Paving the Korean Way: Korean businesses give new life to sleepy Route 40 centers

Korean businesses give new life to sleepy Route 40 Ellicott City centers

In the Republic of Korea, promotional pamphlets about the United States list Ellicott City ZIP codes as attractive destinations for Koreans, a testament to a growing community that has brought new life to the once sleepy plazas and houses along several miles of Route 40.

Lotte Plaza Market, a Korean shopping center that boasts the vibrancy of the Korean community, anchors Golden Triangle Shopping Center. H-Mart, another Asian grocer, sits just three-tenths of a mile away. Signage from nearby businesses blends English and Korean languages together in a colorful fusing of two cultures. A similar scene emerges in the five-mile stretch between Normandy Plaza to Turf Valley, where dozens of Korean-owned businesses like Honey Pig Restaurant, Shin Chon Garden Restaurant and Waker Chicken have cropped up over the last decade.

In Maryland, the Asian community makes up about 6 percent of the total population. In Ellicott City, however, that number is around 24 percent, according to the latest census data, making up one of the most densely populated Asian communities in the state. Between 2009 and 2014, the Korean population jumped by 30 percent.

This burgeoning community got a nod from the state's Department of Transportation in late December when state officials designated a five-mile stretch on Route 40 as "Korean Way," a rare recognition for the agency, which typically does not designate roads based purely on ethnicity. There are more than 166 Korean-owned businesses in Howard County, according to state data.

The Korean community helped revitalize Route 40's once-ailing plaza centers and vacant buildings along a traffic-heavy area, said Jim Ports, the state Department of Transportation's Deputy of Secretary for Operations.

Ports said groups can apply for a state road designation. A committee under the agency reviews applications and makes recommendations to Pete Rahn, the state's secretary of transportation.

In this case, Gov. Larry Hogan, who is married to Korean-American artist Yumi Hogan and calls himself a "hanguk sawi," or "son-in-law of South Korea," pushed for the designation.

"This designation is very important to Governor Hogan, the First Lady and the community. The governor made his feelings clear to Secretary Rahn, who, in turn, got the job done," Shareese Churchill, a spokeswoman for Hogan, wrote in a statement.

For local business owners like 42-year-old Daniel Kim, who helps run Tous Les Jours Bakery in Ellicott City, the designation is a sign of recognition and acceptance.

Kim feels he can realize the American Dream in Ellicott City, where he and his family began managing the Asian-French bakery about two months ago. Tour Les Jours, which means "every day" in French, is part of a South Korean bakery franchise owned by CJ Group, a company based in Seoul, Korea.

When he was 11, Kim immigrated to the United States. His family settled in Baltimore alongside other Korean immigrants, who opened up shop in the city. When their liquor store closed after 15 years of businesses in Baltimore, Kim and his family decided to set up shop in Ellicott City, where he says the customers are welcoming, inviting and open to others.

"All the Koreans I know who are from Virginia want to transfer to Howard County," Kim said. "They have their eyes here."

Many Korean immigrants have similar stories, Kim said. Many fled rough economic times in the 1980s in Korea, including his family, and started businesses in areas like Baltimore where rent was cheap.

When Lotte opened in the 1990s, the grocer became a magnet for Koreans in Ellicott City. In some ways, the grocer introduced the Korean community to Howard County's schools, which are consistently ranked as among the highest performing in the nation, according to the Korean Society of Maryland, a service-based organization founded in 1972.

The society requested the road designation from the state after the idea was floated at an Asian roundtable with Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman. Lisa Fenton Kim, who is on the society's board of directors, said the local Korean community helped insulate the housing bubble burst of 2007. Kim said the society originally heard the state was not moving forward with the designation but were later notified Hogan gave it a green light.

"This is really out of the norm of practice for a highway designation. Granting a designation to a broad group of people wasn't something they had done before," Kim said.

While some immigrants are struggling to find their footing in the county because of their immigration status, members of the Korean and Korean-American community pride themselves in the successful path their lives have taken, a path they say they've worked hard to build. Last week, representatives from the society testified against a bill before the Howard County Council that would make Howard County a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants.

For Kim, the owner of Tous Les Jours Bakery, the key to his family's success is family and education, two ideals that are ingrained in the psyche of many immigrant communities, he said.

"The only reason we survived was because of family. We all stick together. The United States is my home," he said.

Kim hopes to move from his home in Pasadena soon. The top pick on his list is Ellicott City.

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