Korean cities are flocking to Glendale in hopes of creating business and cultural relationships with a city better known for its connection to Armenia.
In fact, so many Korean cities have wanted to set up an official “sister city” relationship with Glendale that officials have created a less formal title to accommodate the demand: “friendly cities.”
Four Korean cities have signed “friendly city” contracts with Glendale — three in 2012 alone — and more are waiting in the wings.
“There’s been a swarm of cities,” said Alex Woo, president of the Korea-Glendale Sister City Assn.
The boost comes as sister city relationships with other countries have either faded or morphed from an avenue of cultural exchange to bonds centered more on financial aid.
A sister city is a formal relationship forged through Sister Cities International, a nonprofit founded by President Dwight Eisenhower. Glendale has seven such relationships with cities in Japan, Korea, Armenia and Mexico, but Glendale caps the number of sister cities at two per country.
That’s where “friendly cities,” which basically bring the same benefits with less paperwork, come in.
While Japan was the first country to make ties with Glendale — a connection that led to the Japanese Teahouse in Brand Park in 1974 — that relationship has run cold. Meanwhile, it’s heated up with Korea as people like Chang Lee, a planning commissioner, sing Glendale’s praises to connections across the Pacific Ocean.
“It’s all about relationships and I am very, very active. My middle name is ‘Mayor of Koreatown,’” Lee said jokingly.
About 5% of Glendale’s population is of Korean descent, according to the U.S. Census. A busy Korean shopping center — featuring a barbershop, supermarket and real estate agents — sits just above the Ventura (134) Freeway and several Korean churches dot the northern part of the city.
Glendale has connections with Goseong — which is known for its dinosaur museum — Gimpo, Incheon, Boeun, Hwasun and Paju, which wants to be the site of the next Ferrari World.
There are far fewer Koreans than Armenians in Glendale, yet the city only has one formal relationship with an Armenian city, and there are no plans to add more.
Armik Avedisian, president of Ghapan-Glendale Sister City Assn., said the group focuses more on sending financial aid to Ghapan — in the form of donations to the local hospital and schools — than political exchange.
And relationships with two Mexican sister cities that were once strong have faded over time.
Cultural exchange activities in Rosarito and Tlaquepaque have gotten so slow that some involved in the Mexico-Glendale Sister City Assn. have wanted to disband the organization.
“I think we’re going through a low point in the cycle, but it’ll come back,” said Efrain Olivares, the group’s president, adding that Mexican cities aren’t currently interested in fostering international relations.
The problem is twofold: they have been hurt economically by a suffering tourism industry, which means they don’t have the money to host Glendale officials. Plus, some people don’t want to travel to Mexico now because of its reputation for drug cartels and violence, Olivares said.
“Korea is kind of on the opposite end of the curve. They have a strong economy, so they can afford to do things that some cities in Mexico can’t do,” Olivares said.
When Glendale Councilman Ara Najarian visited Korea several years ago, they “rolled out the red carpet” and organized events with local dignitaries.
Not only have council members visited the Korean cities — trips often paid for by the hosts — but Glendale students have done home-stays at Korean schools and vice versa. And in 2012, Korean education officials signed contracts with Glendale Community College to implement a study abroad program.
But even if the Korean group keeps up the momentum, tight work schedules at City Hall may limit the number of future connections. The number of municipal employees has shrunk to the lowest level since 2000 amid efforts to meet budget demands.
Deputy City Manager John Takhtalian said there’s been a temporary hold on new international relationships due to a lack of resources, and officials may need to set up new guidelines to manage the sister city program.
“I’m not sure where it goes next,” he said.
-- Brittany Levine, Times Community News