Dallas Koreatown’s long push for official city recognition heightens after shooting

Calls for the city to designate the district as an official Koreatown have intensified since the salon shooting last week. Locals say it would bolster a sense of safety and community.

May 21, 2022, 3:30 AM CDT
By Hanna Park | NBC News

Joann Roh was surprised by the limited police presence around her Dallas restaurant the day after a shooting at a hair salon next door last week injured three women of Korean descent.

“I can’t help but wonder if it’s because we’re a Korean community,” Roh, who owns Sura Korean Bistro and knew the salon owners, told NBC Asian America.

Local advocates say a sense of safety and community could be bolstered by having the neighborhood officially designated as a Koreatown, a status and recognition from the city it currently does not have.

The area serves as a home to the second-largest Korean American community in the South, outside of Atlanta. Within the last decade in particular, locals have banded together to seek the designation. Its significance has been highlighted by the shooting.

On Tuesday, authorities arrested Jeremy Theron Smith, a 36-year-old Black man on three charges of aggravated assault, and said the May 11 shooting is a hate crime.

Dallas Police Chief Eddie Garcia said Smith had suffered “panic attacks and delusions when he is around anyone of Asian descent” after a car crash two years ago with a man of Asian descent.

The city’s police said last week that two other recent shootings at Asian-run businesses may be connected, indicating that the attacks could be motivated by hate. Garcia said on Tuesday that police are still investigating whether Smith was involved. The description of the suspect’s car was the same in all three, police said.

A portrait of the district
The red and blue taegeuk, a symbol featured on the national flag of South Korea, is dotted on a large sign near Harry Hines Boulevard and Royal Lane. The vivid swirl, similar to yin and yang, signifies the perpetually changing yet complementary forces of life: light and darkness, good and evil. Here, it could be seen as an unofficial mark of the area known as Koreatown.

The area, known to some as the first or Old Koreatown, is roughly a one-mile stretch in the 2.5-mile-long Asian Trade District, largely comprised of Korean-owned businesses, from banks, plazas, strip malls to salons, restaurants, bakeries and other small businesses. It has existed for at least 40 years but has still not been granted official recognition and protection that would allow for significant and cherished historic resources.

While Koreatowns in other major cities, such as Los Angeles and New York, have been officially designated, a Korean community that has had roots in the city for at least 50 years is still asking for rights to own their communal space.

Asiana Plaza in Dallas.Raul Rodriguez for NBC News

Roh said that the salon’s owners frequented her restaurant at least once a week during lunch breaks or for dinner to wind down after closing their store. Her husband had often got his hair cut at their salon. The owners often ordered yukgaejang, a spicy brisket soup with bracken, or chulpan nakgi bibimbap, spicy stir-fried octopus, she said.

Roh said she wondered what safety measures would have been put in place if the shooting had occurred in a predominantly white neighborhood. She pointed out that many recent immigrants don’t know how to bring up security concerns with the authorities, because of language barriers, a lack of familiarity with the system or a lack of resources.

The push to be Koreatown
John Lee, of the Greater Dallas Korean American Chamber of Commerce, said that in the early-to-mid-2010s, when he was president of the organization, he pushed for a designated Koreatown. The group revitalized its efforts last year, including meetings with the city’s planning and urban design officials and a City Council member, Omar Narvaez.

Lee believes that once the area on Royal Lane from Harry Hines Boulevard to Luna Road is given designation, it would offer refuge and identity for the immigrants who work long hours to provide their families with a safe, comfortable life in a metropolis with a fast-growing Asian American population.

“It creates a sense of community and a sense of self-control,” Lee said of an official Koreatown designation. “When you don’t have that, you don’t own it as much as you want to. By doing that, we have the opportunity for our community to own an area that we can call ours. We can create that sense of belonging and sense of community, and sense of support for each other.”

The area currently does not have an official sign, which community leaders are asking for from the city.

“The sign is the most important part, like you have on 32nd Street and Broadway,” said Lee, who sits at the board of directors of the organization, referring to Manhattan’s “Korea Way” sign. “We need that sign up, and we want that designated.”

Lee said that because of the pandemic and bureaucracy, such as shifts in personnel, they are still in the early stages, even though they have been discussing designation for awhile. He pointed out that while there are various forms of designating an area, such as a historic district, special district, or business district, the organization is still working with the city to agree on one.

Jennifer Brown, a spokesperson for the city, wrote in an email, “We are still working through what that designation would look like, so are not able to comment in detail about the potential process or contents at this time.”

Brown added that official designation is in the “very beginning stages,” and that the city is now “helping them to identify a boundary, priorities, and potential resources.”

Lee said that while the community has a “strong, outstanding relationship” with the city and police, this issue brings to the forefront the need for additional security measures in a communal sense.

John Jun, a City Council member in the Dallas suburb of Coppell, said that the area transformed in the early 1980s from an industrial region notorious for crime to a thriving district after wholesale businesses settled in the area.

“Because of brave Korean entrepreneurs who started their businesses there, it evolved into what it is today,” he said.

For owners like Roh, this means increasing surveillance cameras in the area.

“We have CCTVs inside our restaurant, but not outside,” Roh said. “I wish we had more cameras to alleviate any customers’ fears.”

Senior Cpl. Melinda Gutierrez, a Dallas police spokeswoman, said that “additional officers have been assigned and have been patrolling the neighborhood” and that every station has been advised to increase high-visibility patrols in Asian communities.

Another police spokeswoman, Kristin Lowman, said the department started putting three trailer cameras in the area after the salon shooting: One is now at Royal Lane and Harry Hines, a second was installed Tuesday in the neighborhood, and the third will be at Walnut Hill and Harry Hines.

Still, locals like Roh wish that stronger measures could have been implemented prior to the shootings.

“These efforts should take place before a tragedy occurs in preparation for it,” she said. “And it should be maintained. If it’s only a passing fixation after this incident, we’re still going to see tragedy after tragedy. I don’t want anything like this to happen anymore.”