Group strives to keep its street cred

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Group strives to keep its street cred

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The stretch of road in front of Hongik University between the old railway and the Seokyo market resembles any other main street in Seoul these days, with its multi-colored clothing stores, coffee shops and western-style bars hiding almost all traces of its past.
The area, which started out as a vast, blank piece of land with a railway running across it, started attracting merchants during the 1970s, when the Seokyo Shopping Center opened in its vicinity. As a result, the railway disappeared and the shopping area blossomed to include more and more shops along this stretch ― Seokyo district, zip code 365 ― a 250-meter-block, currently filled with around 100 shops.
During the early 1990’s, the area around Hongik University experienced a burst of culture shock, as independent musicians and artists started gathering there for performances and exhibitions. Many punk rock clubs, including the well-known Drug, opened to service a new breed of music fans, who had grown tired of the commercially-driven pop culture. Clothing stores catering to customers with a hunger for cult designers opened one by one.
“That was the beginning of the end for this area. While the initial objective was different, the area became more and more commercialized as it gained popularity,” said Kim Gun-tae, the head of a design group called Noname Noshop and a member of Seokyo 365, a group that was organized two years ago to protect the authenticity of the street.
Mr. Kim explained that the area also started losing its character around that time.
Kim Jeong-ki, 26, who owns a clothing store on the street called Happy Unninae, said, “Around three or four building owners are monopolizing the street, making it harder for shopowners to pay their rent. As this street becomes more commercially-driven, the shops all sell the same items and the cafes all look the same, losing the spark and individuality of what made the Hongdae area so unique.”
In an effort to clean up Seoul, the city government has been in a continual battle against small vendors and shop owners in the neighborhood. More than 30 years ago, the Seoul Metropolitan Government announced that Seokyo 365 was to be renovated or the shops removed and the road widened. “The Seokyo 365 group was formed to first, protect the history of this street and keep its uniqueness, or at least to help others recognize its value,” said Mr. Kim, sitting at his studio in the middle of the area.
The buildings on the street have a peculiar architectural design. Most are three-storied and tightly aligned, with almost no space between one building and the next. The interiors look almost like mazes, with ladders and crooked staircases connecting the spaces.
Recently, however, the buildings have begun to change, along with what they carry, to reveal a more uniform appearance.
“It’s hard to differentiate one shop from the next, especially the clothing stores. Even the items for sale are similar,” said Lee Ji-hyun, 26, a shopper at one such clothing store.
Park Sang-gi, 54, has owned Kyunghwadang, a jewelry shop on the street, for nearly 30 years. He said, “Although I sometimes miss the old Seokyo district, I feel the changes are inevitable, as everything in this city is becoming more commercial and money-driven. It wouldn’t make sense for this street to stay the same ― the stores would not be able to survive financially.”
When asked about his future plans if the city carries through on its promise to renovate or raze the area, Mr. Park smiled faintly and said, “I’ve been here for so long, I don’t know what I would do. I just hope the street makes enough money so that the city doesn’t decide to clear it soon. To achieve that, we as shopowners need to keep up with the times, I guess.”
To reflect upon the changes to the area, the Seokyo 365 group will hold an exhibition from Oct. 20 to Nov. 11, featuring a documentary film about the lives of people who reside on the street. The film will include interviews with shopowners from Seokyo 365 and everyday interactions between customers and shopkeepers. There will also be a 3-dimensional installation model of the street (by urban design group guga) reflecting what the street looks like now. Photographs of the various projects conducted by the 365 group, including a “Plant a Seed” project, in which group members planted seeds in paper cups and handed them over to shopkeepers in this street, will be on display.
Cho Jung-goo, the president of guga, which researched the evolution of Seokyo 365 and its architectural merits over the past year along with other members of the group, said this kind of exhibition is necessary because “The architecture of the buildings in Seokyo 365 represents the lives of the people who lived in those spaces. Every room and stairway has a story of why it was shaped that way. Without an exhibition to reflect upon this street, we will be neglecting a part of ourselves as citizens of Seoul.”
Mr. Kim explained that the buildings are recognized as a type of “deconstruction architecture,” in which each subsequent floor was added as the owners needed more rooms and space.
“It is a strange sort of design that isn’t seen often. The buildings are filled with the ‘hand dirt’ of previous owners,” Mr. Kim said.
Lee Jung-woo, who made a documentary for the exhibition featuring interviews of shopkeepers on the street, said, “At the moment, one side of the street represents the ‘old Seokyo 365’ while another side features the ‘new.’ Although I like the fact that many qualities coexist in this one space, I also wish at the same time, that the street would not lose its history and turn into a massively commercial area with no flavor.”
Mr. Kim also hopes that the street will retain its own “flavor.” “There are so many rooms along this street which will make such creative backdrops for characteristic shops, galleries and studios. Think how great it would be if people came, climbing the 10-year-old ladders which are still seen on many of these buildings, to come up to the rooftops and enjoy summer barbecues? Doesn’t that sound much better than a clothing store that resembles what you see everyday in Gangnam or elsewhere?”


by Cho Jae-eun
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