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When a contingent of Annandale’s civic leaders named their downtown “The Annandale Village Centre,” they were aiming to re-create the experience of Old Town Alexandria, where people can walk to specialty shops on brick sidewalks along quaint streets.
The Annandale Chamber of Commerce’s Web site and brochures published by Fairfax County try to convey old-fashioned charm, with photos of downtown scenes: a Civil War-era church, a rustic barn and a farmers market.
In reality, the face of downtown Annandale — a collection of aging strip malls and low-rise office buildings — has changed from white to Asian, and its unofficial, oft-invoked moniker is Koreatown.
Although a visitor wouldn’t know it from the Chamber of Commerce fliers, signs with large Korean characters — subtitled with tiny English words — fill Annandale’s urban streetscape. They advertise a wide range of businesses: electronic stores showing off the latest gadgets from Asia, plush lawyer and realty offices, incense-filled medicine shops, pulsing karaoke bars and dance clubs and 39 Korean restaurants.
Still, the term Koreatown offends some members of the area’s civic associations who are mostly non-Asian and who protest whenever their hometown is referred to as a Korean enclave, especially because relatively few Koreans live there.
“Koreatown is a divisive word,” said Eileen Garnett, a civic leader who has lived in the neighborhood for more than three decades. “We can be more than that, and we don’t want to become that… . We like to see this as an inclusive place.”
Yet many Koreans who work in the Village Centre and who run more than half its businesses said they feel slighted by such comments and ask: Why shouldn’t the area be known as Koreatown? After all, many Korean business owners said, the downtown was faltering before they came along. Today, it is thriving.
“Many Korean Americans will say Annandale is Koreatown, but I don’t think that should make anyone upset,” said Young Kim, president of the Korean American Association of Greater Washington. “I understand why [non-Koreans] don’t like that. I just hope they understand what Koreans have done for Annandale.”
“I think Annandale is going to be one of those Koreatowns like in Los Angeles or New York, whether the chamber of commerce likes it or not,” Kim said.
In response to the idea that Annandale needed a “walkable” downtown, “someone started suggesting that we build a shopping plaza underground and that was something that he [had] in Korea, and those of us who were not Korean were sort of aghast,” Gross said. “That’s not the way we do it here, but it gave me the sense that we are dealing with some real cultural differences.”
(Posted on March 15, 2005)