Hongdae: No room for artists?For six months, Jo Yun-seok has been surveying residents, business owners and artists in Hongdae in northern Seoul about the city’s plan to designate the arty neighborhood around Hongik University a “special cultural district.”
What he learned, to his surprise, was how discontented his neighbors have grown with each other in recent years.
“Everyone in Hongdae is unhappy with each other at this point,” says Jo, head of the Hongdae University Culture and Arts Collective Union. “Residents are unhappy about merchants. Merchants are unhappy about artists. Cafes are unhappy about clubs, and artists are unhappy about the whole situation.”
The idea behind “special cultural districts” is to prevent cultural institutions from being overwhelmed by commercial development; they get tax exemptions and city subsidies, and restrictions are placed on businesses like bars and clubs that are considered potentially damaging to the area’s creative atmosphere. Insa-dong and Daehangno have already been awarded “special district” designations, which go into effect next month.
But in Hongdae, ironically, the news of the potential “cultural district” designation ― along with the city’s ambitious “new town” project a few minutes away in Sangam-dong, and the announcement of a new subway line connecting Yongsan to Mapo ― may be contributing to soaring real estate prices in Hongdae, which are driving away the very artists who originally made the area unique.
“Artists suspect there will be more to lose than to gain if Hongdae is officially designated a cultural district,” Jo says.
Once, Hongdae was one of the cheapest neighborhoods in Seoul. The streets around Hongik University were filled with artists’ studios. Kim Yun-hwan, an installation artist who studied Western painting at Hongik in the early ’90s, remembers the scene as “an autonomous art zone.”
As Kim and others will attest, it’s not the same place anymore. According to Jo, a brand-new office building in Hongdae recently sold for 45 million won per pyeong ($1,100 per square foot), which approaches prices in the expensive Insa-dong and Cheongdam-dong areas.
Theaters are closing down; galleries seem to relocate every other year in search of lower rents; bookstores and record shops are being replaced by fancy teahouses.
And this, naturally, has driven out cultural and arts organizations in favor of businesses that can afford the higher rents. Kim says Hongdae’s pro-artist spirit has faded as well, as the neighborhood has filled up with expensive lofts, clubs, private educational institutions and designer boutiques.
Indeed, Hongdae is now one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions ― but for its club scene, not for its galleries.
“It's been a few years since it became difficult to find artist studios in Hongdae,” Kim says. “Most of my artist friends have already moved out of the neighborhood. Artists can’t afford to pay for spaces in Hongdae that are designated ‘artists’ lofts.’”
On a recent Tuesday afternoon at Hongdae’s Neutinamu Cafe, an old gallery and cafe where artists once held exhibitions and discussed art over rice wine, Kim and five other artists put on a piece of performance art they called “Unrest Occupation.”
The building’s owner had recently announced that it would be torn down and replaced with a five-story office and retail complex. Kim and the other artists responded by standing on the roof and covering the building with long pieces of brightly-colored fabric ― a reference to shamanist exorcisms, which were often conducted in troubled times. They said they were marking the death of the creative spirit in Hongdae.
Jo, the head of the cultural union, says that trying to encourage art by designating Hongdae a cultural district would be like “feeding biscuits to an elephant.”
“There will be changes in urban planning,” he says. “The city will want to widen the roads, enhance the public facilities, replace the streetlights and so on.
“But that’s not going to be much use if artists start to leave the area,” he says. “Already, that’s what we see. They are leaving the area for suburbs like Ilsan.”
Shim Cheol-jong, a performance artist and director of Theater Zero, a space for experimental performances, can testify to the escalation in Hongdae’s rents.
Theater Zero opened in Hongdae in November 1998. Shim said he paid 60 million won in key money and monthly rent of 2 million when he first signed the contract. By 2000, he said, the rent had gone up to 2.86 million won. Last year, the new owner asked Shim how much compensation he would require to vacate the building; Shim asked for 800 million won, and the offer was dropped. The parties are currently in court.
Shim thinks the news about the special cultural district status has impelled building owners to accelerate their plans to convert their buildings, to get it done before regulations on development are imposed.
“It’s important that we establish the identity of this neighborhood clearly,” Shim says. “It’s fine that we have clubs and bars where people can hang out. But we need to create a balanced atmosphere and make sure that the atmosphere is maintained.”
Shim has held community meetings and rallies about Hongdae’s gentrification. On March 22, he led a small protest march from Hongdae to the National Assembly building in Yeouido; he and fellow protesters artists were shirtless and carrying a funeral bier, meant to symbolize the crisis at Theater Zero.
Shim says the best way for artists and merchants to benefit from each other is to have a strong foundation in the non-profit arts, and to make Hongdae a dynamic cultural scene.
“It would be natural for people who come to Hongdae to enjoy cultural venues go to bars and clubs in the neighborhood after their events are over,” he says. “But those who come to the area for bars and clubs are not interested in cultural facilities.”
Others are wary of any city intervention to maintain the cultural scene. Shin Hyun-jin, a curator at Ssamzie Space in Hongdae, is skeptical that bureaucrats can preserve a neighborhood’s uniqueness. She believes it would have been more effective for the government to assign artist communities in Hongdae to work on such projects.
Mr. Kim, an installation artist, is skeptical about the term “cultural district.” He thinks it’s based on consumption-oriented culture, rather than the experimental or alternative culture that many artists in Hongdae attempt to explore.
“Artists are powerless,” he says. “There is no way we can defend ourselves against capitalism. If landowners ask us to leave for higher rents, we have to.
“The only alternative for us is to raise it as a social issue,” he says. “And if that doesn’t work out, nobody can provide us the atmosphere that guarantees our creative production.”
by Park Soo-mee