An uphill battle

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An uphill battle

A red bicycle pulls up to Cheonggiwa gas station in Hongdae and off hops Zho Yoon-suk, godfather of Hongdae, magazine publisher, would-be politician and champion of Mount Seongmi.

Mr. Zho parks the bike near the subway station and reaches into a small, black shoulder bag that bears a rainbow Peace Festival sticker. His shirt is inside-out. He's wearing slippers and trying to grow a goatee.

He pulls out a business card from his campaigning days. "This?" he says gesturing to a photo on the business card that shows him smiling in a crisp white shirt, curly hair lying flat on his head, no facial hair. "This is not me. Not at all."

It is early July, a few weeks after the June 13 elections that ushered in Song Tae-seop as the Mapo district official, a position that Mr. Zho had sought. Mr. Zho began running for office because, well, who knows what's best for Mapo than someone who has devoted his last 20-odd years there.

After an iced latte at a nearby coffee stand, he hops back on the bicycle and pedals to Mount Seongmi. His bicycle is the fold-up kind, with small wheels. The ride is slow and scenic, past hip clothing stores, small apartments and cozy houses. He turns into a residential street and bikes up to a school. A hill comes in to view on his right.

At 100,000 square meters, Mount Seongmi is not a whole lot of mountain. It's a mound really, undeveloped except for hiking trails and exercise stations. But in a city with 12 million people, green land is a scarcity. Only this plot of land might be bulldozed.

For almost 10 years there has been talk of leveling the mountain and building a water storage tank on top for the neighborhood. There was no public discussion of anything else. Last July, the district put out the word that Mount Seongmi would also be home for new, high-rise apartments and stores.

When the talks became serious, so did the opposition. In mid-August, several residents began organizing to preserve the mountain. They needed outside help, and called in Zho Yoonsuk.

Mr. Zho is called the godfather because he has nurtured the culture scene here from its infancy about 20 years ago. At 37, he is the Mister Rogers of the Hongdae neighborhood, a good-natured guy who went from attending Hongik University and hanging out around the school, to playing the bass guitar in Hwangsinhae Band, to launching magazines such as Login Korea (a now defunct English-language 'zine), Khai and most recently the music magazine Monthly Deadly Medley.

Mr. Zho knows just about everyone in Hongdae, and most of them know him. If they don't recognize his face from his days in Hwangsinhae, then they know him as the man who bikes around Hongdae.

As thoroughly as he knows Hongdae, Mr. Zho found more to learn in the greater Mapo-gu. "I never heard about Mount Seongmi until the Save Mount Seongmi group approached me," he admits.

The mountain juts out from the neighborhood, but it's only really visible from the top floor of nearby buildings. A maze of streets obscures the foothills of Seongmi from the public eye. Unless you know what you're looking for, it's easy to miss Mount Seongmi.

This mountain became a major issue in Mr. Zho's campaign. And although he did not win this election, he is getting ready for the next election, four years from now, and still championing Mount Seongmi.

"If we didn't have that mountain...." says a security guard at the nearby Samho Villa, his voice trailing off as he shakes his head. He starts again, "Seongmi is all we have in the way of nature."

Mr. Zho says about the mountain, "It's a small mountain, but it's like the last mountain in Seoul."

Some questions that the young Hongdae crowd grapples with are: "Is there life outside of my alternative lifestyle?" and "When I grow up, will I become just another stereotypical, middle-aged ajeossi?"

But growing up is inevitable. And so Mr. Zho became older. He had done the music thing, he had done the crazy drinking thing, he even did the magazine thing. What was left?

When asked why he decided to try politics, he says, "I hate ajeosi" -- grown men -- "but it's time for me to become an adult."

As a Hongdae elder, surrounded by younger people, he wanted to send a message to the younger Hongdae crowd that getting older does not mean the end of creativity or fun. "I feel like I have to set an example," he says.

He chose politics as a way of helping his peers. But when he compares the reputation of artists to politicians, he often grimaces. "I wonder if I'm doing the right thing, if I should keep doing this."

But then he thinks about his vision for a Mapo that embraces the neighborhood philosophy. In order to facilitate a residential atmosphere, he has organized cultural festivals, flea markets and other neighborhood events.

"A thought ends in a thought," he says. "If you want to try something, try it."

A handful of nursery school children are scampering up a trail on Mount Seongmi. The teacher bows recognizes Mr. Zho and bows in greeting. Every day she leads her class on a hike up the mountain and back down again. "See you Saturday," she says. The Save Mount Seongmi Association is hosting an outdoor concert on the mountain on Saturday.

"When's the last time you walked out of your home and walked up a mountain?" Mr. Zho asks as he follows the children up.

For people in the know, Mount Seongmi is a neighborhood park. In the mornings, people exercise on the mountain. In the afternoons, children and the elderly hang out. In the evenings, families take outings. It's a local cause for a local fellow.

He takes in the children, the trees and the sound of cicadas, and says, "This is something I have to do."

by Joe Yong-hee

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