Ki Suh Park always found hope amid disaster.
As a young man in South Korea in the early 1950s, Park witnessed the Korean War destroy his motherland and dreamed of becoming an architect one day, so that he could rebuild the country. Four decades later, on the other end of the Pacific Ocean, he would emerge a prominent Los Angeles architect and community leader who helped to rebuild Koreatown, after the devastating 1992 L.A. riots.
Park died Jan. 16 after a four-year battle with pancreatic cancer. The architect, responsible for such Korean American landmarks as the Koreatown Plaza on Western Avenue, was 80.
“I had such faith in the future,” Park said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 1994. “If I work really hard and do my best, opportunity will open up for me, and that’s what attracted me to come to this country. I still believe that.”
Park was a respected leader of the Korean American and civic community, having been an active member of various community-based nonprofit boards, such as the Korean American Coalition, the Korean American Museum, the California Community Foundation, the Public Policy Institute of California, the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum and the Los Angeles World Affairs Council.
“Park will be remembered for his distinguished career and success as an architect and city planner,” said Kevin S. Kim, chairman of the board of BBCN Bank, for which Park had served as honorary chairman. “His legacy will remain a source of inspiration for generations of Korean Americans. Our thoughts and deepest sympathies are with his wife, three sons and all other members of his family.”
Born on March 15, 1932, the second of nine children, Park moved to Southern California during the Korean War in 1953.
As the bloody war unfolded before his eyes, the 18-year-old feared that he would be coerced into joining the North Korean communist forces and decided to escape the country. Park then wrote an emotional letter to the Los Angeles Times, expressing his desire to study in the United States to achieve his dream of rebuilding his destroyed country.
“I am anxious to continue an education in the United States in order to be of value to the rebuilding of Korea,” Park wrote in the letter, which was printed by the Times on May 5, 1952. “One day, the war in Korea will be over. Then Korea will rebuild. I want to take part in rebuilding it.”
An Indiana congressman and renowned illustrator Norman Rockwell would play critical roles in helping Park to immigrate to the U.S. After studying at East L.A. College and then the University of California, Berkeley, Park went on to earn his graduate degrees and city planning at MIT. He got his first job at the Los Angeles-based architecture firm Gruen Associates in 1961, when few Asian Americans were in the field.
Twenty years after working at Gruen Associates, Park was promoted to managing partner of the firm. He played a critical role in building numerous landmarks in the city, with notable projects including the Los Angeles Convention Center expansion, Koreatown Plaza, the Segerstrom Concert Hall in Orange County, and the Metro Gold and Orange lines.
Planning and designing the 105 Freeway, in particular, remains as Park’s signature accomplishment. He was praised for handling the contentious talks with the surrounding communities with skill and sensitivity, as he sat down with the residents to listen to their concerns about the effects of the freeway’s path across the neighborhoods.
Despite his original dream to return to Korea to help rebuild it after the war, Park would remain in the United States, playing a major role in helping to rebuild a city in his adopted country. He is credited for his efforts to establish common ground among Korean American business owners and African American community members following the 1992 L.A. riots.
“Ki Suh [Park] devoted his life to making Los Angeles a better place by promoting smart urban planning, advocating for racial justice and improving the quality of life for people and their communities,” said Jack H. Knott, dean of the University of Southern California’s Price School, in a statement.
Park is survived by his wife Ildong, sons David, Kevin and Edwin, along with four grandchildren and six siblings.
This article was published in the February 2013 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today!