This was originally published in the Korea Times on Feb. 21, 2006. It is a bit dated now (Lee Myung-bak is now the President of Korea), but one of the things which has always struck me most about all the years I have been in Korea is that the country always seems to be under construction. Where the heck is all this concrete and steel coming from and with all these towering apartment complexes being built everywhere you go, where the heck are all these people coming from and living now? So, perhaps this essay I wrote two years ago, is just as relevant now as it was back then.
The other day I was going to stop in at this small Korean restaurant that I have frequented on and off over the past few years only to discover that it had closed and in its place was an optometrist’s shop.
What’s most remarkable was that this had taken place within the last few weeks, since the last time I was there. One day it was still a restaurant serving up some of the best darn kimchi stew I’ve tasted in Korea; the next day the interior is gutted like a fish and every semblance of that business is dragged out onto the street, loaded onto a truck and carted off. (Maybe I should have gone to it more?)
A few days and some quick renovation later a new shop is open and ready for business.
That’s too bad because I really enjoyed stopping in there for some of my favorite Korean food.
Whenever people often ask me what it has been like living and working in Seoul all these years, one of the things I tell them is that what has really struck me most has been how much the city has changed and grown over the years. I have literally watched this city grow and expand every which way. I can still remember walking up to the roof of the ELS Language School (now called YBM) near Kangnam Subway Station and looking out across the city and seeing one building after another going up.
I used to joke with friends and family that Korea’s national bird during this rapid urban growth of the 90’s might have been appropriately a crane—sky crane that is—with so many of them filling the skies above the city.
In many ways it has been exciting to watch Seoul grow the way it has over the years. Other than some construction tragedies like the collapse of a bridge and a department store in the early 90’s, the city’s growth has been remarkable to say the least. Although it often feels like the city is just one major construction site with all the construction projects going on (maybe hardhats ought to be handed out to visitors when they arrive in Korea), the city continues to expand and evolve.
It might be hard for visitors or newly arrived expats to the city to imagine what it must have been like here 10 or 15 years ago before many of the modern towering glass and steel structures were built. Even a ride on the subway these days is a lot different than it was when I first arrived here when there were just four subway lines bearing the brunt of transporting hundreds of thousands of Seoulites every day.
Still, with all this urban growth, one gets the impression that Seoul is literally bursting at the seams like one gigantic can of sardines with all of us packed inside.
There seems to be no end in sight for Seoul’s continued growth judging from all the modern hi-rises and other buildings slowly climbing into the skies over the city. Plans for moving some administrative agencies out of the capital to help alleviate the growing congestion and strain on the infrastructure may hardly cause a dent.
Fortunately, there have been some attempts to improve the quality of life in the city. These days urban renewal has taken on a whole different meaning with many of the projects that Seoul Mayor Lee Myung-bak has spearheaded since assuming leadership of the city a few years ago. Most notable are the Chonggye Stream restoration, a City Hall Plaza as well as a new bus system (helping to move us all along a bit faster) which have improved the quality of life and the city’s aesthetic image.
Now there are plans to create another plaza downtown, this one near one of the city’s more endearing historical structures, Gwanghwamun. On paper it sounds like a pretty good idea. I just hope whoever is in charge of this ambitious project will be able to work out that traffic gridlock that is most likely to occur when all those existing lanes for vehicles are removed.
Sometimes urban renewal leaves a lot to be desired. For the life of me, I cannot understand how city planners and developers would mess with the traditional and aesthetic charm of Insa-dong by permitting urban development to hem in this important cultural attraction.
Closer to home, not long after I started teaching at Yonsei University, I moved into a new apartment building (actually a mini officetel) near the university’s west gate. Back then, there were still many lovely Korean homes in the neighborhood. Nowadays, the area has been transformed into a student ghetto of sorts with all these homes replaced by student housing—pretty much just blocks and blocks of these small apartment units.
As much as I sometimes dread living in Seoul when I have to fight the crowds and traffic when I am out traveling around the city or shopping, Seoul is still my adopted home for now. For as long as I do remain here, it will continue to be interesting watching this city continue to grow and evolve.
One thing is for certain after living in Seoul all these years, you never know when that favorite place you like to frequent is next on the renovation chopping block. So, if you have that favorite chicken place or restaurant, enjoy it while you can. Who knows, the next time you go there, it might be something else.