Korean Grocer's Vision Of Opportunity Dims After Riots

LOS ANGELES - Buddy Lee says he wants a sign from God, or at least the government, before deciding if the post-riot restoration will include his Advance Food Market.

It looks less likely every day that he will rebuild the store that burned on the rundown stretch of West Adams Boulevard, five minutes from Beverly Hills, yet an economic eternity away.

Money isn't the issue for Lee, who came here from Korea 26 years ago with a college degree and $175. Insurance would cover the 1 million it would take to replace the market that he, his wife, Betty, and her brother bought four years ago.

The problem is the damage to his vision of opportunity through hard work and faith, said Lee, whose first job in the United States was as a $1.75-an-hour janitor. That vision was lost along with the market, when resentment against successful Korean-American merchants boiled over into looting and burning.

The riots occurred after the April 29 acquittals in the Rodney King police-beating trial.

Surveying what remains of his store - 16,000 square feet of concrete slab without so much as a single wall - Lee says the U.S. reminds him of King Solomon's final years, of personal indulgence and social chaos.

"We believe, unless something drastically changes in spirit in this country, this all will come again, maybe soon, maybe worse," he said.

The grafitti-dotted strip of West Adams where Lee's market sat is a gritty example of Los Angeles as the new Ellis Island, and of how that ethnic diversity has increased tensions in working-class African-American neighborhoods.

El Camaron Rosado serves up "chili frice" and "hamsanwish" along with lime-marinated fish and octopus cocktail. Men drink and quarrel in front of a Chinese laundry and Armenian bakery. Mexican music blares, as others in cowboy hats work under a parked car's hood.

A man in rags and dreadlocks, left sneaker untied, limps by the Frederick Douglass Child Development Center, located in a Baptist church building that looks lifted from an Alabama back road.

Crude "layaway OK" signs tout cut-rate furniture in Spanish and English; the Thai B-B-Q and Burgers restaurant is a wrecked shell behind a spiked security fence.

It was here that their vision of opportunity in the U.S. led the Lees four years ago to purchase the Balian Market, founded in 1926. They had been involved in the grocery business in various ways since 1971.

Buddy Lee, 53, still worked days as a dairy salesman, stopping by the market afterward. Betty Lee, 49, says ruefully, that after years of 12-hour days, she sometimes felt her customers were as much family as her children.

As they stand in the now-vacant lot, dozens of former customers stop by on foot, car and bicycle, chatting and offering consolations. African Americans complain of Koreans who employ only family members, care only about money, never take time to know their neighbors. The Lees broke the stereotype.

The market had eight employees from the area. It was also a social center, check-cashing point and, even, loan center for the neighborhood, where many residents are so poor they are without cars in one of the most car-dependent cities in the country.

"They had to limit me to three times a day at the store," said Alfred "RC Man" Maddox, a bearded bicyclist nicknamed for his favorite soft drink. "If I didn't have anything going on at home, I'd go to the store and just watch life go by."

Solly Mijach, a 64-year-old Los Angeles native, says the neighborhood has been steadily deteriorating, and she expects the worst: "I'm afraid we haven't seen the end of this."

"You know, I'm right here when you need me," said Calvin Holmes, a chef at Hamburger Hamlet who once got a quick $75 loan from Betty Lee when he needed money to fly to New Jersey for his sister's funeral.

It was mainly whites who fled inner cities after the 1960s riots. Members of many races now must decide whether to stay in riot-damaged parts of Los Angeles. For many Korean Americans, the answer is no, unless the government provides help in rebuilding and assurances they'll be protected in the future.

So, one recent weekend, the Lees drove to Huntington Beach in Orange County to look at a likely vacant lot to build a market. The competition from nearby Ralphs and Albertson's supermarkets would be formidable, they know.

"The only tool we have in this competition is our hard work, our spirit," Lee said.

For now, they're thinking it over. They are praying, waiting for a sign, at least an explanation of how police could have watched from a squad car as their business was attacked - a scene they say they videotaped.

"This is the devil's work," Betty Lee said. "This country, I thought, was a lawful country. All my life I respect the law. And then a lot of people just get away with everything. I just don't understand."

Buddy Lee realizes they are better off than many. A small-business loan would cover anything the insurance doesn't.

"Of the victims, we're in the best condition," he said. "But like I said, is it worth it to come back here?"