PALISADES PARK JOURNAL
As Koreans Pour In, a Town Is Remade
Marcus Yam for The New York Times
Jason Kim was the first Asian-American to win a seat on the school board and borough council.
By RICHARD PÉREZ-PEÑA
Published: December 15, 2010
PALISADES PARK, N.J. — Two decades ago, the police here sometimes roused Jason Kim in the wee hours, but not because he was in trouble. There were few Koreans in town, and few of them spoke English, so whenever one was arrested, the police needed Mr. Kim to translate the Miranda warning.
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Marcus Yam for The New York Times
Sun Lee at Leewon Photohouse, a photography studio, in Palisades Park.
It is hard to imagine such a scene today, as Mr. Kim, now an elected borough councilman, strolls along Broad Avenue, this town’s bustling commercial spine, past storefront signs that are mostly in Korean, chatting in Korean and English with business owners and shoppers. A generation of Korean-Americans has grown up here, many people switch readily between languages, and the police force has three Korean-American officers.
Since the 1980s, the towns of eastern Bergen County — Edgewater, Englewood Cliffs, Leonia, Fort Lee and others — seem to have exerted a magnetic pull on Asian immigrants, particularly Koreans. But none more so than Palisades Park, whose population is now 54 percent Asian-American and 44 percent Korean-American, the Census Bureau reported this week.
Major population centers like Queens and Los Angeles have more Koreans, but Palisades Park, with fewer than 20,000 people, is, proportionally, the most heavily Korean municipality in the country, according to Pyong Gap Min, a distinguished professor of sociology at Queens College.
A striking 66 percent of the town’s population is foreign-born, including many Guatemalans and smaller numbers from several other countries.
The Korean presence is growing fast; the 2000 census found that 31 percent of Palisades Park residents were Korean-American. The 44 percent figure came from surveys taken from 2005 to 2009, and local Korean leaders predict that the figure will be higher when 2010 census numbers are released next year.
“When I came here, only two stores were Korean; there were no Korean churches,” said Mr. Kim, 54, who teaches math and computer science at Bronx Community College and also has a business preparing students to take the SAT. “It is hard to believe how much it has changed.”
Palisades Park has not endured the kind of violent clashes that sometimes accompany ethnic transitions, but neither has its transformation been trouble-free.
Andy Nam recalled that after he opened Grand Furniture on Broad Avenue in 1989, “We had some young kids, troublemakers, who broke the windows, write ‘Go home kimchi,’ that kind of thing.”
Korean restaurants and bars fought for years — unsuccessfully — for permission to stay open around the clock. White residents complained of shops that had signs only in Korean, until nearly all the new merchants voluntarily added English translations.
The first-generation Korean-Americans faced a huge language barrier. For years, they relied heavily on people like Mr. Nam, now 70, who spoke English, and on those like Mr. Kim who called themselves generation 1.5 — born in South Korea, but educated here.
Until the 1980s, the town was overwhelmingly white, a mix of blue-collar workers and professionals whose families had come predominantly from Italy, Croatia, Germany and Greece. Its houses were inexpensive, and it had a number of vacant shops and offices.
A pattern had started to emerge by then, of Asian immigrants moving from New York City to Bergen County. They were drawn by the area’s relative safety and highly regarded schools, and by its proximity to the George Washington Bridge, for commuting to jobs in the city.
“At first everybody went to Fort Lee, but I couldn’t afford Fort Lee,” said Mr. Kim, who moved from South Korea to the Bronx as a teenager, then to Palisades Park in 1986. “The real estate agents told people to try Palisades Park.”
The influx made the town more prosperous, as Korean businesses moved in, renovating buildings and erecting new ones. But for the old-timers, it made the place alien, and property more expensive. Today, 39 percent of the population is white, but few businesses are white-owned.
“In the beginning, some of the old businesses shut down because the Koreans would not patronize them,” said George Mahsoud, whose family has run a shoe-repair shop here for 35 years. “You really had to make an effort — like I put a Korean sign in the window and I smiled and talked to them. Koreans are all about reputation — they have to hear good things about you from their friends, and that took awhile.”
Two white women emerging from a bank, who asked not to be named for fear of offending their newer neighbors, said they lived in Palisades Park, but shopped elsewhere. The Korean shops cater mostly to Koreans, they said — a fact that used to bother them, but that now just peacefully propels them elsewhere.
The Koreans’ numbers have been slow to translate into clout; only about one-quarter of the voters are Korean. Mr. Kim was the first Asian-American elected to a seat on the school board, in 1995 — his third try — and the first to win a seat on the council, in 2004. A second Korean immigrant, Jong Chul Lee, was elected to the council last year, and two others sit on the school board.
“I knew from the start I couldn’t win with just Korean votes,” Mr. Kim said. “I still can’t. We have to work with everybody.”