The Complicated Legacy and Future of Chicago’s Koreatown

The United States’ Asian American population is growing rapidly. At the same time, one of America’s largest cities is losing its hold on a historic Asian community: Korean Americans. We explore why Chicago's Korean population is leaving and the questions that have arisen in its wake. Cover graphic by Ruth Chang and Albert Lee for Midstory.

Walking down the streets of Albany Park is like following a trail of breadcrumbs. Spotted with Korean signage, the Chicago neighborhood, once the city’s unofficial Koreatown, is filled with reminders of an immigrant community past its prime. Korean Americans have been gradually leaving Chicago, altering the neighborhoods they once lived and worked in.

Chicago’s Korean population has been declining since the 1990s. Experts attribute this shift to a diverse set of reasons, including immigration policy, less economic opportunity and migration to the suburbs. The change has raised unique challenges, as well as questions about who is included in the vision and direction of the community’s future. 

For comparison, the Los Angeles metropolitan area has by far the largest Korean population in the United States, with around 326,000 inhabitants as of 2019. Chicago metro, despite being located in the Midwest, had around 62,000 Korean residents in the same year, the fifth largest Korean community in America. 

A sign outside Dokil Bakery, a Korean bakery on Lawrence Avenue. By Albert Lee for Midstory. 

Chicago initially saw a rapid rise in the Korean population in the 1970s, according to Immigrant Connect. A large portion of these immigrants moved to Albany Park. The 2000 Census, however, reported a decrease in the city’s Korean population. 

Korean Americans’ exodus from Chicago has had a visible impact on the city, particularly on Lawrence Avenue, a street given the honorary title of “Seoul Drive.” From 1997 to 2017, the number of Korean businesses on Lawrence fell from 158 to 50

Immigrant Connect says this shift is partially due to a decrease in the number of visas allotted to Korean immigrants, a rule instituted during the 1990s. Besides immigration policy, however, domestic factors have also contributed to population shrinkage. 

Kim’s Home Cooking, a Korean restaurant located in Albany Park Shopping Center, next to a Korean dentist’s office. By Albert Lee for Midstory. 

Ji-Yeon Yuh is a professor of history and Asian American studies at Northwestern University. An expert on the Korean diaspora, her current research focuses on oral histories of Asian Americans in the Midwest. She said that the decline in Chicago’s Korean population is likely due to more economic opportunities in other parts of the country.

“For Korean Americans and Korean immigrants to the United States, areas like Georgia, the Atlanta area, have been increasing in popularity. And so new immigrants from South Korea had been going straight to the Atlanta area, and Korean Americans from elsewhere in the country had been moving to the Atlanta area. So those kinds of things mean that Chicago [is] not as much on Korean and Korean Americans’ list of interesting places or profitable places to settle,” she said.

Based on what she has heard from community members, Yuh said that a growing Korean population in cities like Atlanta has encouraged other Koreans to leave Chicago. 

“Because the population in the Greater Atlanta metropolitan area is increasing, it also means that for immigrant communities like Korean Americans, there are increasing economic opportunities there. Korean Americans are really concentrated disproportionately in small businesses, and in the kinds of jobs that small businesses might offer. If you have an overall population that is stagnant or declining, then the opportunities for small businesses are declining,” she said. “Chicago doesn’t need as many nail salons or dry cleaners or beauty supply stores, etc., as it once did.”

A sign in Albany Park Shopping Center with names of various ethnic businesses. By Albert Lee for Midstory. 

At the same time that many Korean Americans are moving to other states, many are settling closer to — but outside of — Chicago. Yuh said that an increasing number of Koreans are moving further out west to suburbs such as Glenview, Northbrook, Skokie and Niles. Some are even traveling as far as Schaumburg and Naperville. 

The fact that the Korean community has spread out across Chicagoland has presented several problems, particularly for organizations that provide social services to this population. Bree Yoo-Sun McLuen is the Immigration and Development Coordinator at Hanul Family Alliance, a nonprofit organization that provides support to Korean seniors and families in the Chicago area. McLuen specializes in immigration and legal services, as well as adapting programs to the changing needs of Hanul’s clients. A former resident of Koreatown, she has witnessed this shift in the community firsthand. 

“Over the past 15 years it’s been really, really interesting, not just professionally, but just personally as a Korean American, just watching the way our diaspora is going throughout Chicago and Illinois,” she said. 

Joong Boo Warehouse Market, a Korean grocery store in Chicago. By Albert Lee for Midstory. 

To track this change, McLuen said that Hanul collaborated with Booth Social Impact from the University of Chicago. The joint effort found growing Korean American populations in Lake County, DuPage County and Mount Prospect, a village in Cook County. Although the organization has three offices, a flagship office in Chicago and two satellite offices in Buffalo Grove and Mount Prospect, the expanded reach of the Korean American community has posed a logistical challenge for Hanul in terms of ensuring adequate coverage. 

“I was at a public park playing with my son and we met a family who was also Korean American, and they knew about Hanul. They had used our services for citizenship. But the really funny thing was, I think the groups are a little bit isolated,” McLuen said. “They didn’t even know that we had an office in Chicago. They went to the Mount Prospect office. So kind of figuring out a way to keep our community really interconnected with one another and sort of like a flow, I think, is a big challenge for us.”

Inside Joong Boo Warehouse Market. By Albert Lee for Midstory. 

This issue has particularly impacted programming that serves older adults. McLuen said that it was difficult finding safe and convenient locations in which they could provide certain services, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“We’ve still been able to do meal delivery and keep our nutrition program going and those services going. But I can say it takes a lot of work on our side just finding all those different locations,” she said. “And I think for our older adult population, you add in those pre-existing factors of language barriers, of health system inequity, delivery inequities that are going on, and just navigating all of that — when you add on the COVID-19 pandemic, plus people kind of being spread out throughout Chicago right now — that creates a big challenge.”

Since Korean Americans began moving to the suburbs, class divisions within the community have also become more apparent. According to Yuh, Korean Americans that have stayed in the city are generally of a lower socioeconomic status than their counterparts in the suburbs. She said that this fact has contributed to the community’s shrinking presence in Chicago. 

“There remains a significant Korean American population in Chicago, but they’re not as visible. And the reason is they tend not to be middle class. They tend to be workers in the immigrant economy, rather than small business owners. A lot of undocumented Koreans are in Chicago,” she said. “So, the nice Korean restaurants and the trendy Korean bakeries, etc. — they’re not opening up in Chicago, because the Korean Americans there can’t support those kinds of businesses. Instead, they’re opening up in Glenview and further out west.”

The kimchi aisle in Joong Boo. By Albert Lee for Midstory. 

The topic of visibility is especially relevant given the community’s geographic context. The Midwest is the region with the least Asian Americans in the United States, with only 12% of Asian Americans residing there. To counteract the Korean American’s smaller presence in the region, Hanul has tried to raise awareness about Korean American issues and seek allies in elected officials. 

“Part of the work that we’ve been doing is just getting visibility. We’re a direct services organization, but we still have to advocate for ourselves. So, for example, just running media campaigns online, making sure that we’re really keeping constituents up to date,” McLuen said. “Really reaching out to our advocates in local government, I think, is a really important way that we can help our presence be known, especially as Asian Americans in the Midwest.”

The snack aisle in Joong Boo. By Albert Lee for Midstory.

The geographic division of the Korean American community has also raised wider questions regarding who is and isn’t included in the group. Yuh said that the conventional view of the community ignores the unique experiences of many Koreans living in the United States, including U.S.-born Korean Americans, Korean American adoptees, undocumented Koreans and Korean Americans of mixed racial descent. 

“It’s defined as a kind of ethnic enclave. It’s defined as being primarily Korean-speaking and composed of immigrants, especially immigrants who came as adults. But that doesn’t describe all Korean Americans,” she said. “If you broaden the categories of thinking about what constitutes the Korean American community, then actually, we have very large and diverse and vibrant multiple overlapping Korean American communities in Chicago.” 

The Salvation Army Mayfair Community Church, a predominantly Korean church in Chicago. By Albert Lee for Midstory. 

Yuh also noted the experience of North Korean refugees within the Korean American community, which overwhelmingly consists of immigrants from South Korea and their descendants. She said that North Korean refugees often face the additional challenge of navigating a community that can seem outright hostile to their country of origin. 

“Korean-speaking Korean immigrant communities tend to be very conservative, which often means very anti-communist, which can often translate into things that appear to be and can feel like being rather anti-North Korea. So, what [are] the North Korean refugees supposed to do in a situation like that? How can they process and be honest about their experiences as North Koreans and as refugees in a community that is so anti-communist and has such very strong stereotypes about who and what a North Korean refugee is? It’s like a little box, like [if] you’re a North Korean refugee, then you should be like this,” Yuh said. 

Due to the restrictive nature of the term “Korean American,” Yuh said she prefers to use the terms “Korean diaspora” or “diasporic Koreans” in her work. She said this phrasing allows for a more nuanced understanding of the Korean experience in the United States. 

“[The term] recognizes that Korean Americans and the Chicago Korean community is part of a larger whole. It’s part of a global diaspora of Koreans,” she explained. “They’re all connected by a variety of threads of history, language, family history, culture, etc.”

Bultasa Buddhist Temple of Chicago, a Korean Buddhist temple. By Albert Lee for Midstory. 

As the Korean American community and the discourse surrounding it evolves, members have been looking toward the future. One of the events that has had the greatest impact on the course of the community is the COVID-19 pandemic. McLuen noted that the attacks on Korean Americans’ wellbeing, particularly that of seniors, both by the virus and the recent rise in anti-Asian hate, have had broad effects on mental health. She said that this issue is particularly hard to address with older clients because of the stigma surrounding mental health in the community. 

To help destigmatize the issue, Hanul ran a minority mental health campaign in the summer of 2021. The organization has also partnered with the University of Michigan School of Information to conduct interviews with older clients. McLuen said that the feedback collected from these conversations will be used to inform their behavioral health program, which Hanul hopes to expand in the future. 

“We’re really looking to create more of a mental health hub, particularly out in Lake County. And I think our big goal with that is extending and expanding services of mental health, behavioral health and substance use disorders out to all ages within the Asian American Pacific Islander community,” McLuen said. 

Outside the Bulta Korean school. By Albert Lee for Midstory. 

When discussing the services Hanul provides to seniors, McLuen emphasized the opportunities for social connection they offer amid an isolating pandemic, particularly their meal program. 

“This recent surge with Omicron has been really, really tough because we know how important that is to our clients who come for the lunch service. But I think even when they’re able to come for pickup, that’s really nice — just to be able to see everybody’s faces and just briefly check in,” she said. 

In tune with changes in Hanul’s surroundings, McLuen also said that the organization hopes to expand its programs to better serve groups outside of the Korean American community. One upcoming initiative is a low-income housing development project started in partnership with the Native American and Indigenous community in Albany Park. 

“We’re really excited about that potential right there. It’s a great connection to have. And I think it’s a good learning experience for us, too,” she said. 

As Korean Americans in Chicagoland continue to navigate through the pandemic, the next few years seem uncertain. McLuen said that it was important to continue discussing issues affecting the community. 

“All of this kind of anti-Asian rhetoric, the targeting of our older adult clients, in particular, is definitely ongoing. And it’s something that still deserves as much visibility as it was getting when it was first happening,” she said. 

Korean Chicagoans, however, will likely face challenges beyond the obstacles presented by COVID-19. Yuh said that Korean Americans’ response to internal divisions would play a critical role in determining the future of the community. 

“I think you’re going to see a continuation of this bifurcation, where the differences among Korean Americans in Chicago become increasingly visible,” she said. “So the question really is: will Korean Americans, all of these diverse backgrounds, class backgrounds, racial backgrounds, immigration backgrounds, etc. — will they be able to find and build some kind of common ground so that they can be a diverse, inclusive, connected Korean American community? Or are those differences going to become so weighty that there are separate Korean American communities? I think that’s still up in the air.”


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