Walt Kelly’s cartoon character Pogo famously said, “We have met the enemy and it is us.” Racism is like that, too. We like to think other people are racist, but we who live in the ethnically diverse world of the 21st century Pacific Rim are beyond that kind of social sinfulness. Our view of ourselves is that we’re opposing abstractions like reverse segregation, parochialism, crime or civic decline.
When a Korean-American business group proposed in 2006 to designate a section of El Camino Real near Lawrence Expressway “Koreatown” because of the concentration of Korean businesses there, there was a tsunami of opposition. The Santa Clara City Council decided against the designation, for the stated reason was that it wasn’t a Korean residential neighborhood — as is, for example, San José’s Japantown or San Francisco’s Chinatown.
Few of the communications City Hall received on the question had to do with that consideration. Instead, the proposal was criticized as giving special recognition to Koreans over other ethnic groups, as an indication that Koreans didn’t want to assimilate, and as something that would encourage crime and gang activity and drive people away from Santa Clara.
Here are selections from emails in opposition to the Koreatown designation that were included in the City Council agenda packets in late 2006 and early 2007.
“This is a bad idea that seems to divide the City. I already notice that when I’m passing through this area of the El Camino, I don’t stop and shop because of the signage. I wish the City would require English signage for stores.”
“If all the different ethnic groups making up the diverse community in Santa Clara wanted to do the same as the Korean Community our wonderful and so loved special city of Santa Clara would not be the same any more.”
“It bothers me to drive down El Camino these days and see some many signs that are not only not in english but signs that I cannot even begin to understand.”
“We have seen how Vallco Village which was once a very unique shopping village has changed to only Asian shops. In speaking with shopkeepers they said their rents were doubled forcing them to leave and in tum all shops became Asian.”
“What used to be a neighborhood that provided services for all the neighbors in that area without the need for driving far, it is now becoming a segregated enclave. Now many citizens of Santa Clara will be taking their business elsewhere because they feel increasingly less represented in their own city.”
“Ethnic town names and cultures tend to create havens for gangs of that culture. Gangs are known to prey on the elderly and businesses. The gangs have a shelter or meeting place to sell and transport drugs, sell protection to merchants and conduct other illegal activities. This type of atmosphere also creates more than usual Police monitering [sic] and extra labor costs to try and curtail such activities. The elderly will not report being victumized [sic] due to repercussions from gangs. Chinatown is a good example as well as certain parts of East San Jose.”
“FIX the Korean sign problem!! There is a LAW in the City of Santa Clara that REQUIRES signs to be In ENGLISH FIRST (and largest) and then in another language second! …enforce the rules FOR EVERYONE!”
“Koreans are cunning … bring this Koreatown up at re-election time brilliant.”
“Will the Koreans police the area when disruptions occur?”
“Will the Koreans landscape and maintain the corridor of El Camino Real they claim as Little Seoul? No, they’ll look to the city’s coffers for maintenance.”
“Once again, the taxpayer will be asked to pick up the bill for ‘Special Interest Groups.’ Let Koreans fund their Faires and Festivals. Don’t ask the taxpayer to fund their businesses on City Street.”
“To add Korean speaking police officers beyond the numbers recommended by current Santa Clara policies creates an unfair and unbalanced situation. Funding these officers must come at a reduction in other city expenditures or increased bond/tax revenue from Santa Clara residents.”
“I am starting to feel unwelcome in my own town.”
“Designation to any one nationality is closely related to gang action.”
“It is offensive enough to drive down El Camino in Santa Clara and see so may Korean language signs. We live in America. The official language is English … I live in Santa Clara in the Cupertino Union school district area…I do not appreciate the predominance of Chinese signs in Cupertino to the exclusion of English.”
We can choose to be better than this.
It’s encouraging that the City Council recently decided to support a Korean Festival on El Camino. Hopefully those who expressed hostility to the Koreatown idea will stop by to enjoy an experience of Korean culture and perhaps a meal in one of the many interesting Korean restaurants on El Camino.
Designations of place follow ‘facts on the ground,’ not the other way around. And Koreatown may already be a fact. According to Google it is — evidenced by 6,900 hits on “Santa Clara Koreatown.” In 2015 the San Francisco Chronicle did a feature on the businesses of Koreatown-on-El-Camino, including a YouTube video tour. TheCultureTrip.com ranks it as one of the top 10 things to do in Santa Clara.
Promoting Koreatown could make the City attractive to people interested in something other than sports, amusement parks and technology conferences. Beyond that, it could even be the seed for revitalizing Santa Clara’s sadly rundown stretch of The Royal Road.