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Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Jeong-dong forever

Thank you Chosun Ilbo for feeding this stroll-starved quarantined Seoulite with Jeong-dong news ("서울 貞洞이 확 바뀐다, 근대역사 숨쉬는 거리로" - Chosun Ilbo 20200407). So. Seoul intends to invest KRW 20 bn by 2022 into what is already one of the capital's most walkable neighborhoods. Basically, a lot of storytelling to connect the dots, plus a few new dots. 

Sidewalks and signs shall be improved along the 2,6 km scenic walk signaled on this map

But first, let me tell you another story about this neighborhood you think you know.

Jeong-dong basically draws a diagonal between two palaces: Deoksugung and Gyeonghuigung, and owes its name to Jeongneung, a royal tomb of the Joseon dynasty. Actually, it used to be also known as Jeongneung-dong.

Wait a minute. Indeed, Jeongneung is located in Jeongneung-dong, but that's in Seongbuk-gu, quite far away.

Blame King Sejong's father for that: King Taejeong was the one who, in 1408, moved the tomb to the opposite end of town, and even beyond the mountain, the city, and its fortress walls. Real estate-wise and  feng shui-wise, quite a downgrade. Why would Taejeong disgrace a royal tomb? Because it honored Queen Sindeok, the second wife of his grand dad, King Taejo, the founder of both the Josson dynasty and Seoul. And Taejeong's grandmother was Taejo's first wife, Queen Shinui. So even if Sindeok played a role in the capital's genesis, she had to get out of royal sight.

Now guess where Jeongneung was located, initially: in Today's British Embassy.

To me, this anecdote illustrates perfectly Jeong-dong's shift from its royal origins to its modern diplomatic tradition.

Of course, this is where Germany, Russia, the US, the UK, France, Italy, Belgium built their consulates at the end of the XIXth century. But if the Brits are still there (see 'Seoul-upon-Han and Yeongguk-dong'), and even if the Russian Legation tower was restored a dozen years ago, most of the rest is gone.

Seoul city intends to revamp Jeongdong Park, at the feet of the Russian Legation to have it themed after the area's rich diplomatic tradition, with a tribute to these lost buildings. Will more people come than today? For the moment, this quiet green patch remains backstage from Jeongdong-gil as well as from Saemunan-ro (accessible through a steep staircase). And Jeongdong-gil itself is already a pleasant, tree-lined stroll dotted with actual buildings full of history or culture: Jeongdong Theater, Sina Memorial Hall (Asiance HQs), Chung Dong First Methodist Church, surviving structures of Ewha Hakdang and Pai Chai Hakdang (Appenzeller Noble Memorial Museum), Jungmyeongjeon Hall...

What always struck me when I saw old pictures of Jeong-dong was the fact that it looked much hillier than today, and now I know why: there was indeed a hill, named after Hwangtohyeon, but it was erased during the occupation. Among the few new dots added to the plan, Seoul will create a small Hwangtohyeon square to commemorate a hill in front of the small police station at the Sejongno intersection.

Most citizens discovered this most central neighborhood when Deoksugung-gil was redesigned in 1998, marking the revival of downtown Seoul as a pedestrian friendly destination*. Another boost came with the 2002 World Cup, when millions gathered right next door on Sejongdaero around City Hall, and what would become the new Seoul Plaza. The SeMA, inaugurated in 1988, would also be renovated in 2002, and its garden at the roundabout remains a popular, Instagrammable spot. 2002 also happens to be the birth year of my beloved Seoul Museum of History at the other end of the neighborhood. More recently, the Seoul Biennales brought new magnets on each side of Jeong-dong: Donuimun Museum Village near Gyeonghuigung (2007), and Seoul HOUR (2019) near Deoksugung.

Of course there's much more than this SE-NW diagonal**. But until a few years ago, the Northeast section of Deoksugung-gil used to be closed to the public around Habib House, the US Ambassador's residence. Thanks to Mark Lippert and Grigsby his basset hound, this key axis opened up, completing at last Jeong-dong's anchoring to all neighboring areas.

Jeong-dong will remain future-proof if it keeps at the same time respecting its past and evolving.

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* see "Jeongdong-kill"
** Note that its Southeastern half used to be known as Sojeong-dong (close to the 'somun' - Seodomun), and its Northwestern half as Daejeong-dong (close to 'daemun' - Donuimun). About Seoul's Sadaemun and Sasomun, see my small video 'Drawing Sadaemun'

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