began to disappear, and the place of Korean-Americans in the U.S. greatly improved. Also, as excellent products made in Korea came to the U.S., American views on Korea changed as well. America finally became a color blind society, living together happily.

So now, with Korean-Americans holding higher status in the U.S., I hope that more Korean Americans will enter into politics. Who knows? It might not be long before a Korean-American will become a vice president.

Jay Kim is a former U.S. congressman. He serves as chairman of the Washington Korean-American Forum. For more information, visit Kim’s website (www.jayckim.com). The views expressed in the above article are the author’s own and do not reflect the editorial policy of The Korea Times.