Gyonam-dong: A Photo Essay in Neighborhood Extinction


    In late 2011, I got wind of impending redevelopment in Gyonam-dong, an old neighborhood close to Seochon where I was busy with neighborhood activities. Redevelopment in Korea means leveling an entire neighborhood and building new high-rise apartments on the site. On a windy day in February 2012, some neighbors and I took a long walk through Gyonam-dong. It was a vibrant old neighborhood, but all the signs of impending doom were there: empty store fronts, buildings in need of maintenance, and posters extolling the glories of high-rise apartments.

    Advertisement for new apartments in Gyonam-dong, February 2012
    Advertisement for new apartments in Gyonam-dong, February 2012

    I went back in November of 2012 with a few friends and found abandonment progressing, but the neighborhood still had people. Cities change with seasons, so decided go back with a few friends again in June of 2013, and found that abandonment had given way to the next stage: demolition. In the first stage of demolition, windows are removed and utilities cut, but the footprint of the neighborhood is still there. Without people, Gyonam-dong had no more life, so I decided to switch to black and white photographs.

    Making kimchi at church in Gyonam-dong, November 2012
    Making kimchi at church in Gyonam-dong, November 2012
    A traditional Korean-style house ready for demolition in Gyonam-dong, June 2013
    A traditional Korean-style house ready for demolition in Gyonam-dong, June 2013

    My next visit was March 2014. Perhaps fearing what I would see, this was my only visit alone. At this point, demolition was nearing completion and the all that remained of Gyonam-dong was the debris. Amid the mountains of debris were small, sometimes tiny, reminders that Gyonam-dong was once a stage for the drama of life. In October 2014, a mixture of photographs from June 2013 and March 2014 was in a group exhibition as part of the “Flowing Alleys” curated by Choi Jaewon. My last visit with some friends was in September 2014. Demolition had ended and preparation for construction was in full swing. I looked around, took pictures, and was, simply, sad.

    Partially demolished multi-family housing unit in Gyonam-dong, June 2014
    Partially demolished multi-family housing unit in Gyonam-dong, June 2014

    In the fall of 2014, I wrote an article on Gyonam-dong for issue #81 of the Kyoto Journal entitled “Dancing with Apartment Shaman in Seoul.” In the article I wrote of the guilt that felt about taking photographs and displaying them in public:

    As 2013 gave way to 2014, Gyonam-dong took another turn in my mind. Yes, I was guilty of producing and disseminating ruin porn. But I began to see value in documenting what had been and what was disappearing. As Roland Barthes put it in Camera Lucida, “In Photography I can never deny that the thing has been there [emphasis original].” Somebody, after all, had to take photos of what redevelopment demolition looks like. I began to see value in ruin porn, not as a violation, but as warning of what happens when people get trapped in the melting of what once seemed solid—a neighborhood.

    Fouser 81

    © 2015 Robert J. Fouser

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