I’ve recently moved to a new neighbourhood in central Seoul. Yeonnam-dong (연남동) is a small corner of the city made of twisty streets, walled by 4 storey buildings. Traditionally a Chinese-Korean area, it was segregated in the 1970s by the Korean dictator Park Chung-hee, who distrusted migrants and decreed that they couldn’t own property, isolating Chinese-Koreans there instead. Today it’s beginning to gentrify. It’s on the border of uber-popular Hongdae and Sinchon, both student-heavy neighbourhoods, and it’s near an exit of the airport railroad, making it popular with tourists and hipsters.
I moved to Yeonnam-dong because I got an instant good feeling from wandering the alleys. Unlike much of Seoul, it hasn’t been invaded by giant thoroughfares or malls and its old, low-level houses are being replaced with other houses rather than the ubiquitous 20 storey blocks that sprout most places. I have no doubt that older residents are being displaced by the new development. But Hongdae is now such a retail centre that landlords are kicking out residential tenants to build shops. In Yeonnam-dong, they’re building guest houses and small apartments instead.
The best feature of this neighbourhood isn’t even built yet. Yeonnam-dong abuts the old Gyeongui railway between Seoul and Pyongyang, which is being turned into a 10 km park. If you look on google street view, you’ll see it’s been a wasteground lined with grey metal panels for at least 4 years. However, the first section should be finished by the end of the year. This may not seem significant if you live in a city with public spaces, but most of Seoul is concreted over, and good luck finding a place to sit down. So a park, even an over-designed one, is a rare amenity.
This also means that the businesses nearby, currently tiny restaurants and bars, will soon have a pleasant green view instead of grey hoarding. Assuming on-street parking is banned, no sure thing in such a car-friendly city.
But that’s another great thing about Yeonnam-dong. Its streets are too narrow to accommodate many cars. Giant cars = status here, but Yeonnam-dong was designed prior to that, which means that the SUVs and full-sized sedans can only move one at a time through my neighbourhood. I rarely step aside to let them pass.
Sending a constant flow of cars down a tiny residential street because they can’t get to the thoroughfare otherwise is terrible traffic planning. But this kind of unpleasantness doesn’t extend very far into Yeonnam-dong. The streets get narrower and narrower:
Deep inside Yeonnam-dong, a model-making workshop for all your Gundam needs.
A little further afield
Yeonnam-dong is surrounded by many equally small – though not as pleasingly serpentine – neighbourhoods. However, it wouldn’t be Seoul without some enterprising developer lining the old railway bed with towers:
I like towers, but Seoul’s lack the audacity of Hong Kong’s – supertall and close together – or the uniqueness of New York. They’re tall enough to block the sun, short enough to be nondescript, and designed like the gridlocked metropolis I subjected my Sims to in Sim City 4. There are reasons they look this way, which are too complex for a short paragraph. However, thankfully this row is on the opposite side of the park.
Some graffiti on the park hoardings by exit 6 & 7 of Hongik station, across the road:
Chuseouk, the harvest festival, has emptied Seoul of half its inhabitants and made the city (relatively) quiet. Tired of choosing between tinned meat and shampoo as a chuseok gift? Now you don’t have to:
The markets are full of rice pastries, but I don’t like the chuseok ones: they’re small, hard and slimy, with dry peanut paste in the middle. I prefer the soft red bean ones. That said, they’re quite popular at this time of year, and apparently improve considerably with steaming: