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When the Upper East Side’s Elite Protested an Immigrant’s Park Avenue Deli

821 park avenue

821 Park Avenue today (Google Maps)

Location, location, location: the old adage used by real estate pros to emphasize the three most important factors in determining a property’s desirability. In 1984, Korean immigrant Kyung-Sung Choi put that cliché to the test when he attempted to open a 24-hour delicatessen on the northeast corner of 75th and Park Avenue.

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In February of that year, while remodeling a space that was previously occupied by a florist, Choi received a stop-work order from both the City Buildings Department and the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Neighbors were upset, Community Board 8 filed a complaint, and the site became a regular stop for inspectors and police. Representatives from The Friends of the Upper East Side, founded in 1982, also came through to oversee the renovations as engineers, architects and lawyers reviewed zoning laws and Choi’s plumbing diagrams, looking for technicalities to catch him on.

This left Choi shell-shocked, as he thought a 24-hour deli with fruits, vegetables and other foods would be a welcome addition to the neighborhood. Leading the opposition was Shirley Bernstein.

“Do the residents of Park Avenue want to look out the window at vegetables?” Bernstein asked rhetorically in an interview with the New York Times. “They most certainly do not.”

Bernstein had lived in the building across the street from Choi’s controversial site since 1950 and felt the delicatessen would be “despoiling” to the neighborhood. She took to the streets, distributing 750 fliers urging residents to protest to city offices in opposition to Choi’s deli.

While The Times was interviewing Bernstein, her phone rang constantly from concerned callers. She told those on the other line that Choi’s delicatessen would ruin the character of the neighborhood, decrease property values, generate litter attracting rats, and disturb their sleep with noise and neon lights. She also feared the element of criminals and “a generally undesirable type of person that we are not accustomed to.”

Then came a phone call from Choi.

“Oh, absolutely not!” she said. “Your being Korean has nothing to do with this. I am not prejudiced. I employ Chinese people.”

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During the conversation, Choi explained that he would keep his fruits and vegetables inside, and he asked Bernstein what kind of food would be acceptable to her.

“We do not want a food store of any kind,” she answered. “Flowers might be all right,” referencing the previous business occupying the space. “Or chocolates. Yes, Swiss or Belgian chocolates.” Bernstein ended the call saying that their lawyer would call his lawyer. “I am sorry about all of this, but you must understand that you have your ways and we have ours.”

In 1961, rezoning designated Park Avenue exclusively residential between 60th and 96th streets. However, the existing stores were permitted to remain, as they were already established. Essentially, Choi’s site at 821 Park Avenue was grandfathered in.

The Times reported that Manhattan Borough President Andrew J. Stein had opposed the delicatessen, along with State Assemblyman Mark Alan Siegel, a Democrat of the East Side whose spokesman said he was “considering legislation to ensure that this can never happen again.”

But as newspapers and television broadcasts covered the dispute, champions for the 35-year-old Choi, a college graduate who came to America from Seoul five years earlier and ran a Carvel in Brooklyn before his delicatessen venture, came out in support.

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Days after the initial New York Times story, Sydney Schanberg penned an opinion piece about the matter, calling out a “misguided” Bernstein. “Maybe she has a point. Have you ever watched the criminal activity that goes on at Korean greengrocers? The illegal squeezing of tomatoes is enough to make you want to call 911.”

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Most shocking, Schanberg pointed out that the previous tenants, Flowers by Cort, used the location as a heroin dealing front. “They also arranged to set off bombs at a competing florist’s shop five blocks away. Upon arrest, the drug traffickers pleaded guilty and are now serving up to eight years in a Federal penitentiary.”

One government official in Choi’s corner was City Comptroller Harrison J. Goldin. During an overflowing capacity press conference at the deli, amidst empty shelves and unpacked boxes, Goldin repeated his statement multiple times so every reporter could hear it.

“What is this country, this city, about if not a place of opportunity where law-abiding, hard-working people can come and make a life for themselves and their families, as so many other Americans have done?”

Despite the commotion, well-wishers came in and out all day long, offering words of support to Choi; some handing him checks.

In the face of adversity, Choi listened and showed good faith. When the landmark commission issued a Stop Work Order on the deli because he replaced the wooden door with a glass one, he changed it back.  The Department of Buildings ordered work to cease because he was using the basement for storage, which was not covered by the zoning exemption. Choi said he wouldn’t store perishable food down there and would seek permits and variances to appease the DOB.

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Since people didn’t like the term delicatessen, he named his place Park 75 Gourmet Food, and decided not to prepare any hot food. Additionally, he abandoned the idea of putting up a canopy, shortened the hours of operation to 17, and would only do deliveries during the day. With the changes, Lenore Norman, Executive Director of the Landmarks Preservation Commission said, “From our point of view, it seems we will be able to resolve the situation.” Buildings Commissioner Robert Esnard said Choi had to get approval for a variance covering half his store, noting that approval would be probable and, if granted, “he’ll be allowed to open.”

In a matter of days, Borough President Stein expressed a desire to dissociate himself from the “radical and economic overtones that the debate has degenerated into,” as reported The New York Times. In an earlier interview with a WPIX-TV reporter, Stein asserted that the delicatessen was “really not the kind of usage you should have on Park Avenue,” citing concerns about increased traffic and garbage.

“I don’t mind if it was on Madison Avenue or Lexington or another avenue and 75th. But I think Park Avenue has a distinct character, and in terms of the Upper East Side Historic District I believe it should be stopped.” However, days later, Stein contacted The New York Times, denying that he was ever against the delicatessen.

“My position was that I was opposed to it if it violated building and zoning codes and the landmarks law, but I was not opposed to it categorically. Perhaps I should have been more precise about that. Perhaps it was my fault for not making my position clearer.”

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On April 7, 1984, The New York Times reported the grand opening of Park 75 Gourmet Food. City Comptroller Harrison J. Goldin declared it “an example of government helping hard-working people.” Jae Taik Kim, a professor at John Jay College, called it “a watershed for Asian immigrants.” Hattie Reynolds, purchasing a tomato, called it a deli; a humorous callback to the op-ed written by Sydney Schanberg. Nearby neighbor Lillian Stern shook her head at the door. “It’s a real pity. It spoils the neighborhood.” Two days earlier, Mrs. Bernstein said she wouldn’t comment on the store’s opening.

Mr. Choi said he had “learned much about this country” from the experience. He gave away small ribbon-wrapped boxes of chocolate to his first 375 customers. “Imported,” he said with a grin while holding up one of the boxes of Cote d’Or Bouchees. “Belgian.” Good chocolates make good neighbors, he added.

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Right when you walked into Park 75 Gourmet Food there was a display of chocolates imported from Belgium and Switzerland, amongst others. There was also some Doux de Montagne cheese for $6.95 a pound and 14 different selections of imported coffee beans.

In July 1984, Choi remarked that “business [was] pretty good…people are treating me very nicely. They like my store.” He didn’t want to dwell on the past, stating, “I want to think about the future. I want to try to do my best for the neighborhood.” Food baskets adorned the windows, accompanied by honeydew and Spanish melons, oranges and grapefruits. Notably absent were vegetables.

Fast forward to 2001, a follow-up story by the New York Times reported, “Today, all is peachy at the store, now called the Gorgeous Market.” The new owner, Moonum Kim, had taken over but was away visiting Korea. The woman working the register stated, “No one complains about this place. Business has been fine. People from the neighborhood come in. We have a lot of charge accounts. The owner has great relations with the neighborhood people.”

The Times also found Shirley Bernstein, the leader of the 1984 opposition, who still lived across the street and continued to live there until her passing in 2008.

“Some people were complaining about the quality of what they were selling, but that was a long time ago,” said Bernstein about Choi’s shop. At 84 years old, Bernstein mentioned she never went inside, stating, “I never do much shopping on my own…I still don’t think groceries belong on Park Avenue.”

Today, 821 Park Avenue is an art gallery, known as Park & 75, New York. Records of when Gorgeous Market officially closed are elusive.


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