I wrote this article for Korean Heritage in the early 2011, less than a year after the city announced plans to preserve Seochon. At the time, residents in favor of redevelopment were still pushing their cause and commercialism had not spread deep into residential areas. Over the past four years, development forces have vanished and rampant commercialism has become the biggest concern. All the photographs for the article that appear here were taken in late 2010 and early 2011.
“Dull, inert cities, it is true, do contain the seeds of their own destruction and little else. But lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration, with energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside themselves.” — Jane Jacobs (The Death and Life of Great American Cities)
Every big city has a few uniquely vibrant areas that outsiders rarely visit until, of course, they become “discovered.” In Seoul, the area between Gyeongbokgung Palace and Mt. Inwangsan is one of the most vibrant and complex neighborhoods in the city. It is so complex that it lacks a clearly identifiable name like its more famous neighbor Bukchon (North Village) on the other side of Gyeongbokgung Palace. Composed of 13 small administrative districts called “dongs,” no one name will do. Natives of Seoul often refer to the area as Hyoja-dong, but it is only one of the 13 districts. In the past couple of years, the area has been increasingly referred to as Seochon, or West Village, but the name is contrived and has yet to take firm hold. Most historical maps contain names that start with “seo” (west), thus giving the name some historical legitimacy.
Seochon, for lack of another name, has been at the center of Korean history since Seoul became the capital in 1392. Yi Seong-gye, the first king of the Joseon Dynasty, chose to center his capital on Gyeongbokgung Palace on the principles of geomancy. Mt. Bukhansan and Mt. Bugaksan to the north protect the palace from bad luck, and the flow of water from Mt. Inwangsan, though Seochon into Cheongyecheon Stream creates a flow for positive energy. A wall around the city protected it physically and created a symbolic barrier between those who were privileged to live in Seoul and those who were not.
Sitting next to Gyeongbokgung Palace and inside the city wall, Seochon was destined to be an important place. Unlike Bukchon, which grew in wealth and power because of its strategic location between Gyeongbokgung Palace and Changdokgung Palace, Seochon was more peripheral to power politics. Instead, it became the home to less powerful court officials and Confucian scholars whole lived in smaller houses. A number of important cultural figures of the Joseon Dynasty have connections with Seochon, including the most famous of all: King Sejong the Great who was born in Tongin-dong. Seochon’s auspicious location perhaps explains why the Sajikdan, or Royal Alter to the gods of earth and grain, is located on the edge of what was once a secluded area at the bottom of Mt. Inwangsan. The king went there twice a year for ceremonies.
The late 19th and early 20th centuries brought change to Seochon. The strategic location made it attractive to outsiders wishing to establish a foothold in Korea. In 1898, the American missionary Josephine Eaton Peel Campbell founded a school in Pirun-dong that became Baewha Women’s University. The campus sits on a hill overlooking the area and contains several attractive early-20th century brick buildings. The former residence of missionaries is a rare example of a Western-style brick building with a traditional Korean roof.
The Japanese moved into the Seochon in their push for dominance over Korea. After taking control of Korea in 1910, the Japanese remodeled Seoul to fit their needs, one of which was symbolic dominance. The headquarters of the Governor General was moved from the Mt. Namsan area to a new neo-classical building (demolished in 1995 as part of ongoing restoration work on the palace) on the grounds of Gyeongbokgung Palace in 1926, bringing the Japanese to Seochon. The Japanese covered the various streams that flowed from the mountains to the Cheongyecheon Stream to make way for wider roads and a streetcar that terminated in Hyoja-dong. They build housing for the Oriental Development Company, the official company the Japanese used to control land, in Tongui-dong; Nusang-dong at the foot of Mt. Inwangsan was developed into a Japanese residential area.
The development of urban Korean-style houses, or hanok as they are referred to today, started in Seochon earlier the Bukchon, perhaps because Seochon offers better access to Gwanghwamun. Bukchon had larger houses and became popular with wealthy Koreans, but Seochon was more affordable and retained its middle-class character. It was as if the Joseon Dynasty class distinctions were updated in the context of colonial capitalism.
During the colonial era, a number of leading cultural figures emerged from Seochon. Yi Sang, one of the most experimental poets during the colonial period grew up in Tongin-dong, and the site will be developed into cultural center in his honor in 2012. Other writers who lived in Seochon include Yun Dong-ju and Noh Cheon-myeong, both famous poets. Yi Jung-seop, one of the early leaders of western-style painting in Korea lived here as well.
After the turmoil and suffering of the 1940s and 1950s, Seoul began to change as industrialization produced rapid economic development in the 1960s. The population of the city grew rapidly as people moved from the countryside in search of a better life. Roads were widened and new buildings went up. Though home to the Blue House, the official residence of the Korean president, but Seochon remained largely residential.
The history of Seochon took an odd turn in the early 1970s as President Park Chung-hee set down strict regulations on building and other activities. He wanted to establish a security perimeter around the Blue House in response to fears of assassination. The regulations effectively froze Seochon in time until they were lifted in the late 1990s as part of the ongoing process of democratization. The only development of any scale during the period was the Ogin Sibeom Apartments built near Mt. Inwangsan in 1971. A number of small three-and four-story multi-family residences were built in the 1990s, but to a much smaller degree than other parts of Seoul.
A debate over preserving traditional houses raged in Bukchon during the 1980s and 1900s, but the preservationists won the day and Bukchon was saved. Seochon was largely left out of the debate until 2008 when the city of Seoul cancelled plans to redevelop Chebu-dong, Nuha-dong, and Pirun-dong, the areas with the highest concentration of traditional houses. By the late 2000s, galleries and upscale coffee shops had begun to move into the Tongui-dong, and Bukchon stood as an example of successful preservation. The push toward preservation also reflected growing criticism of the apartment-only lifestyle in Korea.
After two years of hearings and often-heated debate, the city announced official plans for preserving Seochon in 2010. The plans called for preserving and upgrading the traditional atmosphere, which included 31 designated cultural relics, while creating new cultural and natural sites. One of the more ambitious proposal was to revitalize the Ongnyudongcheon Stream so that it could flow from Mt. Inwangsan to Cheongyecheon Stream. Demolition of the Ogin Sibeom Apartments began in 2010 to make way for the Suseongdong Valley park. In 2011, the city floated the idea of rebuilding King Sejong the Great’s birthplace as a museum.
For most of its history, Seochon has been home to creative expression under the shadow of power. That quixotic relationship continues today as young creative-class and indie-types move into the area in search of what is “lively, diverse, and intense.” They enjoy the eclectic retro atmosphere that juxtaposes various histories and aesthetics. On weekends, camera-carrying visitors wander the area in search of the near past. The city of Seoul’s efforts to preserve and enhance the area should make it a more interesting place to live and visit, hopefully without destroying the unique atmosphere. Yet, for all the optimism, the shadow of power, not from the nearby but from afar still weighs on Seochon as commercial interests seek profits through Gangnam-style development. Those who care about nurturing cultural diversity amid a sense of history in Seoul will need to remain vigilant.
Original Article: Fouser, Robert J., “Seochon: Seoul’s Retro Neighborhood Wakes Up to Change,” Korean Heritage, Vol. 4, No. 1 (2011)