The other side of the mountain

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The other side of the mountain

The real estate appraiser Jeong Han-sool pulls his car over on the highest hill of 330th Avenue in the Seongbuk 2-dong area. "Take a deep breath of the fresh air," he says. "This is an expensive place."

It's true - you can almost smell the money in the air here. Seongbuk 2-dong is one of the highest-rent neighborhoods in Seoul - the "most luxurious" according to one report - where no less than 50 of the wealthiest jaebeol (mega-conglomerate) owners live within a few blocks of each other.

Tellingly, there are no bus stops in this part of town. Tucked away on the road to Bugak Skyway, about six kilometers past the Blue House in northern Seoul, this discreet neighborhood leaves few choices for people who don't own a car: You either take a taxi, or get off at Gansong Museum, bus No. 491's last stop, which is a good 20-minute uphill walk from the residential district. But for those who can afford to buy a home near 330th Avenue, transportation is of little concern. "Most homeowners who live here have at least one or two personal drivers," says Mr. Jeong, who had been running his real estate business in Seongbuk 2-dong for the past 20 years. Even during the economic crisis, when many corporate executives of bankrupt companies were forced to sell their homes, Mr. Jeong says there were only one or two families in this neighborhood who had to move. "Most people who live here are pretty safe."

It's an unusually quiet neighborhood. Once in a while, some vacant taxis hover around the village looking for luck; private school buses carrying young children stop in front of the neighborhood entrance and quickly disappear. There are palatial mansions and diplomatic residences throughout the area, each surrounded by unending walls. Some walls are so high that one can barely see the top of the house contained within, even standing on tiptoes. Walk around the village for 20 minutes and you will soon find a young police officer trailing you. According to Mr. Jeong, many people living here have enough money to dig their own water pipe to their house to drink fresh water out of the ground. The long road leading to the hilltop is wide and smooth, just like the lives of people living here.

It's an odd contrast. On the other side of the mountain, an entirely different view astonishes a visitor's eyes. Standing a few steps back from the hill of 330th Avenue, you still see colorful heaps of garbage, swept down from the mountain during last summer's floods. Although more than half a year has passed since the deluge, nobody from Third Avenue has come forward to do anything about it.

For years, there has been a clear, if invisible, line between these two neighborhoods. The poor call their wealthy neighbors "a thief's village," and accuse all the homeowners around 330th Avenue of being criminals, tax evaders and extorters of their employees' money. The rich used to call the poor side of the neighborhood "dung valley," a common name to describe Third Avenue in the early '70s when the area was used as a huge dumping ground for human excrement.

In fact, there are still some notable signs around Third Avenue of its all-too-real history of poverty. The clusters of slate-roof houses, made haphazardly out of small scraps of paneling, line the street, along with bits of food waste thrown here and there. On the street, a group of middle-aged women are cramped in a small village bus absently looking out the window. The narrow cement road is bumpy with frequent curves. On one street connecting this neighborhood to 330th Avenue, a truck selling vegetables is carelessly parked on one corner, by a group of children playing hide-and-seek.

"People with money don't even pass along this street," Mr. Jeong says. "It's a shortcut to their homes, but they just think it's pesky to drive down a rough road like this. They have to make frequent stops and, who knows, their cars might get a scratch on a bad day. It's just a filthy part of town in their eyes." A woman who owns a mill on the hill complains: "They don't buy rice from my store. We hardly go up there for deliveries. They probably do most of their shopping at Costco or one of the big department stores downtown. I guess there would be no reason for them to shop at a shabby place like mine. They have drivers on call all the time anyway."

The longtime tension between the haves and the have-nots, however, started to ease recently, since Kim Hyeong, the new chief officer of the Seongbuk 2-dong office, was appointed to his post last September. Before, the area was run by a small committee from the city government who didn't care about the class divide and knew nothing of the community.

"Just imagine," Mr. Kim says. "There wasn't even a council meeting between the residents in both of the neighborhoods. The rich just didn't care about their neighbors. The poor couldn't afford to attend because they are always working, day and night." Most neighbors would agree that Mr. Kim, a resident of Jangwi-dong, far from this part of town, sees both sides from a neutral position, with perhaps a slight bias to the poor. An example: The first thing he did after he was appointed to the district was to gather a lengthy list of prominent figures in the 330th Avenue area. When the "blacklist" was completed, Mr. Kim went door to door to collect donations for indigent residents in the nearby neighborhood. "I told them it's about time they earned the respect of their own neighbors. You couldn't imagine the slurs pouring out of the poor before then. There was a horrible sense of misunderstanding between them."

Some people responded by slipping 50,000 won ($38) in Mr. Kim's pocket. Others were silent. Many refused to talk. When maids slammed doors in his face, he went back to the house and demanded immediate attention. To meet those who have refused to see him even on his second trip, Mr. Kim went to the 8:30 a.m. service each Sunday at the nearby Deoksu Church, where many big names from around town show up to worship and then have tea. During weekday afternoons, he hung out in a local hair salon where most wives of those corporate executives, lawyers and professors came before attending evening parties.

For his efforts, Mr. Kim gathered 30 million won, and was able to distribute a bag of rice to each family in the Third Avenue area during the Lunar New Year holidays. It was the first sign of any reconciliation between the two neighborhoods in years. "I felt a lump in my throat because I was there from the point when the two neighbors showed no room for a compromise at all," Mr. Kim says. Now, he is more optimistic about the future of Seongbuk 2-dong. "It's truly an ironic reality. But there will be enough common interests we can start to build a dialogue."

by Park Soo-mee

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