[INSIGHT]Restoring Cheonggye not so easy

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[INSIGHT]Restoring Cheonggye not so easy

There is a beautiful city called San Antonio in the southern part of Texas in the United States. It is more famous to us for the movie "The Alamo," which starred John Wayne. The remains of the Alamo mission, the site of a fierce battle between Texans and Mexican troops, were restored and have been preserved in the middle of the city. When people cross the street from the Alamo, they can see the famous Paseo de Rio, or Riverwalk. It is a promenade along what is grandly called the San Antonio River but is actually a 10-meter-wide stream. Beautiful, large trees line the promenade and cafes, restaurants, galleries and Spanish-style hotels line the banks. A sightseeing boat traverses a four-kilometer course. A river, woods in the downtown area and the promenade -- people may be struck with wonder. "Ah, this kind of city planning is really possible."

The idea for the Riverwalk began after a severe flood in 1921. The waterway created to divert flood water was turned into the Riverwalk. But the transformation was not that easy. The city council decided to develop the area in 1961 when the waterway's neighborhood was clogged with small shops and the urban population was overflowing. It received a development report from Mako Engineering, which designed Disneyland. Shop owners along the Riverwalk reacted angrily and interests of residents crashed. It took more than 15 years for the Riverwalk to assume its present appearance.

Lee Myung-bak, the mayor of Seoul, insisted at a seminar, "The removal of the Cheonggye elevated highway and the restoration of the Cheonggye stream is not in dispute. We should begin construction as soon as possible." The stream, which runs through downtown Seoul, was completely covered by roads and an elevated highway about 30 years ago. I agree with the idea of redeveloping the Cheonggye stream, but we have to consider carefully how to do it. I came to Seoul to study in 1961. The stream was Seoul's disgrace at the time. Trash, filthy water, shantyhouses, bars and brothels were the area's characteristics. The situation was the same at the end of the Joseon Dynasty. A correspondent from Mainichi Shimbun, a Japanese daily, interviewed Daewongun, the father of King Gojong, and looked around Seoul. He wrote in a travel sketch that a beautiful city had become a garbage town. Former President Park Chung Hee just covered the disgrace with cement in the early 1970s.

We made the beautiful city of our ancestors into a filthy thing and could not restore it even after the Korean War. The regrets of history are flowing even today, blowing off poisonous gases under the Cheonggye road. Though we remove the cement over Cheonggye stream, it will not change easily into a clear river in which fish can live. We should approach the problem with the overall intent of removing the filth from Seoul. The restoration of Cheonggye stream into what it was before covering is not the answer.

The problem is different from that of the restoration of Gyeongbok Palace. The restoration should be undertaken not in a historical frame of mind but from the point of view of urban renewal. A new commercial area with a good ecology should be developed. The San Antonio River is just 10 meters wide, but Cheonggye stream is more than 27 meters wide. If small sightseeing boats traverse the stream and trees line the shore, businesses and hotels near the stream will have many visitors. Big commercial centers like Dongdaemun market and huge commercial buildings line up along the stream. We can attract private investment and also foreign investment. That will enable balanced development of northern part of Seoul giving some benefit to small-scale businessmen there.

But Seoul city seems to be working impatently and without detailed planning. The mayor may be afraid that the public would object to his plan, criticizing it as a daydream. Therefore, the city plans to finish the restoration in the 34 months that will be required to divert traffic for repair work of the Cheonggye elevated road. It is an impatient plan. They are also sanguine. They say this is a simple project that will cost 360 billion won ($300 million) if they use their budget for repair projects and forgo other expenditures from their budget. Alhough the renovation is the mayor's election promise, Seoul should not be in a big rush. Maybe they said the plan is inexpensive because they are afraid of the citizens' opposition, but it will not work; it would just re-expose the disgrace of Seoul. It is a far from beautiful Seoul. We would live in a much more pain-inducing city with much more serious traffic congestion. If we work under a larger 10-year plan to revive the environment of Seoul, we can turn our Cheonggye dream into a Seoul dream and even into a Korea dream.


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The writer is the editorial page editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kwon Young-bin

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