Housing, not soccer, their goal

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Housing, not soccer, their goal

Park Jong-seok lives in Sangam-dong, in the shadow of the massive World Cup Stadium, but not for much longer. The government plans to demolish his neighborhood in September.

"The whole country is in the festive mood to celebrate World Cup Games," he says. "But we have to worry about a place to live." Mr. Park and his family have grown peanuts and lived for three generations in Sangam-dong. But the senior citizen has only been to the stadium once, and certainly will not attend any games.

The hundreds of millions of dollars the government has poured into the neighborhood to build the stadium and the surrounding parks has done nothing for his family. "A lantern does not illuminate its own base," he says, quoting a Korean proverb.

For years, in the minds of most, Sangam-dong equaled landfill. On an estuary of the Han River in western Seoul, Sangam-dong, before its miraculously transformation into a high-tech monument to the nation's soccer ambitions, was literally a mountain of waste. But to make this dramatic change, the city had to clear out the homes of hundreds of poor people.

Neighborhood bus No. 12 loops through the Sangam-dong streets, going from the Mapo Ward Office to its final stop at the Seobu Driving License Center. Along the way, one can witness the violent changes that have been taking place in this neighborhood over the past few years and that are still under way.

Only a few steps away from the Driver's License Center in the north of the neighborhood, you can see clusters of houses marked with red spray paint: The city is counting off the number of households in the area. Along the main road leading to the World Cup stadium, a long piece of corrugated tin fence covers the shabby old neighborhood below the road.

This area, which cab drivers describe simply as "the old part of Sangam-dong," is the last remaining part of the old Sangam-dong that most Seoulites remember -- mbling tent houses and garbage scavengers. In just three months, however, all the houses in this neighborhood will be razed by the city, the last step of the redevelopment plans for the area.

"Real estate agents have increased drastically since I came here," says Kim Jeong-sik, a resident of southern Sangam-dong where a new apartment complex has already been built. Mr. Kim recently moved to a two-bedroom apartment. "We all believe this area is going to prosper."

He says one of the notable changes in the neighborhood over the past few months has been the rising interest in the area by the general public. The World Cup stadium has made Sangam-dong a trendy place, with a good reputation, he says.

Perhaps Mr. Kim is not only speaking of his hopes. In just a few months, the rest of his poor neighborhood will be gone for good, soon to be reborn as a modern apartment complex. Many real estate appraisers estimate that by 2004, the market price here will easily soar up to 320 million won ($200,000) for a 100-square-meter apartment.

That's delightful news for people who have extra money in their pocket to play around with. But for the current residents of old Sangam-dong, they don't have that kind of cash.

They're worried about finding a new place to live with the limited compensation given by the government. The city has no concrete plans for them yet. Lee Deok-hwan, the chief official at the City Development Construction of City Hall says, "We are in the process of carefully reviewing the information of the individual tenants." Mr. Lee assures proper compensation will be provided for the tenants, but refuses to comment on the incident that exasperated many Sangam-dong residents during the previous demolitions.

Two years ago, a section of the neighborhood was razed as part of developing the land for the World Cup. Residents say that the government hired local toughs to enforce the demolition without providing proper homes for the previous tenants. Enraged, the tenants and civic activists protested in front of City Hall for weeks in the freezing winter, only to be thrown into a prison.

"The residents are anxious," says Mr. Park. "We've had a bad experience from the last round of demolitions, and we hope it's not going to happen again."

When the city of Seoul first turned the neighborhood into a landfill in the late '70s, about 960 households were already here. Most eked out a living as rag-and-bone merchants, sorting out useful goods from the garbage dump and selling them on pushcarts.

Although some earlier settlers made a better living running peanut farms, quality of life here was generally very low, with the fumes and chemicals from the dump creating constant fire and health hazards. In fact, the village up until the '90s was one of the lowest-rent districts in Seoul, home to the poorest of the poor and the itinerant.

Meanwhile, though, a large banner hanging proudly across the Sangam Tunnel hints at the longtime grudge Sangam-dong residents have borne: "The Success of World Cup, Dignity for the Sangam People."

While Sangam-dong residents try to make their voice heard and their lives respected, however, development continues. The western side of the World Cup Park will be turned into a nine-hole golf course by next summer. More dubiously, recently local newspapers have noted that the city government plans to build a memorial museum for the former Korean president Park Chung Hee.

Controversy swirls, and in the meantime, the people of old Sangam-dong are packing their belongings and looking for places to move.

by Park Soo-mee

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