Living in the shadow of changeAmid the modern office buildings in the Jongno district, central Seoul, off the busy street Sinmunno 2-ga and behind the Hungkuk Life Insurance building, there’s a cluster of small houses that look very much out of place.
They retain some of the look of a traditional Korean hanok, such as sloping tile roofs and wooden window frames. But at a glance, the houses look like they’re falling apart. It’s a startling sight to see just a few feet away from gleaming high-rises.
Could anyone be living here? As a matter of fact, all five of these small houses are occupied, though some of the residents are talking about leaving. This is the last remnant of a residential neighborhood displaced by the office towers.
“Our family moved here in the early ’80s, when our first son was in first grade,” said Chung Young-hee, a 52-year-old housewife. “This neighborhood used to be all residential houses. People have been moving out since redevelopment started 10 years ago.”
Nearby, Ms. Chung’s recently retired husband, 55-year-old Park In-soo, was building a wooden table he planned to use as a computer desk. “Yup, we’ve stayed here long enough,” he said.
A neighbor passing by greeted Ms. Chung and, in a tone of considerable joy, told her that she was going to move out next week. “I’m so happy that I’m finally moving out of this neighborhood,” said the neighbor.
“Yes, you, too, have stayed here long enough,” Ms. Chung replied with a smile.
But there also seemed to be a sadness about her. The house, and the vanishing neighborhood, holds many memories.
“Our family lived in this neighborhood for years,” says Ms. Chung. “This is a place where my sons grew up with their friends, and this is the place where my friends used to be.”
Looking around the house, Ms. Chung added, “There isn’t a corner that our hands haven’t touched.”
Mr. Park agreed with his wife. “We’ve changed a lot of corners in this house,” he said. Pointing to a plastic panel in the roof, Ms. Chung said with a chuckle, “That was handmade personally by my husband and my son.”
And yet, the house isn’t theirs ― they’ve been tenants in it for 20 years.
The 66-square-meter (710-square-foot) house has four rooms. In the past, Ms. Chung says, there was even less room; other families shared the house. “There was a newlywed couple, a grandmother and granddaughter and even a building manager,” she says. “Now they are all gone and our family is the only one left here.”
The couple’s younger son is currently in the military, but their elder son lives with them. He gets one room, and Ms. Chung and Mr. Park use two rooms for storage. They essentially live in one tiny room with a bed, a TV set, a table, a computer, a refrigerator and a portrait of the family.
It’s a modest way to live, but it doesn’t seem to bother them. They’ve lived this life for 20 years and never asked for more.
This part of Jongno was zoned as a redevelopment area more than a decade ago, according to the Seoul Metropolitan Government. It was divided into 11 areas; since then, seven of the 11 have been redeveloped. Areas five (which contains Ms. Chung’s residence), eight, three and one remain as they were.
Area five has been cleared for redevelopment, but there are presently no plans for construction, according to the city.
Meanwhile, development that had begun in some of the other areas has stopped, including in area eight, where an inactive construction site is in limbo a few feet from Ms. Chung’s residence.
“We started construction on area eight last November,” says an employee of Hanjin Heavy Industries and Construction, which was contracted to build a retail/residential complex on the site. “The company financing the operation didn’t come up with the money, so we had to shut our operation down for now.” Daewoo Engineering and Construction, which was in charge of the redevelopment of area three, reported similar problems.
Some people in Ms. Chung’s neighborhood moved out as soon as they got the chance. According to the city, residents who live in a redevelopment zone are to receive payments from construction companies to cover relocation costs.
“Our neighbors would suddenly disappear overnight because they didn’t want to tell us how much they got from the construction company for moving,” Ms. Chung said.
She said she and her husband won’t leave the house until they get their relocation payment, as well as the deposit they put down when they signed the lease.
As of yet, however, no offer of payment has been made to Ms. Chung and Mr. Park, or to the tenants in the other four houses. Ms. Chung’s landlord doesn’t live in Seoul and hasn’t been seen by his tenants in months. The word among the neighbors is that he’s behind on his taxes. “I heard from the Supreme Court that our house will likely go up for auction, although the date hasn’t been settled yet,” said Ms. Chung.
When that happens, Ms. Chung supposes, it will only be a matter of time before they, too, have to leave their home to make room for progress.
“Once it is sold to a new landlord, our family will most likely move out of this neighborhood, and so will the rest of the people living in this area,” she said.
Although Ms. Chung sounded very sure about that, she still hoped she might be able to stay in this shabby neighborhood, which once flourished with her friends and neighbors. As they moved away, one by one, many of her neighbors told her how much they’d miss the neighborhood, and such familiar sights as Mr. Park and their son working on the roof.
“I hope we can still live here, because this is home to us and always will be,” Ms. Chung said.
by Lee Ho-jeong