A turf battle erupts over squalid flats

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A turf battle erupts over squalid flats

Gu Hong, an unemployed 30-year-old, calls his tiny home in the Samil Apartment complex heaven.
A dim fluorescent light tube in Mr. Gu’s apartment reveals peeling wallpaper and a ceiling low enough for him to hit his head on. But such matters do not bother him; he is happy just to have a roof over his head. He does not quite understand why the city government is trying to demolish his home.
The Samil apartment complex in Hwanghak-dong, central Seoul, has long been more of a purgatory on the road to hell than a heaven for its residents. The area was first earmarked for redevelopment in 1996, and a construction company soon started dismantling the housing block. Their work came to a halt after the company went bankrupt during the 1997-98 financial crisis, leaving the job half-done. Since then, the complex has stood in the heart of the capital like a sore thumb.
With city hall’s ambitious project to demolish the adjacent Cheonggye elevated highway, however, the Junggu district office of the Seoul Metropolitan Government is ready to bring the long-standing plan to a conclusion.
The district office on July 16 labeled the complex a dangerous area with a high likelihood of accidents, a designation requiring an immediate evacuation of occupants but giving them a hope of some help. The only wrinkle in the plan is a group of residents, including Mr. Gu, who are standing their ground inside an apartment building in the complex; they say the compromise offer is not enough.
Many residents run shops on the first and second floors of the Samil buildings, which were the first constructed in Korea to accommodate both residential and shopping areas. The shops sell a motley selection of items ― edible eels, adult videos, even miniatures of Marilyn Monroe to be used as decorations for bars. The vibrant shopping areas form a stark contrast to the silent, often deserted residential floors above the stores.
Demolition of the Cheonggye elevated highway began in mid-July and the Samil apartment complex is expected to share the same fate soon.
Built in 1969 during the Park Chung Hee military regime as a symbol of modernization, the group of seven-story buildings near Dongdaemun Market has not aged too well.
The complex does little to brighten the city’s skyline, and the plan for its demise comes as a relief to city developers. The complex’s landlords reportedly have already come up with a blueprint to build skyscrapers and posh shopping centers on the site.
“Samil Apartments has turned old and decrepit after more than three decades,” says Youn Rak-sang, in charge of urban management at the Junggu district office. “The whole place is just too dangerous to live in. It needs to be demolished without further delay.”
Mr. Gu says he could not disagree more with Mr. Youn, but he cannot do much to stop the August ultimatum. He was told to vacate his home as soon as possible, but that is the last thing he wants to do.
Mr. Gu and a group of other residents are determined to keep the Samil Apartments alive, but the prospects are not bright. The whole complex is ready to be torn down ― such a project would not take much effort. The windowpanes on most of the apartments have been removed, laying bare the apartments’ interiors, empty and dark.
Building No. 17 is the last bastion in Samil, where 65 households remain. Mr. Gu, who had lived in another building, was forced to move out by the landlords; a tenants group offered him his present apartment eight months ago. To protect their abode, the residents enclosed the outside wall of the building with barbed wire and old tires.
They also locked the passageway to the residential area with steel padlocks. Walls are decorated with posters that say “Fists to Fists” and “Landlord bastards are not allowed to trespass.”
After several suspicious fires, residents now take turns guarding the building. On the rooftop, a big crimson flag that says “United we stand, divided we fall” flaps in the wind, a symbol that passers-by cannot fail to notice.
With a sense of pride, Mr. Gu recently showed off his 36-square-meter apartment, a tour that takes no longer than five minutes. Mr. Gu can barely stretch himself out in his quarters, where a 1960s model fan and bank books whose balances never exceed 100 won (eight cents) complete the sight.
Mr. Gu says he does not mind the gloomy, stuffy atmosphere. “What more could I want from my life? This place suits me just fine. To me, this place is not so different from any posh apartment. All it lacks is a bidet,” Mr. Gu says, pointing to his 1970s-style toilet. “It has a flush system, which my former apartment lacked,” he adds.
Most people would acknowledge that his apartment lacks far more than a bidet, but to Mr. Gu, the building is the only safe place in the city.
Since he moved to the capital from his home in Gwangju, South Jeolla province, in 1997, Mr. Gu has nestled down in the apartment, following relatives who already lived in the same complex.
Mr. Gu’s family did not have much choice. Samil was one of the few places his mother, a salesclerk at a department store, could afford. A two-million won deposit and a monthly rent of 200,000 won was all Mr. Gu’s family could afford, and they saw it as an incredible offer for an apartment in the heart of the capital.
They did not consider that the rent was low because of the redevelopment plan. The landlords and residents who had been living in the complex prior to the 1996 redevelopment plan were given alternative apartments by the government. Tenants like Mr. Gu, who moved in after 1996, were not included in the compensation policy. Mr. Youn at the Junggu district office labels such people “disqualified tenants,” saying, “A few of those tenants are agitating the rest to resist the redevelopment policy.”
Mr. Gu, who does not accept the “disqualified” label, has built his nest on the fifth floor of his building. After majoring in radiology at Kwangju Health College, Mr. Gu worked for the Yonsei Severance Hospital as a radiologist for more than a year, which he calls the happiest time of his life.
“I believe Samil Apartments brought all these dear memories to me,” he says, squatting in his room and lighting up his fifth cigarette in a row. “If the place is gone, where would I go? The mere thought of the demolition hurts me badly.”
Out in the barely lighted corridor, fetid from poor ventilation, Mr. Gu walks to the office of the residents’ group on the third floor, where he runs into his neighbor, Yang Gwi-soon.
Ms. Yang, 42, the vice president of the tenants’ group, is one “agitator” spearheading the struggle to keep the building intact. On Aug. 1, Ms. Yang attended a rally next to the Cheonggye highway, shouting at the top of her lungs, “We want our basic human rights to be guaranteed.”
Seated in the office, Ms. Yang said that she was just an average ajumma, a middle-aged woman. “I had no idea that I would be wearing a red band on my forehead that reads ‘Diehard Defense.’”
After her business in her hometown of Seosan, South Chungcheong province, failed, she and her husband found the Samil apartment complex a last resort. Since then, she has found herself a normal ajumma no longer. The heavyset Ms. Yang says with a determined look, “We are about to be kicked out onto the street. This is a tug-of-war state.”
Ms. Yang says last year she witnessed a group of gangsters, whom she assumes were sent by the landlords, attacking the tenants’ group’s office with iron pipes and scissors. “The stronger the suppression gets, the more determined I get,” Ms. Yang says.
Ms. Yang and the group finally saw progress last month. As “disqualified tenants,” they were ineligible for any compensation until July 16, when the district office came up with a compromise proposal. Mr. Youn at the district office says, “The demolition had to be done quickly anyway, but we did not want to give out compensation unconditionally to the tenants. That’s how we came up with the idea of announcing the special alert against accidents and dangers. The residents of such places are either given an alternative place to live or a cash compensation of 6 million won per four-person family.”
Ms. Yang, however, is not ready to meet the government halfway. What bothers her is that residents have to wait for the alternative apartments for several more years. As a countermeasure, she suggested that residents stay in the building until the new housing is confirmed.
But Mr. Youn says, “That does not make sense at all. If the demolition is to start, it refers to the whole complex.” Both sides still appear to have a long way to go before the matter is resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.
Ryu Jeong-soon, the head of the Korea Research and Consulting Institute on Poverty, says, “Housing is a basic human right, to be provided no matter what. During Korea’s rapid modernization, however, that right has been sometimes ignored.”
Ms. Yang says she has heard that a group of cranes and bulldozers will come in on Aug. 15 to abolish building No. 17. “We are determined to halt this with all we’ve got ― our fists,” she says.
“If they are indeed to take it away from us, we have to start a war. The only thing we can do if driven to a deadlock is to fight to keep our lives.”

by Chun Su-jin
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