Friday, January 26, 2007

Dinner in Jongno, Redevelopment in Hongdae

Last Saturday I met up with my friend Scott Bug and was taken through the back alleys of the Jongno area, where he's lived for many years, to a restaurant where I had a chance to try Chueotang (Mudfish soup) for the first time. Below is a shot of the outside of the restaurant, which dates back to 1932, and the alley it was situated in:

Inside, it's not a large restaurant; there's only room for six tables. In the picture below, the mirror on the opposite wall helps to give an idea of the space inside.

And here's the chueotang itself, which was delicious, before I added the noodles on the left and the green onions just off to the right. The mudfish were essentially the consistency of paste, with the soup also consisting of mushrooms and tofu. It was tasty and filling, and something I look forward to having again in the near future.

After dinner we headed north of Jongno into the narrow alleyways hidden away there. On weekdays Jongno's office workers keep this area busy, but on weekends it's very quiet.

We stopped in for a drink in a cosy place tucked away at the end of an alley and were entertained by a poet and artist in his sixties with no front teeth who showed us the examples of his work which were displayed all over the walls of the establishment. He took it upon himself to be our host, whether we wished it or not, but it was all good fun, and the music, much of it Korean rock music from the '60s and '70s, was great (I'm still trying to track down the original version of Lee Jang-hee's "Geugeonneo" that we heard there, but all I can find is a horrific synth version from the 1980s). Though he was intent on continuing to entertain us, we politely extricated ourselves and headed off to Cafe Sukara in Hongdae to see an exhibition put on by someone we'd met a few weeks previously:

The name of the exhibition was "Seogyo-dong 365 - I think this building is beautiful." The building and address in question refer to a narrow strip of buildings which essentially run down the middle of the street in Hongdae which runs between (and parallel to) the street the subway station is on and the street which runs in front of the entrance to Hongik University. I've been told that this is essentially the last strip of these older buildings in the area. When I first saw them over five years ago, they contained a lot of restaurants and tiny, almost anonymous "Soju-beer-hof" places. Over the past three years dozens of tiny clothing shops have taken over the southern part of this strip of buildings, but despite this gentrification the area still retains its charm (and in fact one of my favourite haunts in Hongdae can be found here).

Above is a photo taken on the west side of the strip of buildings (which are on the right) near its southern end. The exhibition has a number of interesting photographs of these buildings from many different angles, as well as some that show the changes of the past few years. Most remarkable, however, is a series of photos taken facing each building running down the entire length of both sides of the strip. The result can be seen in the postcard for the exhibition I showed above, or, more clearly, here:

Keep in mind that this excerpt shows only a quarter of the composite photo (a tiny version of the exhibition can be seen here). What's remarkable is the way in which the two long photos, one for each side of the strip, generate an identity for these buildings by allowing us to see them all at once, as a whole. The viewer is given both a sense of space and place, and it certainly gave me a new appreciation for these buildings. More can be found out about this at their website, (which seems to work best with IE), which also helps to give a sense of the community surrounding these buildings. There you can find pages with photos which help to give you a sense of where these buildings are, while this page gives directions to the cafe where the exhibit is being held.

Of course, there's another reason for displaying photos about these buildings: they might not be with us for much longer. A look at the map below where help give you a sense of where everything is so I can talk about it more clearly (I also note, just right of center, the location of Cafe Sukara):

In the bottom left corner in yellow are the aformentioned buildings; notice how that strip is dwarfed by all of the surrounding buildings. Across the street, in white, is the wide 'pedestrian' street (created through a previous redevelopment - note the 'swirly' design of the streets there). At the northern end it connects to the wide swath running from northwest to south east, outlined in red. This area is being excavated so that the Incheon Airport Railway and the Seoul-Sinuiju Railway can run underground. The ultimate plan for this area is shown in the promotional posters below:

They plan to turn it into a 5 km long park, a "New Daehangno" (note the swirly design of the park, and the fact that the previously mentioned pedestrian street of meandering design is to merge with this park. Extend the logic of the park space displayed in this poster to the other end of that pedestrian street and, of course, the strip of buildings at Seogyo-dong 365 has to go - it'll get in the way of these grandiose plans. The picture above doesn't give much of a sense of scale (these advertisements for developments never do, as they exaggerate the size of whatever is being built to rediculous proportions - hell, some would knock Namsan out of the way to make some lego-block officetel look more spectacular on the poster), but the one below suggests that the park will be widened quite a bit beyond the current width of the railway tracks:

Now, it seems to me this could be another version of Cheonggyecheon: an 'environmental' development (hey, it's park space, not parking spaces!) which will lead to massive redevelopment in the area around it (the Ahyeon new town will be built quite close to this future park, to begin with). Most of the housing in the area is quite old; for example, this photo taken back in May of the construction begun near Hongdae station shows at least one hanok (care to bet if it's still there?):

Is the city, with its massive redevelopment plans (Cheonggyecheon, 50 New Towns, it's new park corridors) really going to let a 5 km long park touted as the 'New Daehangno' sit surrounded by villas and houses dating from the 1970s and 1980s? I think not. What do you think they mean by New Daehangno, anyways? I don't think of parks when Daehangno comes to mind, I think of cafes and bars (ok, and theatres) and consumption. I imagine this park space will be surrounded by loads of commercial space and perhaps a few officetels (okay, maybe a lot of them). I'm rather certain this is going to become another cash-cow for the developers, and the scene below is only the beginning.

Of course, every day in Seoul is the beginning of a new development, so it's nothing to get too excited about. I just wish this future monster of a development could keep it's tentacles off of the Seogyo 365 buildings. Will the city ever get a clue and realize that the part of Hongdae surrounding that strip of buildings is one of the more unique areas in the city, and doesn't need to be improved by razing it to the ground and replacing it with a concrete pedestrian street? (watch out for the cars!)

Hongdae is one of those places that gets touted for its club scene in magazines and newspapers catering to foreigners (while providing fodder for the local tabloids due to the mix of Koreans and foreigners, but that's another story). Does the city really think Hongdae will become more attractive to the eyes of foreign tourists (or even its own residents) by making it look exactly like something they'd see back home? At some point people will look back at some of these lost neighbourhoods and regret their disappearance - all too late. Many people have, of course, but it's just not a point of view that gets much airtime or sympathy from those with the power to knock things down and build them back up, and those people have too many dollar signs in their eyes to see beyond them. Kudos to those responsible for the Seogyo 365 exhibit, which exists at an intersection of art, architecture and protest.

I linked to the directions to Cafe Sukara above, and also pointed it out on the satellite map. The exhibit finishes next Monday (the 29th), but if you have a chance, do stop in, grab a coffee, and have a look around.

Oh, it turns out the Hankyoreh has an article about this exhibition (in Korean).


Jon Allen said...

Interesting post. I've been around that area and I am following the construction work on the railway.
They do seem to be keeping to the narrow band of land the original railway was on so far, but as you say they may expand later.

It is constant source of amazement to me that such rundown and tatty areas in Seoul can be so close to the bright new and shiny areas. Koreans do seem to like the new and clean look so I don't hold much hope for some of those shops.

Mark Russell said...

(Apologies in advance for the long post).

I actually disagree with you on this... somewhat. Cities grow, cities change, and what is happening in Hongdae is natural, inevitable ... and even healthy.

The great cycle is not unique to Hongdae and pretty much unavoidable, as far as I can tell. Poor neighborhood -> artists move in -> cool shops move in -> galleries move in -> investors move in -> rich people move in -> artists move out.

Attempts to control these changes often fall prey to the law of unintended consequences. For example, that strip of shops (from the 365 exhibit) evolved in part *because* it was slated for demolition. Plans to get rid of those buildings have been in the works for years... which is one reason the shops there are affordable. I believe they have no (or almost no) downpayment fees, and rents are pretty low, allowing more artsy types to move in. If the government said reversed its position, rents would go way up and those nice bars and clothing shops would not be able to afford the location.

(Now that I write this, I find myself wondering how Tokyo's Golden-gai district in Shinjuku managed to save itself from redevelopment. I heard that it has been slated for renewal for 60 years now. I'm guessing benign neglect, and I think the shopkeepers actually own their shops there. But I do not know for sure).

Will people regret losing those old buildings? Undoubtedly some will. Just like older people in that neighborhood regret losing the rice fields that were there up until the 1950s (60s?). I'm not recommending paving paradise to put up parking lots, but until Koreans show what is important to them by buying those sites and refusing to sell to developers, I do not see what alternative there is.

Many bars and galleries have been moving out of the Hongdae core for some time. Trying to stop that is like rolling a bolder uphill. If you want to improve Korea's arts and music scene, I think it would be far more fruitful to get rid of all the mindless government regulations that actively prevent diverse and interesting stuff gaining much traction.

On one hand, I wish there were more enlightened people in government and zoning boards, planning Hongdae's growth with a more subtle and interesting eye on the future. On the other hand, I never like government mucking about in the arts. Organizing artists is like herding cats.

Hrm. My thoughts are a little scattered, especially toward the end. Sorry about that.

Mark Russell said...

Oh, forgot to mention, I lived in Donggyo-dong when the train tracks construction started. The train had a vaguely romantic feel to it, especially in the evenings. And it was neat seeing military equipment go down the tracks from time to time.

But most of that train line goes through residential neighborhoods. Having a safe, open area where people can walk/play/whatever is a good idea, as far as I'm concerned.