Moving past Blacks vs Koreans

On a block of L.A.’s skid row where the tents cluster corner to corner, there’s a store that most people know as the place with a little of everything.

When May and Bob Park took it over in 1995, the store was called Best Market. The Parks tried to stock it all, and if they didn’t have it, they were known to drive to the warehouse after hours to get it.

After their son, Danny, joined the business in 2015, he renamed it Skid Row People’s Market. It’s the latest of many names over the years, and the everything store tries to live up to all of them, stocking food, drinks and items geared toward life outdoors, such as drink mix, tents, cups of ice on hot days, warm socks on cold ones.

Danny wants the store just south of Little Tokyo to be more than its inventory. His new mission statement is hand-painted high up on the wall in English and Korean: “A safe space for Skid Row community to heal ourselves and develop healthy identities” and, below it, “Food is medicine not only for the body, but spiritual connection to history, ancestors and the land.”

On a given shift, employees might serve as therapists, social workers, confidants or mediators. The store tries to help customers build self-esteem, express themselves, display their art, even take steps toward building credit.

“We all believe, in whatever work we do, that we are doing some kind of good for humanity no matter what it is,” Danny said. “So why can’t that be the product?”

The story of why the everything store tries to do so many things has a lot to do with Danny, but it really started long before, on a Saturday morning in 1991, when Korean American shopkeeper Soon Ja Du fatally shot Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old Black girl, at a South Los Angeles liquor store.

Many Angelenos remember Latasha whenever a young Black victim is denied justice. And when they remember Latasha, they also remember it was a Korean shopkeeper who shot her.

Danny was a kid then. Now 38, he knows that no matter his intentions, someone will see the store as just another Korean American business profiting from a mostly impoverished Black clientele.

So another thing he wants the store to do is remember that history. Danny keeps a framed photo of Latasha at the front and a printout in his office, taped at eye level when he sits at his desk.

Even if it hurts, even if you’re ashamed, Danny said, you have to keep the images close, because “that’s how we heal. Because by remembering, that’s how we learn.”

Latasha’s photo isn’t alone. A stately row of framed headshots reminiscent of a Day of the Dead ofrenda meets you at the door. There’s Grandma Bessy, Cecil, Uncle Rock, regular customers who passed away. Next to them, faces grown too familiar: George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, victims of police violence.

Above the register is a set of clay figurines of each member of the store staff made by a customer, Kevin Kidd.

The staff is half Korean, half Black, half skid row locals and half Korean immigrants hired through an ad in the Korea Times. The oldest employee is in her 70s, the youngest 35.

And in the narrow closet that serves as Danny’s office, swimming under paperwork, is a studio portrait of a Korean American family. Danny, a young man refusing to smile against marble-blue backdrop, stands behind his father, whose suit looks crisp, especially his tie, which somehow accommodates a map of Korea.

Danny’s family has operated stores as long as he can remember. His grandfather managed a store when he came to the U.S. in the 1970s, and so did several of his uncles.

Sometimes it was a liquor store in Silver Lake, or a laundromat in Gardena, but it was always a business, one small step toward an ever-distant American dream.

Korean Americans owned more than 30% of non-chain liquor stores in Southern California in the early 1990s. In many cases they took over stores previously established by largely Jewish entrepreneurs who were eager to leave the city’s south side, where gang violence bled into the fabric of everyday life.

In South Los Angeles, the Korean entrepreneurs met Black communities battling crack and gangs, impoverished by redlining and abandoned by larger retailers for fear of street violence. Robberies were a constant problem, and it was especially dangerous for those rumored to be cooperating with the police, like Soon Ja Du’s family.

At least 19 Korean shopkeepers were killed in Southern California in the decade before 1992, largely by Black assailants. But when shopkeepers began to arm themselves, an untold number of their customers became innocent victims too. A few weeks after Latasha died, Lee Arthur Mitchell, a Black man and popular boxing coach, was shot and killed by Tae Sam Park, a Korean American shopkeeper.

Danny was born in 1984, a time when the violence between Korean shopkeepers and their customers was making national headlines. He speaks quietly and is prone to long silences, short sentences and clothing with protest slogans such as “Black Lives Matter” and “No justice, no peace.” His face reveals emotion easily, and he listensintently, as if words must be chewed before understood.

He attended UC San Diego and studied sociology, but without much focus. He went to art school, studied graphic design and found a job doing that. A large tattoo of the Gustav Klimt painting “Life and Death” covers his left forearm. On his right arm are a Dodgers hat, ball and glove — for his dad, who always seemed happiest at Dodgers games — and a portrait of his grandfather.

He is sincere to a fault. When he was 27, he jogged the nearly 1,000 miles between Los Angeles and Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Ore., to hand-deliver his application and illustrate his desire to work there. (He got the job.)

He grew up not knowing much about the Harlins case, but the archetype of the racist Korean shopkeeper had become a staple of films and TV shows depicting Black life in cities, most famously in Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.”

For example, Danny didn’t know that in Du’s letter to Judge Joyce Karlin expressing remorse, she offered condolences to Latasha’s mother, unaware that the mother was dead. Or that a few months before Du’s acquittal, another Korean shopkeeper had received jail time for fatally shooting a dog, and that many in the community wondered why a dog’s death carried harsher consequences than Latasha’s.

But he loved hip-hop, and wrote a college essay about how it shaped him. He listened to Tupac and Immortal Technique, loved the movie “Dead Presidents” and slept in a bedroom with a Martin Luther King Jr. poster on the wall.

Then Michael Brown, an 18-year-old Black man, was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo. Danny found himself in the streets, attending protests and rallies. For the first time, he learned the details of the Harlins case, and he was ashamed by what he found.

Danny and his father never talked about these issues. Korean Americans were leaving the liquor store business in droves, and the family was struggling to stay afloat. A screen-printing business flopped, and the Parks filed for bankruptcy. They left their home in Fullerton and moved in with May’s mother in Downey.

And in 1995, they took over the lease for what they named Best Market.

His father drank — and from a young age, so did Danny. Bob Park drank mostly because he was angry — he often beat Danny — and he was angry for the same reason so many immigrant fathers are: because failing at a business in America made him feel like a failure as a man.

Both men struggled with addiction. Danny was arrested three times for public intoxication, he said, and when his dad came to pick him up, he was as likely to weep as to become violent.

Liquor stores, as businesses, offered great risks, painful side effects and few rewards. An uncle and a grandfather lost their businesses, struggled with alcoholism and died by suicide.

For years, all Danny can recall doing was trying to reach greater states of inebriation. He tried sobriety, religion and meditation retreats. He traveled and wrote. Even after landing his dream job, working in design at Nike, he felt restless.

At work, he kept thinking about this book he was reading, Father Gregory Boyle’s “Tattoos on the Heart,” which speaks of compassion and forgiveness. In his spare time, he volunteered at a soup kitchen.

When his father contracted cancer and died in 2018, it felt like a sign. Danny quit his job at Nike and took over the store.

For the first time in his life, he felt as if he was where he was supposed to be. He had found peace with his father before he died, and wrote about it in a June 2018 Facebook post:

“Growing up my dad would every once in awhile tell me it’s okay for you to cry. If you need to cry, go take time to yourself and cry. And when you’re ready, come back. Come back, ready and strong.”

Best Market became Skid Row People’s Market on an overcast morning in 2018. Danny and the staff painted the store a cheerful yellow, though the landlord repainted it in beige to match the rest of the building.

Down came the all-caps “RIGHT TO REFUSE SERVICE” and “NO REFUNDS” signs and up went inspiring words (“Joy is an act of resistance”) and quotes such as “How can we truly be sovereign people if we cannot feed and nourish ourselves?”

Danny imagined creating a space where he could apply the knowledge gained from a life of trauma and addiction, a place that would be a member of the community and take on the community’s problems.

He sees the homeless crisis outside his doors in terms of sickness and a struggle for health in mind and body. So the best way he can describe what he’s trying to do inside the store is thus: to offer medicine in the form of healthful food, kindness, a creative outlet, a supportive work environment or whatever else the day calls for.

“We look at these societal problems as failures of individuals, but it’s not that way,” Danny said. “It’s all an ecological relationship. We are all this one web of light, this collective organism.”

Can an open heart find solutions that a police baton and ballot box cannot? Can small interactions at the store stop a disagreement, a fight, a bullet? Save a life?

Danny doesn’t know, but he wants to find out.

So whatever the problem, the staff tries to help — or at least listen. Sometimes it’s a phone charge, an address to receive mail, or some advice from the staff, who know the neighborhood’s maze of public assistance programs. Some aspiring artists display their work on spare patches of wall, and there’s a community bulletin board that anyone can use.

But most of all, the store tries to be a refuge of civility and safety in a place where both are in short supply. And the key to that has been Danny’s mother, May, and the store’s best-known employee, Mark Burton.

May, 67, who shares a ready smile beneath a spray of salt-and-pepper curls, was the one who first showed Danny that a store and its customers can be a community, back when he was small and spent evenings on a stool in the corner.

She treated customers with the care reserved for families, until friendly customers outnumbered the troublemakers. Now even the troublemakers are wrapped around her finger.

“Good morning, Mrs. Park,” said a thin man in sweats and a durag on a recent weekday. “I like your outfit today.”

May, in a classy polka dot dress, smiled through her mask.

Over by the door, Burton was holding court as he downed an energy drink. Burton, 35, is a micro-local celebrity who works the register and hands out change with jokes. He stands 6 feet tall and then some, and he’s often wearing cornrows, shorts and scrupulously white Nikes.

“Can’t wait to get the day started,” Burton said. “It’s gonna be a good day.”

He sang the chorus to the R&B song “Slow Down” to a customer who rushed out and left his groceries at the counter, prompting a snort of laughter. He teases people about their sneakers and commiserates with people about life on skid row.

“I realize I’m lucky,” he said. “I get to come to work and have a job. Not everyone gets that.”

Burton has lived in skid row for nearly a decade, and he was a regular at the store. One day, a fight broke out while he waited in line. Fights were nothing new to him, so he paid and left. But that day, he turned around.

“And all of a sudden,” he recalled, “I was breaking up the fight and pulled the guy off the other guy.”

Once he got to know Danny and his family, he found they had far more in common than he realized.

“People, they don’t understand and nor do they have the respect to understand. They think these guys are rich, but they take the bus here,” Burton said. “We’re all suffering here, the customers, the staff, even Danny.”

Burton knows everyone’s name. He can throw down a lifetime ban without rancor. He lectures customers who end up admitting that they should know better. He can sense when trouble is brewing and can eject misbehaving customers with just two words: “No. Out.”

But whenever a customer needs a favor or some special consideration, it’s Danny’s decision. Perhaps a customer is hungry but has no money to buy food, or needs an address to apply for a job. If they can help, Danny usually says yes.

“Hey, man, your soup is ready,” he told a customer who borrowed some hot water for ramen.

A few minutes later, a customer in a Chicago Bulls jersey handed Burton a dollar. Danny had treated him to a Coke the other day, and he wanted to pay back the favor.

The store’s goodwill is often repaid, Danny said. In a crinkled spiral notebook under the register, he has a rudimentary micro-loan program in which customers who are respectful are allowed to run a tab if they’re short a few cents. The amount they can borrow increases to almost $100 if they pay back on time, and if they are respectful.

One day, a woman named Stephanie rolled in a generator and, in a standing deal with the shop, plugged it in to recharge it. Stephanie is the block’s de facto mayor, a woman in her 50s who holds court from a tent on the corner across from Danny’s store.

She’s known to some as the Harriet Tubman of skid row, helping to supply tents, food and phone charges to her neighbors. She appreciates what Danny is trying to do, but she says helping people is harder than just being kind, because kindness can run out.

“I will help a person every now and then, if it’s one time or two times,” Stephanie said. “But if you keep coming back every day, gimme gimme gimme, that’s no good.”

One day, I asked Danny why he seemed determined to do things the hard way. Lending money to a population of largely homeless addicts can’t be profitable. Nor is offering free power and water.

“Is it harder? Is it actually harder? I would question that,” Danny replied. “Do you actually feel better when you have nicer, shinier things, or is there a kind of spiritual emptiness that comes with that?”

One day a man ambled through the market’s doors, playing the blues on his guitar. He offered no introduction beyond theatrically raised eyebrows and a teasing smile, and he swayed and hammed it up until people started laughing and dancing in line.

The impromptu concert doesn’t help them make rent or payroll, but in some ways, it is what the employees work so hard for.

“His name is Danny,” said Danny, smiling proudly. “He’s here like every week.”

Changing his parents’ store has helped Danny realize that his job was not to transcend or disavow the history that has loomed over his life, but to carry it forward.

“It’s not as simple as, they’re racist, and I’m not racist, and I’m going to convert them,” Danny said. “There’s so much more mud and substance and complexity.”

Everything that Danny is, everything the store is now, it also came from his family, the good and the bad, he said.

And the store carries the spirit of his father, a complicated, passionate man who, if he had not run a liquor store, might have become an artist and a troublemaker too.

“We want to water the seeds of the best qualities of our parents and ancestors and help them grow,” Danny said. “We do it to strengthen ourselves, and give ourselves courage and hope.”

Danny’s story has been chronicled in a a documentary, “Liquor Store Dreams,” by Koreatown filmmaker So Yun Um, another child of a liquor store owner.

A few weeks ago, Danny posted to Facebook the news that the documentary had been accepted at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.

Beneath it, a woman named Victoria posted a familiar criticism.

“Extractive businesses in Black communities? What’s to celebrate?”

A few days later, Danny wrote back.

“I hear you Victoria,” was all he said. “We are trying to make a change.”


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