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Monday, July 1, 2013

In memoriam Samdong Samgeori, Gyonam-dong

I often say that you can't shake off Seoul any more than you can shake off death. And if there's a moment when both get at your throat out in the open, that's in the sad limbo of a ghost neighborhood about to be destroyed.

Unfortunately, I've experienced that draining and gloomy moment too often in too many parts of Seoul. I could even recycle for Gyonam what I wrote on these lines four years ago, about "Wangsimni Old Town":
  • "Most buildings have been evacuated now. Some have already lost all window frames, exposing their skull with empty sockets staring at nothing. Large plastic drapes cover the first row to prevent people from trespassing or ghosts from leaving the area.
  • Yet, I almost prefer that state of redevelopment to the previous one, when human beings roam lifeless streets, when only a few merchants remain open to get the most from compensation schemes, even if only a few customers dare pass by. That's the actual ghost town."
Still lying between Dongnimmun and Donuimun*, Gyonam-dong has reached these final stages of ghosttownhood, and over the past months, I never found the courage to venture beyond its main arteries (Gyeonggyojang-gil, Songwol-gil...). My heart ached enough just watching from a distance (Tongil-ro, the elevated road between Sajik and Geumwha tunnels...) the neighborhood progressively abandon life. And I couldn't bear imagining my favorite places after the evacuation.

You simply can't get used to this experience, and the feeling grows worse each time. Plus I had that special bond with Gyonam-dong, particularly since I used to live nearby, just on the other side of the fortress walls.

Then came the news that a few friends would visit what was left of Gyonam. Not scavengers looking for a thrill or a good shot, but fellow Seoul lovers who care for the soul of old neighborhoods. I probably would never have had the guts to come back otherwise.

Well I still felt nauseous most of the time, but I'm glad I joined. Grieving is much easier when you're not alone, and it's always better to come to the bedside one last time. If not for the soon to be departed, at least for your own comfort.

Except that when you visit a dying old friend in the hospital, you don't spend your time shooting pictures of his ravaged face. These series of empty sockets, suspended calendars, bleeding tiles**, or gutted hanoks are as absurd and obscene as deathmasks:

... but I had to let it all out. Not everything, of course, but at least big chunks of it - I'll probably have to regurgitate more bits somewhen, along more ill-written posts or fictions.


I'd already accumulated a lot of dark moments here. This urban annihilation process always takes many years, even after the final decision is made. Note that it also includes construction phases. I'm not referring to the park created a couple of years ago when they restored the fortress walls and the house of composer Hong Nan-pa: this section doesn't belong to the future Dongnimun New Town / Gyonam New Town. What I meant is that certain speculators seize the last opportunities to build bigger houses in order to get higher compensations, replacing for instance a hanok with a three story "villa" hosting several tenants.

Now it's sure: no hanok will be spared. And no architectural wonders among the few survivors: the dong office, the church, the Swiss Embassy (at least it's low-rise and has a few trees), and the only existing apartment block in the neighborhood.

The decision not to include the Dong-A Apartment in the New Town came very early: adding a relatively small piece of land divided among many owners would have too much changed the equation for the other residents. Of course, in a country addicted to big blocks, the value of traditional houses remains hard to fathom. Still, until the very end, I hoped something would be done to save a few hanok - why not the short stretch around the Dong-A, precisely? Or even better: one of these more charming alleyways... but no. Not even a fake hanok to ease the consciences of future tenants (see "Build a hanok and they will come - Marketing impostures and genuine slow urbanism").

Not one single element to honor Gyonam-dong's soul in the future New Town. You'll have to cross its boundaries to see the last echoes of lost eras: a few have been saved and more or less well enshrined (Hong Nan-pa's place in a garden, Gyeonggyojang*** in Samsung Gangbuk Hospital...), but most remain endangered species (Dilkusha****, Yeongcheon Market...). To get a decent salute, we'll have to wait a bit and wish for a Gyonam-dong exhibition at the Seoul Museum of History.

So Gyonam is almost dead, and its corpse will soon be totally discarded. The neighborhoods that used to compose it***** will only remain alive in our memories: Gyobuk-dong, Gyonam-dong, Haengchon-dong, Hongpa-dong, Pyeong-dong, Songwol-dong. And if the names survive, they'll tell a completely new story, where former residents will be projected in a new high rise utopia.

Gyonam is almost dead, but during these final days, life goes on: birds, cats, unkempt trees and flowers, the odd humans (last residents, squatters, old friends...).


I said goodbye to some of my favorite parts of the neighborhood, and of course to "Samdong Samgeori", where the street forms a cute "bell curve" (urban planners would call it 'Gaussian', but we're in Jongno, and that should ring a bell). I call it Samdong Samgeori because it's at the intersection of Gyonam-dong, Hongpa-dong, and Songwol-dong.

I spent hours there, just to enjoy the place and its atmosphere, sometimes from up the street, watching people and bikes pass by. In the late afternoon, when the light hit the tiled red and yellow buildings around the central hanok cluster, the colors would explose, and the area grow even more mystical.

For this last visit, the barber shop sign was still hanging, but the bikes long gone. We could see the place from above, and marvel at the amazing pattern drawn by merging hanok roofs.

Like the last character of some dying language.

Seoul Village 2013
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* see "
Donuimun Restoration and Sadaemun Resurrection" (2009/10)
** see towards the end of the video, the hanok roof tiles bleeding their clay (about this architectural detail, see "Am I My Hanok's Keeper? Peter E. Bartholomew's Defense and Illustration of Korean Architecture")
*** see "Gyeonggyojang back to Donuimun"
**** see "Sajik Heights and micro-hanokization"
***** see "Jongno-gu dongs". Yes, Haengchon-dong stretches far beyond the New Town limits, but I haven't seen many hanok on the other side of Sajik-ro.

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