Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The Growing City

When I first came to live in Korea, I lived in Hwagok, a neighborhood on the southwest side of Seoul. I thought it was everything Asian urbanity should be: lots of small restaurants and bars (and houses behind high gates) lining the small side streets, and the main road of Hwagok-ro a smorgasboard of glittery neon signs. And seafood restaurants with octopuses and squid and fish swimming around the big aquarium tanks out front as they await their turn to be eaten. Great fun for me to explore. Then after a month of this, I got moved into a new neighborhood, nothing but concrete apartment blocks for as far as the eye could see. So of course I kept coming back to Hwagok. Sure, there are dozens of neighborhoods like it in this city of 11 million people, but Hwagok was the first one I ever explored.

Yesterday I went back to Hwagok for the first time since the spring of 2004. Koreans love to build, tear down, and build some more. The only neighborhoods I visited often both then and now are Jongno and Itaewon, both of which have seen some major new construction in the past 2 years. So I was prepared for Hwagok to be more or less unrecognizable... and to some extent, it was. I visited a friend who lived in the apartment complex behind the 88 Gymnasium - in 2004 those buildings were empty, scary-looking hulks, but now it's actually a nice little residential neighborhood (though it's one that is made up of 20 story buildings). Then I walked the entire 2-3 kilometers from the 88 Gymnasium to Hwagok subway station. And, for a while on the glitziest, most neon-sign-lit-up section of Hwagok-ro, I wondered if I had taken a wrong turn. There were no familiar buildings. At last I saw the Gangseo-gu main office (Gangseo-gu is the subdivision of Seoul I was in, with 500,000 people) and Gangseo-gu central police station on my left, so I knew I was in the right place. But next door were two 30 story buildings I had never seen before.

When I reached the immediate area around Hwagok subway, things looked exactly like I remembered them. Which in itself was somewhat shocking - I expected the main intersection to be surrounded by 40-story buildings.

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