Monday, December 26, 2011

Six lanes of traffic

If you want to open a shop in Seoul, the three most expensive places per square meter are Myeongdong, Hongdae, and Daehangno. And if you consider neighborhoods with the highest total value for commercial space, you get the same trio, followed by Gangnam Station (Cheongdam-dong / Nonhyeon-dong, Gangnam-gu), Sillim-dong (Gwanak-gu), and Geondae (Konkuk University, Gwangjin-gu).

Perennial leader Myeong-dong became a shopping mecca under the Japanese occupation, leveraging massive foot traffic between old and new commercial or financial centers (Namdaemun, Chungmuro, Uljiro...), at the feet of the cathedral. That's where the first neon signs were displayed in Korea, where the National Theater was inaugurated in the mid thirties (it reopened a couple of years ago as Myeongdong Theater), and where students have met for generations, now joined by tourists from all horizons.

Gangnam Station is of course a much more recent hotspot. But not the 'hot' kind of hotspot, even if it is close to key neighborhoods. To start with, the name is some kind of a drag: many images come to you when you hear Apgujeong-dong, Cheongdam-dong, Nonhyeon-dong, or Sinsa-dong,but when you hear Gangnam Station, you don't even see an old-style train stationon - just a subway entrance by a highway intersection. This busy business hub has yet to develop its own soul, an identity beyond a crossroads that happen to be where the Hannam Bridge axis meets Line 2. Yes, that's also where buildings grew taller before the rest of Teheran-ro (except for the COEX), and where the first major netcos gave birth to Teheran Valley. But the first real landmark (Kukkiwon doesn't count) is very recent... and I don't know if the new Samsung headquarters can give more purpose to the area: architecturally, the place could have used more "roundness" and openness. In a nutshell: Gangnam Yeok? a good place for business.

All other members of this Top 6 are university areas, with Hongdae leading the pack, stronger than ever. The brand has gained international recognition, but commercial space is becoming prohibitive for smaller fishes, and they're sometimes driven away to nearby dongs by big franchises. Those guys tend to make all popular areas look the same, and that's not what you want for a trendsetting hotspot boasting the ultimate indie spirit. But as long as Hongik University stays here, the fabled Hongdae spirit shall survive. And traffic is not bound to slow down: Hongdae Ipgu is now connected to both airports via the AREX, new infrastructures will bring Sinchon even closer, and the whole area will get a boost from the downtown-Yongsan-Yeouido-DMC business ring.

Daehangno survived even after Seoul National University moved to the other side of the Han river. Better: the move triggered a revolution that turned the historic birthplace of Korean university* into a cultural hotspot, aspiring venues from yet another university neighborhood, Sinchon. From Sinchon to Daehangno to Hongdae...

... Next stop: Geondae? Probably not. The place probably went up in the rankings following the construction of the Star City complex, just south of the university (not in Mojin-dong but in Jayang-dong). A major real estate operation... and the perfect occasion to fill a void for shoppers in Eastern Seoul.

I'd like to finish with Sillim-dong. Neither for its prestige (as the gateway to Seoul National University, with a strong major in law studies), nor for its less glamour, night birds side of the coin (Nokdu-geori): I have a special affection for the place because of its natural landscape, or rather what's left of it. Take out all those ugly constructions and just keep Dorimcheon serpenting peacefully between the small hills at the foot of Gwanaksan, and potentially you've got one of the city's most charming sceneries. Of course, it's probably too late to save this gem: the stream is already covered with concrete, and the future Shillim New Town already destroyed Wonsi-gil... OK time for me to get off my high horse.

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* That was long before SNU - a relative newcomer -, Sungkyunkwan a.k.a. Taehak (a charming place to visit).

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