Thursday, July 14, 2011

Tongin market opens up to art : adaptation or yet another symptom of Seochon's "Bukchonization" ?

I often talk about Seoul's traditional markets as key cultural assets : the souls of Seoul villages, but tormented souls, often on the verge of extinction, and surviving only thanks to a few ageing customers and struggling producers.

If many markets keep a vibrant atmosphere, some can be quite depressing. I remember Sanggye Central Market (Sanggye Jungang Shijang) during its last years : inside, an old, dark, and mostly empty space with a low ceiling and miserable stands - but in the streets around the building, still a vibrant village atmosphere. Now instead of the large low rise hall there's a massive I-Park, and the streets look at the same time cleaner but less lively.

Even some relatively big markets look grim. Take Inwang Market, for instance : located at a major crossroads (Hongje-dong, Seodaemun-gu) and serving a relatively large population, this factory looking concrete mass, next to the derelict Yujin Arcade and the ugly Naebu Expressway, is not exactly inviting. Of course, visiting it is always an intense experience for me, beyond the nice pictures and that small place where they cook delicious handmade noodles. But the traffic is not as good as it should be, and obviously everybody struggles to make ends meet. Many people would like to come more often, but the place almost acts as a repellent even to old timers, and some go to much further traditional markets because they are more fun. Money will be invested here, and Yugin Sanga be destroyed to make room for a multiservice complex, but will Hongje modernize the market or replace it with a soulless shopping center ? This choice will be essential for the very identity of a strategic hub.

I'm not in favor of aggressive therapy to maintain markets when there's no potential, but I don't think it is right to destroy the ones that are still successful. I already mentioned Yeongcheon Market* as a potential collateral damage of urban redevelopment (its Eastern end is threatened by future towers). The traffic is good, the location great, the quality of the products much better than in most markets, and the dimensions perfect : here's a small but sustainable traditional market that enlivens the area. The buildings and its direct surroundings are in poor shape, but with a limited investment, this animated covered path can become an attraction coupled with the visit of Independence Gate, without losing its soul. Why not preserve a small triangle of real Seoul right in front of the soon to be erected Dongnimmun New Town ?

Like Yeongcheon Market, Tongin Market is basically a narrow street** whose roof and shops have been upgraded over the past few years without really revolutionizing the area. Much smaller than Yeongchan, Tongin doesn't claim as many visitors, and there's not the same feeling of abundance, but there's no other traditional market miles around except Geumcheon Market, and losing it could undermine the city's dream of saving Seochon.

Full of life and small eateries and very close to Gyeonbokkung Station, Geumcheon Market, on Geumcheon Bridge street (Geumcheondari-gil / 금천다리길, the small Chebu-dong street parallel to Sajikno), is rather an open air commercial street than a formal market. Seoul should be very careful about that one too, but Tongin Market is a real market place with a roof at the center of the soon to be revived Seochon.

I've often mentioned Seoul's plans to resuscitate this historical hotspot West of the Gyeonbokgung by protecting hanoks (see "
Stop The Hanok Genocide... And Stop Revival As Reenactment") or reopening an old stream (see "Baekundongcheon / Gwanghwamun-gil - A River Runs Through It"), as well as my worries about the risks of a "Bukchonization" for Seochon : on one hand you save a hanok cluster and create a popular touristic attraction full of cute boutiques, but on the other, this is not a real Seoul village anymore, just a gentrified area for wealthy people or guest houses, where daily life is not going on as normal. Hopefully, even if Seochon has evolved dramatically recently, it remains much better 'preserved' than Bukchon at the social level.

Tongin Market has a key role to play in the future at the heart of vernacular Seochon, particularly since Baekundongcheon renovation will not go all the way up along Jahamungil (the stream's original path), but take the diagonal across Tongin-dong and Chebu-dong instead, following a minor affluent, now the charming and winding street that leads to the small triangular plaza at the Western end of the market.

Can Tongin Market be saved ? It probably has to evolve, and I often imagined it, in a "boboization"**** scenario of Seochon's Western half, as some sort of a mini Camden market : small, vintage shops, but more indy than trendy. So I was not that much surprised to see the place opening up to amateur, arty installations.

It turns out that the Tongin Market Project is sponsored by local authorities as part of a much wider scheme : an article about it in today's Korea JoongAng Daily ("
Traditional markets remade in public art project") actually triggered this post.

Mercifully, this project is heralding proximity between the population and market shop owners, not turning the place into some pretentious art gallery. But change is definitely on the way.

I guess in the future most markets will have lost their original purpose, sometimes reclaiming it for an event. A market is both a meeting space and a meeting time, not necessarily permanent. Paris is sponsoring local markets so that every neighborhood can enjoy a traditional market once or twice a week on the street, and I guess that's what's coming for Seoul as well.

As for the buildings themselves, their souls, or life in Seoul villages, that's another story.

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* and its excellent ddeokbokki "
Wonjo Ddeokbokki - a.k.a. "Ddeoknimmun" (Seoul)"
** Tonginshijang-gil, between Pilundae-gil and Jahamun-gil (now Jahamundae-ro). A strategic part of vernacular Seochon, along with the Ogin-gil diagonal.
*** don't underestimate the place, though. For instance, that's where you'll find the best kimbab in Seochon.
**** "bobo" standing for the "bourgeois bohemians" sociostyle defined by David Brooks a decade ago.

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