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Searching for Korea Town

Updated: January 14, 2013 2:14AM

The sign is familiar to anyone who regularly drives on the inbound Kennedy Expressway from O’Hare Airport.

Korea Town, Exit 84.

That’s the Lawrence Avenue exit, and I took it one day last week. But I couldn’t find Korea Town.

A lengthy stretch of Lawrence is Honorary Seoul Drive, a tribute to the South Korean capital, but Korean businesses are almost nonexistent there.

Bryn Mawr Avenue, between Spaulding and Kedzie, is where I found a handful of Korean shops along with the Korean American Chamber of Commerce.

It’s a shame to see Korea Town disappearing there, too. On one stretch of the street, I counted eight businesses and 10 empty storefronts.

The other giveaway of a business area in decline is ample street parking, which means people aren’t coming to shop or eat. There is plenty of parking in Korea Town on Bryn Mawr.

Of course, those who drive there must pay to park. Like shop owners in other neighborhoods, those I spoke to on Bryn Mawr blamed the ongoing city parking mess for some of their troubles.

But some pointed to something else: A departure of Koreans from the city to the near north suburbs.

The Korea Times wrote about this national trend two years ago, noting that the population shift by Koreans from large cities to smaller towns was a phenomenon “unique among Korean immigrants; the other Asian immigrant populations still seem to concentrate in large cities.”

The newspaper cited economics and a general comfort level for the shift.

Brandon Yu, executive director of the Chicago Korean American Chamber of Commerce, told me many Koreans have heard it’s easier to open a business in the suburbs than in the city. “The city of Chicago doesn’t make it easy,” Yu said. “The city makes you jump through hoops.”

Still, some restaurant owners are opting for downtown locations, he said, to entice Americans with eclectic tastes.

Similarly, a few Korean businesses on Bryn Mawr are trying to reach a broad audience and succeeding.

Eunice Choi, 55, owns Outdoor Cafe at the corner of Spaulding and Bryn Mawr. It puts to shame chain coffee shops that have a fast-food feel. She serves tea from pots she buys at Korean markets. High tea is a tranquil experience there.

It’s an indoor cafe (she doesn’t know why the previous owner named it Outdoor Cafe) with cozy furniture, board games to play and reading material. Choi has Christian-themed books on shelves. She doesn’t push religion on her customers but leaves them out for young adults who might feel lost, she said. She is conveniently located near North Park University and Northeastern University, and most of her customers are students who walk to the cafe.

Next door, tailor Dong Sik Ji, 68, alters and creates clothing designs. He was a successful tailor in New York City, he said, but moved to the Midwest to be near family.

For him, business is going well. When I asked about it, he beamed. He’s good at his job, he said, and he pulled out copies of Internet reviews to prove it.

“Five stars on the Internet,” he said. Ten of 13 customers on the website Yelp has given him five stars. He has many repeat clients.

On this mostly bare section of the street, that says a lot.

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