At 53, Tack-Yong Kim could almost pass for one of the students or 30-something regulars who filter in and out of the busy lunchtime crowd at Slows Bar BQ on Michigan Avenue. Soft spoken and gentle in demeanor, Kim’s appearance is still boyish and youthful, except for the dark blazer and glasses that give him a slightly professorial look.
But today Kim has more than a blackened catfish sandwich on his mind. Kim is among a growing group of advocates for Detroit who believe the city is at a key cultural tipping point. As an active member of the Korean Chamber of Commerce and as publisher of Michigan Korean Weekly, Kim hopes to expand business and other opportunities for Korean entrepreneurs and their largely black customer base. Kim says there is room for mutual growth.
“We need to get connected, to get prosperous,” says Kim, his dark eyes reflective. “The main thing is to get connected, community to community and people to people.”
Kim recognizes the cultural barriers that divide and cause tension between Korean businesses in predominantly black neighborhoods and has dedicated himself to recruiting support on both sides of the cultural aisle and to improve relationships. While he has been a spark plug for Asians seeking support and direction, he also recognizes the necessity of building a wider network of Detroiters dedicated to promoting investment and stable communities.
However, like many of his generation, he wasn’t always a booster.
“For about 10 years I never went to Detroit because I did not understand the city’s culture,” recalls Kim, an Ann Arbor resident.
He’d traveled from Seoul, Korea, to America in 1990 to attend Eastern Michigan University. It wasn’t until he was chosen to participate in a Detroit Regional Chamber leadership program about five years later that Kim evicted from his mind media myths and fears that kept him out of Motown. That is when he began attending monthly meetings to learn about the city.
“I became an advocate for Detroit,” he says. “It was total ignorance that prior to Leadership Detroit, I never tried to learn about Detroit. But since then, I learned about the struggles and what went on in the city, and the role Korean businesses played in the city.”
Detroit is home to about 300 Korean-owned small companies, predominantly dry cleaners and retail hair care suppliers, Kim says.
Cultural miscues, such as the traditional Korean tendency through their upbringing to avoid direct eye contact with others, can be perceived as disrespect by customers, Kim adds.
Conflicts are sure to follow such unwelcome experiences where customers do not feel recognized, welcome or respected. And when these conflicts do occur Kim has often stepped in to help resolve differences. Although Kim has been successful in mediating countless occurrences, he recognizes the need to be more proactive. That is why he is involved in efforts to rally local business owners, activists and residents representing both cultures to generate dialogue and come up with strategies to improve relationships for Detroit’s mutual benefit.
Language barriers can also hamper interaction between patrons and proprietors like Young Son, who has operated J. Beauty Supply at Telegraph and Seven Mile Roads for 13 years. The store owner, who has experienced shoplifting and petty vandalism, also has been buoyed by positive experiences like the time a customer who’d bought a $30 hair piece returned the next day to tell Son she’d mistakenly billed $5 as the item’s cost instead of what should have been only a $5 discount.
“There are good customers like that in Detroit,” Son says, translated by Kim during a phone call. “Even though I’m still struggling with challenges, I know that not everyone is bad.”
Detroit organizer and activist Yusef “Bunchy” Shakur says for blacks, Koreans, and other ethnic groups in the city mutual respect is crucial to mutual progress. Shakur, who has gained national attention for his community work including multiple nominations for comedian Steve Harvey’s Neighborhood Awards, says goodwill from Asian, Middle Eastern and other business owners in a predominantly black city goes a long way.
“Even if you don’t live in that community, for eight hours a day you’re a part of it,” adds Shakur. “You should be contributing to the well-being of that community. That’s how you build respect.”
Gestures by businesses that both help their customer base and engender appreciation toward owners might include “adopting” a neighborhood park, hosting a school supplies giveaway for children or creating a support fund for single moms, says Shakur.
“When a business raises $10,000,” he adds, “they can take it to a church and say, ‘We need you to match that.’”
Shakur doesn’t excuse neighborhood residents who shoplift or damage property, saying that both Koreans and blacks are part of “oppressed” ethnic groups. But he says businesses can discourage resentment and envy of their success by acknowledging residents. Even without owning a commercial business, through his movement, “Restoring the ‘Neighbor’ Back to the Hood” on Detroit’s west side, Shakur has generated enough volunteer and donor support to give away 300 backpacks to students and serve meals to 700 people at summer’s end during each of the past five years.
“I’ve learned to be an advocate for my community. I have resources, I have character, I have respect, which is wealth, and people want to invest in that,” he adds. Shakur says he’s open to working with the Korean community.
Chris Chae, owner of Kimbrough Valet Service Cleaners, 1815 Van Dyke Ave., agrees that charity shows neighborhood dedication, and has contributed to efforts like the Korean Chamber of Commerce’s giveaway of 1,000 Thanksgiving turkeys. Chae says he has enjoyed positive relationships with his African-American customers, including Detroit mayors, over the past 24 years.
Chae wants city residents to understand that Koreans open shops for their own survival, not to exploit others. “We are a minority, too. Some Korean people, they come here with the language barrier, poverty problems and they can’t get a city job. They have to do something.”
Far removed, mentally, from the days when he avoided the city, today Tack-yong Kim travels to Detroit on a weekly basis while maintaining his state-circulated newspaper’s office in Bingham Farms. Emphasizing similarities rather than differences, such as the fact that most Koreans, like most urban blacks, are Christian, can close cultural gaps, he says, so he has begun reaching out to both Korean and black churches.
Kim, who is well connected to Asian investors, also hopes to court significant investment in Detroit and foster proactive business partnerships between Asian American and African American entrepreneurs.
Detroit, he says, can be a “mission field” for Christian service and by people of all races and backgrounds looking to enrich the city through investment in neighborhoods and cultural education. The city and its unique challenges offer a divine opportunity, he adds.
“I think God wants us to do something great in Detroit,” says Kim.
Editor’s Note: Tack-Yong Kim hopes to launch several new initiatives aimed at improving Korean business and cultural relationships in Detroit. He is a partner in TheHUB’s Multicultural Media Alliance, and a member of the Detroit Journalism Collaborative aimed at fostering multicultural understanding and New Michigan Media. To participate or to inquire about Kim’s initiatives contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos by Paul Engstrom