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Friday, April 27, 2012

500 m, 80%, 100% urban crappuccino

Two figures have been playing in my head lately: 500 m and 80%.

500 m? A new law shall fix a minimum radius of 500 meters between two shops belonging to the same franchise. In other words: when a - say - Caffe Bene pops up in your neighborhood, another one will not open next door just weeks later. In yet other words: franchisors have to stop giving away as many rights as they fancy, to the risk of spoiling franchisees, who paid fortunes in rights and marketing fees.

80%? Eighty percent of new very small businesses fail in Seoul. An unsustainable rate which often strikes first timers / old timers who invested their last assets to give a chance to their kids, for instance in - say - a coffee franchise.

This coffee bubble was bound to pop (see for instance "Brews and bruises", one year ago), but since whole residential neighborhoods have been transformed into urban crappuccino, the commercial real estate mess could reach much further.

Many started "alibi businesses" just to get official approvals, turning parts of their homes into (presumably more valuable) commercial properties. From the start they didn't expect to make a big bang for their small buck or homemade junk, but at the macro level, the terrifying (if not torrefying) equation simply doesn't add up.

At least we won't run out of java for the wake up call.

Black coffee, of course: the cow has been milked dry.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Ghost Month

A "danji" ("단지") is a block of estates which, for most Seoulites, usually brings to mind the image of a pack of concrete, overpopulated, high rise buildings. But here, that's just the opposite: low-rise, quiet, and green.

Yes, here too, real estate is claiming more land each time I visit, but that's life. And death.

Welcome back to the cemetery of Yongmiri*.

It's always a special moment when you pay homage to ancestors, share time, thoughts, a drink, and a bite with them. You also do a bit of gardening for them, like yesterday, between two rainy days. Of course, you can hire pros to maintain the grave site, but contributing is important, and I actually cherish these moments of earthly intimacy. If most Western tombs are made of stone, these tumuli are very much alive. And again, yesterday, the pheasants cleared their throats.

So much for the crow cliche.

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* see "Ray Banned". Note that: - this time, I skipped the fermented skate before coming, and opted for an excellent doeji kalbi - Yongmiri is located in Paju (Gwantan-myeon), but belongs to the city of Seoul (and full disclosure: this block 2 / "2단지" / "2 danji" is not our neighborhood)

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Busan Corner on Taxi-daero

Each time I ride my bicycle from Yeonhui-dong to Hongdae, I follow the same Yeonhuimat-ro / Donggyo-ro line. And each time, I make a couple of mental notes along the way: I must come back for this and that eatery, I haven't visited them in a long time.

The first section is called Yeonhui's street of flavors (Yeonhuimat-ro, formerly Yeonhuimat-gil) for a reason: people come from far away for the food, even for a dish as simple as Yeonhui-dong Kalguksu.

The second section is far less inviting: basically an apartment block (Imgwang Apartment) stuck between two disgracious elevated infrastructures (Seongsan-ro and the Gyeongui Line). But even there you can find a couple of restaurants.

The next stretch is a paradise for authentic Chinese cuisine lovers (see for instance Hong Bok or Ha Ha). That's also where you'll find the very Chinese-friendly Yeonhui-Yeonnam Global Village (Seoul Global Center).

Further afield, Donggyo-ro shifts by 45 degree from Southwest to South, until it reaches the new park. I knicknamed that 100% restaurant section "Taxi-daero" because both sides of the street are always fully packed with diagonally parked cabs (a good sign if you believe in Word Of Mouthwatering, that Great Tradition among Taxi Drivers).

Soon after the park, Donggyo-ro meets with Yeonnam-ro and takes you to Hongik University Station and Seogyo-dong, drawing a big smile north of Yanghwa-ro (there again, countless places to take a snack, including Charles Sutbul Gimbap).

I've already mentioned this new park, a potential game-changer for a neighborhood that badly needed one. Bonus: the best configuration possible for cafes and terraces. They only reopened the section between Donggyo-ro and Yanghwa-ro, but right now, this 30 meter wide band covering the AREX looks very promising, even if Mapo-gu didn't invest a lot in the trees, rather rachitic. Speculators have started raiding the spot a couple of years ago, and many buildings have already being remodeled. I sincerely hope they won't let them grow taller than 2-3 levels because that would totally ruin the area, as is already the case for the section North of Donggyo-ro (on this picture, along Kolon Apartment):

I'm also worried about Taxi-daero because if this neighborhood becomes too successful, more shops shall move from Hongdae, and I wouldn't want the place to look like yet another Garosu-gil.

What I fear most is the disparition of unspectacular landmarks that make this place so special and particularly Busan Corner, a delicious and cute eatery ideally located at the Southernmost end of Taxi-daero, with a view on the garden, or rather on this catwalk for anorexic plants. The owner is a very kind lady from Busan, who cooks simple and delicious local snacks (부산먹거리) for a song:

Bibim dangmyeon (비빔당면)

Homemade odeng soup (수제오뎅탕)

Busan Gimbap (부산김밥)

Busan Corner  / 부산코너 (snacks)
At the corner of Donggyo-ro and AREX park, Mapo-gu
Tel +82.322.9242

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* Note that the garden will continue on the other side of Yanghwa-ro, but for the moment that's just a barricaded working site from which only the new AREX exit emerge. When they connected the Incheon-Gimpo Airport line to Hongdae station they changed the numbering system for all subway exits, and I once sent by mistake a friend to that no man's land - not the best first impression for Hongik University area.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Inhuman, all too human Seoul

(2021 UPDATE: now available in English)

En Francais dans le texte: "If Paris were a recurring hero in series of novels, Seoul would rather be a shapeshifting character, always mutating between two short stories. This might be the very definition of a city: a work of fiction utterly real, but always eluding its authors".

Ever the lazy one, I won't translate more from my essay - in French - on urbanism in Seoul: "Inhuman, all too human Seoul". Atelier des Cahiers published it ("
Seoul: inhumaine, trop humaine") ahead of Monday's roundtable on "Seoul Ville Reelle, Ville Revee" (6 PM at Cafe des Arts - see event details on Facebook).

Seoul: inhumaine, trop humaine": mon essai sur la ville est en ligne sur l'Atelier des Cahiers. Un peu de non-fiction pour faire un break pendant la campagne electorale. Votez bien dimanche, et si vous etes sur Seoul lundi, ne manquez pas la table ronde sur "Seoul Ville Reelle, Ville Revee" (au Cafe des Arts a 18h - voir details sur Facebook).

UPDATE APRIL 2021: now available on and on on Scribd.

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Addendum (plan) 
Seoul: inhumaine, trop humaine:
Une mégapole, cent villages, mille visages
1) L’industrie du rêve de la ville idéale
- Révolution industrielle du logement : du cycle vertueux à la bulle
- De la grande conso à la mode et aux services, du rêve à la dystopie
2) Une humanité en transition
- Communautés et espaces partagés
- Vie et survie des villages
3) Ville idéale 2.0 et nouvelles utopies
- La fin d’une époque, mais pas encore la fin du rêve immobilier
-De la "ville dure" à la "ville douce"
- De la New Town à l’Human Town, le retour en grâce des villages
Inhuman, all too human Seoul:
One megapolis, a hundred villages, a thousand faces
1)The industry of a dream - the ideal city
- Industrial revolution of housing: from the virtuous cycle to the bubble
- From mass market products to fashion and services, from utopia to dystopia
2) Humans in transit
- Communities and shared spaces
- Life and survival of villages
3) The Ideal City 2.0 and new utopias
- The end of an era, but not yet the end of the real estate dream
- From "hard city" to "soft city"
- From New Town to Human Town, villages are back in favour

Friday, April 13, 2012

Seosomun Level Crossing

20 years ago, this level crossing was already an oddity in the heart of Seoul - even nowadays, I often wait deliberately for the next train, just to feel the vibes:

This is the intersection between Seosomunro and Uijuro (now Tongil-ro), Gyeongbu Line's final stretch until Seoul Station. Here, just a sling shot away from JoongAng Ilbo HQ or the French Embassy, hobos err between both sides of the overpass: Seosomun Park to the right, and to the left the charity where they can get a meal for free. In the background, one of my favorite buildings in Seoul: the amazing Seosomun Apateu (see "Jongno Chapssal Sundae at Seosomun Apt").
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Monday, April 9, 2012

Good cop... ee chuseyo

Don't worry. I won't restart my usual rant about the pervasiveness of coffee shops in Seoul (see "Brews and bruises"). This book cafe has something really special.

To get in, you have to leave an I.D. at a police booth, and that's totally normal since you're entering the headquarters of Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency (SMPA). From Gyeongbokgung Station exit 7, you can't miss this hulk of a building topped by an antenna that competes with Namsan Tower at night (picture two giant cuttlefishes exchanging colorful, LED-powered distress messages). The main entrance is on Naejadong-gil (now Sajikro-8-gil), but for the cafe, use the small one on Saemunanro-3-gil, opposite KEB / Kim & Chang.

Likewise, there are two entrances for this book cafe, the 'cafe' part being on the ground floor, and the 'book' one down a large set of stairs. The atmosphere is rather cool, and the proportion of uniforms lower on week-ends.

Now regarding the book section, this is serious stuff, far beyond the usual pseudo-cultural alibi (worn out hip magazines on stylish shelves): you're in an actual library, with rows of neatly sorted volumes. And if 99% of them are in Korean, they cover a wide scope: Korean literature, English literature, French literature (featuring Portuguese authors but we share the same Latin roots anyway)... Bonus, a whole section you won't find in any other library: "경찰" - "Police", complete with corporate news and criminal cases.

Here, anyone can borrow books, up to three per fortnight.

Unfortunately, not all police authorities display this really good cop routine nationwide. And judging by how poorly Suwon Jungbu Police Station's teams handled the abominable abduction/rape case last week, they probably were not encouraged to browse through this kind of literature...

Seogyeong Book Cafe / 서경 북카페 (cafe)
Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency
Sajikro-8-gil 31, Jongno-gu, Seoul, ROK

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Sunday, April 8, 2012

Tokyo Sakura With Patriot Missiles (A Still Life)

It's cherry blossom season in Japan, and saber rattling season in North Korea. So the Japanese Government decided to deploy Patriot Missiles in the (not yet) dead middle of Tokyo. Beautiful photo ops for media from across the world: dark, bulky death machines with delicate, georgeous sakura patches in the background.

Of course, the message is not to KIM Jong-un ("we'll destroy your missile if it flies over Tokyo"*), but to Japan's die hard bureaucrats: "please keep our government afloat".

First, I don't think Japanese leaders flunked all geography exams. Tokyo lies near the East Coast, and if North Koreans really plan to fire over Japan, they certainly won't do it Westwards (unless they're looking for a record breaking range / a potential sepukku). So if Japans really wants to prevent the missile from entering its air space, it must shoot long before it flies over Tokyo.

Second, this photo op is pure political porn for the Japanese extreme right: a caricature celebrating the rebirth of the Empire as a military superpower, and the very negation of Japan as a peaceful nation.

If there were countless other ways for a democracy to show its resolve against provocations from Pyeongyang, Yoshihiko Noda couldn't have signed a better pledge of allegiance to the worst enemies of Japan**: the ones from within.

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* we recently mentioned the issue (see "NK and nukes: back to the (dolsot curling) stone age?"). KIM The Third wants to celebrate KIM The First's Centennial (KIM Il-sung was born on April 15th, 1912, but the pyrotechnic show could be planned for the 12th).

** see previous posts about this dangerous clique

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Petra, high on Seoul's World Heritage list

Yesterday, I suddenly craved for kebab. Badly. But not a vulgar sandwich at the corner, no. At Petra's.

Seoul's Petra is located in Itaewon Governorate: Yaser Ghanayem carved his monument at the Northeastern corner of Itaewon and Noksapyeong streets, at the top of one of those blind concrete walls that tend to cut whole neighborhoods from the streets.

But here, you're not in the middle of the desert: over the past decades, the alley has been carpeted with restaurants and pubs, prolonging Itaewon's United Nation Food Festival. Here, Petra is just one block away from Berlin, with Australia in the middle.

And here, you're not alone: as usual, the place is full, and the patrons obviously enjoying themselves. Yesterday's cocktail? 40% Korean, 30% Middle Eastern, 30% Rest Of The World. Only one table smoking shisha, to complete the atmosphere without fogging it. I'm not even paying much attention to the panoramic view on Yongsan by night: too busy preparing tasty bites of pure bliss.

Our strategy is simple: step one, clean the table, step two, roll back home on our full bellies. The ingredients: kebab mix, pita, and tabouleh. To taste something we hadn't tried before, we also ordered sultan chicken. Not to die for, but an interesting curry flavor, and like all Jordanian food, clearly distinct from the neighbors'.

We spent the evening tearing pieces of bread, spreading layers of (first) soft yoghurt sauce, (second) fresh, hot pepper sauce, and (third) onions, building nests of delicious tabouleh for innocent lambs and chickens, and wolfing down this wrapped material for the UNESCO World Heritage list.

Mission: accomplished. No crumb left behind. Both sauces totally evaporated.

And needless to say, I keep rollin'.

Petra (restaurant)
Itaewon-dong 552, Yongsan-gu, Seoul, ROK
Tel +82.2.790.4433

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