My rooftop smells like pizzaI moved into an apartment in Kyungnidan last October. After thoroughly searching the area, I found a two-bedroom with access to a rooftop. It wasn’t the quietest place. Old windows, a warped front door, a man who cuts steel pipes out front first thing in the morning and proximity to a highly trafficked four-lane road. I get my share of city noise, day or night.
The building is also next door to a point of pride among some in the foreigner community. A business that offers a little taste of home for expats: Craft beer done right. When I moved in the warm weather was on its way out, but there were still a few nights that allowed for the bar’s patrons to take their pints of ale or porter and step outside when the space was at capacity.
The beer laughs and lewd conversations permeated my closed windows but it didn’t affect my life too much. I stay up late, usually with music or the TV on, and the bar owners were wise enough, and sensitive enough, to shut the bar down around midnight out of respect for their neighbors.
When the noraebang in the basement of my building shut down, I joked with my friends about the business opportunity the space offered. But the people who owned the bar next door were more serious. Over a month ago they expanded their operation, turning one of the basement rooms into a full-on bar, open late, with pizza.
The business owners decided not to build a bathroom in the basement. Instead, they chose to use the existing one on the first floor, sending their customers, who by nature of the diuretic product they are consuming need a bathroom often, into the building’s stairwell. There they converse loudly, smoke despite the signs forbidding it, and loudly open and close both the bathroom and bar door, sending shockwaves of noise into the apartments above them.
I live across the hall from a Korean family with children and above an elderly Korean woman. We’re the direct recipients of the noise, but we’re not the only ones.
As it stood until last week, I had drunk people to the west of me, underneath me, and in my hallway. Then came the third bar. Another place selling craft beer and pizza opened on the first floor, next to a small supermarket. On opening weekend, patrons with beers in their hands, a large portion of them foreigners, stood out in the street to the south of the building. It was like a neighborhood block party all weekend, lasting until at least 2 a.m. each night.
Kyungnidan is a “hot” neighborhood. The English and Korean media have been hyping the bars and restaurants that pop up and close down on a seemingly monthly basis. There is a mix of foreigners and Koreans that frequent the establishments, but it is decidedly heavy on foreigners compared to most other areas in Seoul.
Now, I’m all in favor of foreigners in Korea doing well, starting businesses, bringing in cultural products that aren’t readily available, etc. But did Kyungnidan really need another bar? Or another pizza place? Is the place good for the community? At what point does it start to look like a few smart individuals have learned how to profit from foreigners’ penchant for partying, with little concern for the impact on the neighborhood?
There’s a way to do it right, and I’m not sure this is it. Aside from the people in my building, there have been numerous complaints from the Korean neighbors and family in the neighborhood. What do you imagine they are thinking when they look out their windows at two in the morning and see dozens of foreigners out in the street, drinking, laughing, talking loud, keeping them up?
I’m not aware of any zoning laws regulating what people can build. If there are laws, I doubt they are enforced. People live above, beside and under businesses in my neighborhood. I’m also not aware of any consultations or notice given to the people of the neighborhood before the establishments were built. Heck, we didn’t even get any free beer. It’s either get used to it or leave. I’m not sure that’s the kind of message foreigners want to be sending to the Korean community.
I went on my roof the other day to check on the vegetables I planted a few weeks ago. There was something new up there. A shiny aluminum exhaust pipe running up from the basement big enough to throw a basketball down, curving up and over the wall of the building, pointing directly down into my rooftop. It was a surprise to me, but that’s why my rooftop smells like pizza.
*The author is the national news editor of the Korea JoongAng Daily and author of “Trans-Siberian.”
by Bart Schaneman