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Hancock Park’s Korean councilman jumps into role of Jewish ally

The fact that David Ryu, the first Korean American elected to the Los Angeles City Council, serves under Mayor Eric Garcetti, the first Jew elected mayor, seems to be no coincidence.
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July 6, 2016

The fact that David Ryu, the first Korean American elected to the Los Angeles City Council, serves under Mayor Eric Garcetti, the first Jew elected mayor, seems to be no coincidence.

As the councilman explained during a recent interview at his City Hall office, the two diasporas — Korean and Jewish — have a lot in common, not least a drive toward upward mobility. 

In 2015, Ryu defeated his Jewish opponent, Carolyn Ramsay, a former aide to Ryu’s predecessor, Tom LaBonge, winning election to the 4th Council District. Along the way, he also inherited large Jewish constituencies in Hancock Park and Sherman Oaks.

The Korean-born Ryu, who is a regional board member for the Anti-Defamation League, said he has drawn on his own immigrant background to understand the needs of other communities.

During a half-hour interview, Ryu, a youthful 40-year-old, discussed how Jews and Koreans can form deep and abiding bonds, why he pushed to temporarily shut down one of L.A.’s most popular parks, and about whether the city will be able to finally tip the scale on homelessness.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Jewish Journal: You recently got back from a seven-day trip to Israel with The Jewish Federation. What did you think?

David Ryu: I went to Tel Aviv, as well, but I think Jerusalem is amazing. Except for all the cats, it’s an amazing place, because it’s very global. It’s not just the amount of tourism, but pretty much all the religions are there, all the different communities are there, and it’s rich in history. … When I retire, I’ll really consider moving over there. But man, prices over there — you think it’s high here.

JJ: We don’t see a whole lot of collaboration between the Jewish-American and Korean-American communities in Los Angeles. How do we change that?

DR: May was Asian Heritage Month. One of the community leaders from the Orthodox Jewish community [asked me], “David, did you know that May is also Jewish heritage month?” I didn’t know that. … Honestly, as a non-Jewish person, it’s funny, because both communities have for decades been trying to build relationships, and we always do mixers once in a while, and different types of events. But it’s really hard to break in. And I’m sure as a Jewish person trying to break into the Asian-American or Korean community, it’s the same thing, too.

JJ: Are there opportunities for Jews and Koreans to build solidarity?

DR: I think there are so many similarities, in particular, between Jewish Americans and the Korean Americans, not just Asian Americans, but Korean Americans in particular. If you look at it, it’s almost like we’re always one step right behind the Jewish Americans. In the Watts riots, 1965, many of the liquor store owners were Italians and Jews. … When the Jewish community and the Italian community kind of made enough money and started moving on, the Korean community was the next wave. … All the garment industry in downtown L.A. was Jewish-run and owned. But they sold, and they started moving to the Westside, and guess who bought that? The Korean Americans!

JJ: One of the first things you did in your district was to call for a temporary shutdown of Runyon Canyon, a popular Hollywood hiking spot. What was behind that decision?

DR: Runyon Canyon is being loved to death. … There are 11 miles of “graded F” pipes in the city of L.A. [based on an analysis by the Department of Water and Power on the likeliness of pipe failure]. One mile is in Runyon Canyon. So Runyon Canyon alone has pretty much 9 percent of the entire city’s “graded F” pipes So, you know, once in a while you see pipes bursting and streets caving in. … It’s been on the project list to be fixed for five years. So when I got elected and found out about it, I said, “We’ve got to do this right away.”

JJ: Before you were elected, you worked in the social services sector, including at one of the largest mental health facilities in the county. What do you feel Los Angeles can do to address the issue of homelessness? 

DR: This time is so historic. … It seems like just rhetoric, but honestly, this is the first time where the city, the county, the state and the feds are actually working collaboratively together. We’re not just saying we are — we literally are. Before, everyone used to work in silos. The city and county relationship was so bad. … [Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority] was formed, because the city sued the county. That’s how bad the relationship was. It was always finger pointing: “You’re not doing it; you’re not doing it.” The city would blame the county; the county would blame the city. … Now it’s a different day.

JJ: So are you confident that the city’s figured out a formula to finally make a dent in the homeless population?

DR: Yes, the formula is collaboration. …  Before, when someone got released from jail, you walked out the door and that’s it. So it’s straight to Skid Row. Now, how do we do a coordinated entry, so we know when they’re getting released? … Domestic violence victims, foster care and seniors are the three most highly vulnerable [groups] at risk of becoming homeless. So what happens? We always talk about the highest risk — what happens when they fall out? Where do they go? How do they get connected? … How does this whole collaborative system work? That’s what’s crucial. That’s what’s key.

JJ: Two of your fellow councilmembers just proposed putting a $1 billion bond on the November ballot to address homelessness. What do you think about the idea of a bond measure?

DR: Yes, we need more money. I want to hear more about it. I’m a little bit conflicted about it, because yes, we need more resources, but at the same time, money isn’t going to do it. … You could throw money hand over fist — it’s not going to solve it. It’s about making sure we get the proper treatment. It costs more to send somebody to jail than to college. It costs more for them to go through this recidivism, this revolving door, through all this treatment, than actually providing them services. So it’s about figuring all this out. … We have to fix this system, make sure this system works, prove to taxpayers that we know how to use the money properly, before we ask for more money. But again, if the voters are willing to give the money, I don’t want to turn it away.

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