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Monday, November 26, 2012

From tree burials to "Guisin-dong"?

There are basically three topics worth writing about: love, life, and death. And when it comes to fiction, since I am (as I write these lines - knock on wood) lucky enough to be both in love and alive, I tend to stick, by superstition, to death.

Next year, if I keep being lucky*, I might release a new collection of short stories dedicated to Seoul, an eternal source of inspiration, and already a recurring character in my miserable 'dragedies'.

Earlier this year, I wrote "Guisin-dong", a piece about a fictional ghost neighborhood of Seoul**, and I was recently reminded of it when I heard about a potential change in the law which would allow you, under certain conditions, to bury your beloved ones at home.

Even in the dead (yet alive) middle of the city.

Well. Don't imagine tumuli suddenly popping up all over Seoul like goosebumps on a chilly night. I'm not talking Royal-Joseon-Tomb material either (except maybe if Chaebol owners decide to prolong their ego wars post mortem). In any case, don't expect this kind of "danji" to replace your apartment block:

In case you forgot (see "Ghost Month"), I took this picture in Yongmiri Cemetery, a final resting place for Seoulites, up in Paju. And just like in any neighborhood in Korea, each time I pass by Yongmiri, the 'cityscape' has evolved, at the same time growing new tentacles and letting forsaken ones go derelict. Forests are progressively erased to make room for a silent necropolis that requires every year more maintenance - terrace fields of tombs must be tended as well as if they were holding rice paddies, and torrential rains can cause a lot of damage on deforested hills.

Korea's rich funeral traditions are as much a curse as a blessing: more than one percent of the land is already devoted to the dead, and demographic trends announce for a near future massive funeral migrations from late Babyboomers.

Fortunately, Seoul Metropolitan Government and Korea Forest Service are working hand in hand to avoid that terminal real estate bubble. And they came up with a simple concept: promoting tree burial services. The idea is to bury the ashes of the deceased in a natural setting, generally at the foot of a tree. So instead of cutting plants, you feed them.

Literally, the ultimate tree-hugger experience.

Since Koreans have now overwhelmingly replaced traditional burial with cremation, it can really make a difference. Last year, SMG and KFS dedicated a special section of forest, also in Paju. With the new law Seoul city wants to make the phenomenon go "grassroot" - if not viral. That's somehow consistent with the promotion of vegetable gardens across the capital.

Now what's interesting to me is the consequences at a less rational level. Combine for instance Korea's ancient shamanist traditions with its more recent real-estate-speculation addictions: will there be an impact on land value? will some people use the services of their friendly neighborhood mudang, have a "gut" be performed before moving in or out?

Can whole neighborhoods catch the virus? Say Seochon, at the feet of the shamanic magnet of Inwangsan - will it turn into the equivalent of Tokyo's shinto-funeral-crazy Yanaka?

I don't know if I'd prefer my Guisin-dong...


PS: if you can't wait, go visit Seoul cemeteries. For instance Seoul National Cemetery in Dongjak-gu (NB: that's not where they bury SNU alumnis, well... not officially), Yanghwajin Foreigners' Cemetery in Mapo-gu, Manguri Park in Jungnang-gu, or the many Royal Joseon Tombs (see "Royal Joseon Tombs Become UNESCO World Heritage Properties"). And don't forget to say hello to "Jongmyo ghosts".

Seoul Village 2012
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* and if I start kicking my own behind to devote more time to fiction and less time to this excuse for a blog (not to mention the half dozen even more inept ones I've been publishing for eons) - I'm running out of alibis at the end of this mother of all election years (US, Korea, France, Russia, Younameitstan).
** a (happy?) few among you - fellow members of Seoul Writers Workshop, to start with - might have already read it in avant-premiere

Friday, November 23, 2012

Scratch that: Dynasty, Dallas, or the Twilight Zone?

Less than four weeks before the presidential elections, the lame soap opera of Korean politics (see "Dynasty or Dallas?") seems to have reached a new level.

AHN Cheol-soo eventually decided to withdraw his bid ahead of the November 26 deadline, considering the failure of merger talks with MOON Jae-in's team. AHN naturally gave his full support to MOON, and said he would keep working on a reform of the political landscape.

MOON scores an ambiguous win: there was no fight, and both sides can say they where leading in the polls at that stage. Worse: AHN played the role of the uniter, while MOON stubbornly refused all compromise, and it will be difficult for him to reach towards independents after that, even beyond the ranks of bitter AHN's supporters.

In France, following the farcical (and even rigged) elections of the president of conservative party UMP, polls showed that the approval rates of both rivals nose-dived, and twice more for the more than dubious winner.

If MOON fails to be elected, he'll be crucified. And if he wins, he'll have to cope not only with a tougher economic environment, but with a conservative majority at the assembly. And he knows very well what they're capable of as an opposition party: his mentor ROH Moo-hyun was impeached one year into his presidency.

This gridlock within "liberal" ranks speak volumes about the daunting task MOON Jae-in faces for this election and beyond. He'll probably switch back to the easiest path: the "Anything-But-Park-Geun-Hye" argument.

I bet AHN Cheol-soo feels relieved to get some distance from the nuthouse. Even if he's called a coward, he doesn't have many deep wounds to lick.

Today, his lyrical homepage tells it all: the candlestick vigilante looks ahead with hope, and in the background Rhydian Roberts sings "The Impossible Dream":

Meanwhile, we're back to the Twilight Zone of Korean politics: weird and scary black and white series, and a world vision from the fifties. 

Only difference? The scenario sucks, and there's a total lack of humor.

Seoul Village 2012
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Thursday, November 22, 2012

Dynasty or Dallas?

MOON or AHN? The first debate of Korea's 2012 presidential campaign was eventually aired after 11 PM yesterday - a non-event completely occulted by a major strike of bus drivers. The strike was eventually canceled at the last moment, and who knows? The selection of the "liberal" champion could also be canceled at the last moment.

Both rivals agreed to select the best candidate after polling the voters, but not on the poll itself. Typically, MOON Jae-in wants the question to be who's the best candidate to represent the left, and AHN Cheol-soo thinks the question should rather be who is more likely to win the elections. Of course, MOON would win the first poll because he already won the primaries to the left, and AHN would win the second because as an independent, he reaches across a much wider spectrum.

 Just like in 1987, when the KIM duel (YS-DJ) resulted in ROH Tae-woo's election, maintaining both candidatures would pave the way for a victory of PARK Geun-hye. So this year's soap opera goes between Dynasty (PARK II in South Korea v. KIM III in North Korea) and Dallas (the brotherly MOON-AHN war).

I've been following Korean, US and French politics in parallel, and it's hard to tell where it gets the craziest. This week, I thought France's UMP set new standards, but never underestimate a country where the national assembly is often used as a UFC ring.

Seoul Village 2012
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Thursday, November 15, 2012

Along Hongjecheon, my way or the highway

If Hongjecheon has been renovated a couple of years ago, this lovely stream remains disfigured by one of Seoul's most infamous elevated highways, the Naebu Expressway, here clearly visible behind Yujin Sanga and Inwang market:

I'm afraid Naebu won't be removed anytime soon: inaugurated in 1995, this "inner ring" is a vital rapid transit axis for cars across "gangbuk" Seoul (north of the Han river):

In a city sacrificed on the altar of real estate speculation, building over a waterway turned out to be the cheapest and fastest way to solve chronic traffic congestion, but the costliest in terms of environmental and urban impacts. Seoul's projects being on hold for the "U Smartway" underground expressways as well as for new subway lines in the area, we might have to wait for decades before the Cheonggyecheon scenario is reproduced here. And that's a shame, because Hongjecheon is dotted with absolutely charming sites. But to enjoy them, you have to use your imagination, and to mentally photoshop all this concrete out of your sight.


First, the big picture: Hongjecheon crosses Jongno-gu, Seodaemun-gu, and Mapo-gu, drawing a NE-SW diagonal (horizontal on this schema) from Bukhansan to the Han River:

1) Jongno-gu (a 4+ km ride along Pyeongchang-dong, Sinyeong-dong, and Hongji-dong):

Here, the young streamlet has been almost completely obliterated, and only short segments emerge on both sides of Segeomjeong-ro, Pyeongchang-dong's main road, at the bottom of the valley between Seodaemun-gu (West) and Songbuk-gu (East).

Right before the Segeomjeong-ro - Jahamun-ro crossroads, Hongjecheon draws an absolutely ravishing curve, with a small village at its tip. Unfortunately, redevelopment has already spoiled an area which would, in any other city, have remained a very picturesque neighborhood.

Gracefully, the stream then circles the hill crowned by Hongjimun, Seoul fortress's northern gate, while nesting at its feet the pavillion that gave its name to the road, Segeomjeong. But all you see is the big crossroads, where Jahamun-ro stops, at the entrance of Sangmyung University. Starting at Gyeongbokgung Station, the road that splits Seochon in its middle was widened when the Jahamun Tunnel was pierced, and prolonged here, where it looks more like the beginning of a highway.

A hundred meters further to the west, you leave Jongno for Seodaemun. 

2) Seodaemun-gu (a 6+km ride along Hongje-dong, Hongeun-dong, Namgajwa-dong, and Yeonhui-dong):

But you have yet to leave the Pyeongchang valley, and for that, Hongjecheon carved a glorious V-shaped gateway between Bukhansan and Inwangsan, and humans added a cute hamlet. But rushing through this natural bottleneck, the new and improved Segeomjeong-ro destroys all harmony at ground level, and Naebu Expressway takes care of the mountain, suddenly springing out of its Hongjimun Tunnel to expose its obscene mass over your head. To add insult to injury, the six "dong" of Yuwon Hana Apartment complex have been erected right on this spot. I wish I took pictures of this place before the concrete hit the fan...

You have now reached the northernmost part of another valley surrounded by a complex mountain system featuring Inwangsan, Bukhansan, Baekryeonsan, Yeonhuisan and Ansan. Here, separating Hongeun-dong and Hongje-dong, Hongjecheon draws another curve, this time much wider and heading north, as if to contemplate the scenery before dashing towards the Han river. If Naebu Expressway mercifully spared this curve (to gain a few costly hectometers), a couple of appartement blocks have been sprayed over the landscape. There used to be more than a few hanoks in the area, but I don't think many survived.

Soon after the loop, Naebu rides Hongjecheon's back again. Worse: the stream is fully covered by an older concrete monster, Yujin Sanga (유진상가). The long shopping arcade - or rather the Inwang Market it also hides - marks a strategic crossroads: here, Segeomjeong-ro becomes Yeonhui-ro and meets Tongil-ro, northeast Seoul's historic backbone.

You're in Hongje Station neighborhood, an urban question mark subject to countless renovation projects. Four years ago, there was a plan to build 50 story towers and a silver center there, and last time I mentioned this spot, it was to wonder about the future of Inwang Market ("Tongin market opens up to art : adaptation or yet another symptom of Seochon's "Bukchonization"?"). Seodaemun-gu just announced 500 residences for students (one site near the subway station, another in front of the Grand Hilton): there are more than a dozen universities nearby, and it could complete a Sinchon-Hongdae-Hongje triangle.

Anyway, I don't hear much about the stream in any renovation project. As if it didn't exist. And it precisely happens to be one of the few historic, cultural, and natural threads planners can leverage in the area.

Hongjecheon becomes more tourist-friendly when it meets Moraenae-ro: a fake waterfall and a promenade have been arranged in the last curve before the straight line to Hangang, and sport facilities regularly dot the usual bike lanes along the banks. It can't get much kitschier, but it works, and it reconciles whole neigborhoods with the old waterway.

Great risks and opportunities rise with Gajwa New Town / Gajaeul New Town growing up on the northern side (Namgajwa-dong / Moraenae-ro), and the smaller redevelopments planned on the southern side (Yeonhui-dong / Hongjecheon-ro). Again, this area "is expecting redeveloppement like Ellen Ripley her baby alien", and I'm not sure such eateries as Moraeae Seollongtang or Yeonhuigol Gumteo will survive.

Let's hope Seodaemun-gu and Seoul Metropolitan Government will not allow towers to be erected along the stream the way it did almost everywhere else, clogging the city even more instead of leveraging some of its most precious assets. To the contrary, it's a unique opportunity to improve urban and daily life harmony, and the pedestrian and cultural experience along Hongjecheon.

As you follow the current, you walk under the bridges of Hongyeongyo (at Yeonhui-ro), Hongyeon2gyo (at Gajwa-ro), and Hongnamgyo (at Jungga-ro), before reaching another major concrete and steel mess around Sacheongyo, where Hongjaecheon and Naebu Ringways cross a major road (Seongsan-ro/Susaek-ro), and a major railway (the Gyeonghui Line*). At this disgraceful frontier between Seodaemun-gu and Mapo-gu, the stream is a victim among others of urbanism gone wrong.

3) Mapo-gu (a 2+km ride along Yeonnam-dong, Seongsan-dong, Sangam-dong, and Mangwon-dong):

The final stretch now. Before merging with the Han River, Hongjecheon flows east-southeastwards in a sunken straight line, even more overwhelmed by road infrastructures. From above, people riding their bikes or using the free exercise machines almost look like inmates in a high security facility.

Between Mapo-gu City Hall and Seoul World Cup Stadium, just a few hundred meters before Hangang, the stream receives a last minute boost from Bulgwancheon, a lucky rival who saw no elevated highway ride piggyback along its path... Which, of course, doesn't mean urban planners will spare it.

Anyway. In a final concrete spaghetti extravaganza, Naebu Ringway and Seongsan-ro also rush towards the river, splitting into thinner elevated tentacles plungeing towards the riveside highways, or even reaching across the Hangang, as Seongsan-ro turns into Seongsan Bridge.

The general impression? Cars and roads everywhere, the negation of a city, the negation of its citizens, the negation of its natural landscape.


I would like to show two films in parallel: the journey we've just made along Hongjecheon, then and now, before and after the urban massacre.

My point is not that everything was better in the past (not always true), but that we must work on a better future. Maybe these two films could help trigger a third, animated one: a collaborative effort showing what could be reasonably done to right some of the wrongest wrongs.

Seoul Village 2012
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* which by the way will be extended all the way to Gongdeok (inauguration by the end of this year).

Monday, November 12, 2012

A thousand villages, a thousand memories - Seoul Photo Festival 2012

The theme of this year's SFF couldn't be more Seoulvillagey: "A thousand villages, a thousand memories", with a focus on the city and its inhabitants, and works by amateurs as well as well know classics from such great masters as my all time fave KIM Gi-chan*. The opportunity to see again Reverend Motoyuki Nomura's 1973 Cheonggyecheon, if you missed the expo at Seoul Museum of History.

Above, a 1950 picture of Namdaemun-ro by KIM Han-yong. Below, a 1972 shot by a certain Hanjeong Sik (in this order, his name means Korean food!), taken in Gyeonji-dong, Jongno-gu - that's the neighborhood around Ujeongguk-ro, Jogyesa's street:

Exhibitions also feature simple souvenir snapshots, and memories as fresh as 2012.

While you're roaming between City Hall, SeMA, the Seoul Museum of History and Gyeonghuigung, don't miss the Jeongdong in 1900 expo (expats in Jeongdong / the Korean pavillion at the Universal Exposition of Paris 1900), and see how the museum of history renewed its permanent collections, leveraging on past exhibitions.


Seoul Photo Festival 2012
천 개의 마을, 천 개의 기억 (A thousand villages, a thousand memories - exhibitions and conferences)
Date: 20121121-1230
Venues: Seoul Museum of Art - SeMA, Seoul City Hall, Seoul Museum of History
Tel: Dasan 120 (SFF: 070.8240.9902)

Jeongdong in 1900
A Strange coexistence in Jeongdong / The Universal Exposition of Paris 1900
Date: 20121109-20130120
Seoul Museum of History
Tel: Dasan 120

Seoul Village 2012
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* BTW Noonbit recently reedited series of pictures from their archives in a handy format. I already got the complete work of KIM Gi-chan, and a very interesting collection about Korean markets (mainly from the 80s-90s). You can find these white cinderblocks in most libraries and art galleries across Seoul.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

From urban mirages to urban decay

The KRIHS (Korea Research Institute for Human Settlements - 국토연구원 - delivered last week a grim portrait of Korean rust belts: of the 144 industrialized zones it surveyed, 23 would show early signs of urban decay, and 44 would be seriously emptying themselves. Some counties have never recovered from the collapse of the textile industry, but I'm more interested in the stories of urban centers.

Over the past few days, the Korean press buzzed about the findings, and I'm not surprised to see the Korean JoongAng Daily focus today* on the example of Incheon's Nam-gu, and the failures of short sighted urban development. I precisely took downtown Incheon as the textbook case of downtown sacrificed by Korea's suicidal urban planning in a recent focus ("Wet eyes for wetlands and urban mirages"), from which I reproduce here the 'About New Towns and the laws of gravitation' part:

"New cities must always be conceived with a long term vision that encompasses the past as well as the future. And one of the great tragedies in Korean urbanism is the fact that developpers prefer to build from scratch a new city instead of improving existing ones, even if it means the eventual failure of both. I understand the short term economics, but that's simply not sustainable.

That's true for both "Urban New Towns" and "Greenfield New Towns". The first expression may sound like a tautology, but that's how I define New Towns replacing partly or totally an already urbanized area. I often lament about how, in Seoul, New Towns tend to obliterate all reference to the past. There's a quantum leap between improving a city and negating it, and that's exactly what happened when whole neighborhoods vanished, replaced by over-sanitized and over-standardized blocks of tombstone "apateu". If the spirit of Seoul villages could somewhat survive in certain complexes, the city may face new challenges as the generation that ignited the baby boom passes away.

Moving on to "Greenfield New Towns", now. If you want to evaluate their impacts, don't just consider their direct environment. Take Incheon, for instance: even if you remain within Incheon territory, Songdo is only part of a gigantic scheme that involves other greenfield projects (eg Cheongna), and partial redevelopments of existing neighborhoods. But at the heart of the city, many places have regressed over the past decade, surviving in some kind of limbo. In other countries they would have been priorities for improvement, but they don't stand a chance when money talks first in urban planning. What may seem good for business in the short term may prove to be socially, politically, and economically counter-productive in the medium to long term.

In countless places across the country, some cities are already schizophrenic entities with brand new districts totally disconnected from former city centers stuck in the wrong side of the eighties, and if authorities don't invest now to fix the balance, the mess will only get worse (note that the winners of today may not be the winners of tomorrow considering the end of the universal "apateu" model, the relatively low cost of land downtown...).

If you can try to pass the buck to the next administration, you simply can't escape demographics."

In the US, downtown Pittsburgh somehow manages to bounce back after lost decades, but only after land value dived to the point whole parts could be redrawn with a sounder environmental approach. Downtown Incheon remains far from that stage, and will need to find its own model for revival.

The KRIHS found similar patterns in most cities, but I note a clear difference between Seoul and all others. If you take Incheon, Busan, Daegu, Gwangju, or Daejeon, cities are hit in their historic centers, generally in their "Jung-Buk-Nam-Dong-Seo-gu" (Center, N-S-E-W districts). In Seoul, it's more in the periphery, with Eunpyeong-gu, Nowon-gu, and Gwanak-gu in the 'early decaying' stage, and Gangbuk-gu and Jungnang-gu in the 'hollowing out' stage.

Of course, it's not that simple. The survey is based on demographic trends and proportions of old buildings which could also become opportunities, and situations may differ spectacularly at the micro level. Eunpyeong-gu, for instance, exposes spectacular disparities between its new town areas, the Tongil-ro axis, and more withdrawn neighborhoods. Some projects are already under way: Gangbuk might bet a needed boost from the future Ui-Sincheol LRT (Light Rail Transit) line, Nowon from the renovations around its center (see "Nowon confirmed as Seoul's northeast hub"), and Seoul can play on more levers than other cities... but the lack of strategic vision remains embarrassing.

Even with their significant cultural assets, it's hard to tell how Gwanak or Jungnang are defining themselves, let alone where they're heading for. Excluded from major projects, they are more considered as transitional spaces than well defined urban entities, and the only literature I can find about them recycles the usual cliches. Both have the opportunity to build themselves a more balanced future than their neighbors, but for that to happen, they need to solve their own identity crisis, and to stand for something.

And of course, Seoul has the mission to make sure no one is left behind, that each and every one belongs, and at the same time to respect and nurture the originality and diversity that make metropolises sustainable. It's like a soccer team: it's not just about star power, and you can tell the strongest ones by their weakest points.

Seoul Village 2012
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* "Old downtowns in Korea’s cities are hollowing out" (20121112 Korea JoongAng Daily)

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