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Euljiro: A Hub of Innovation Under Threat of Destruction

Euljiro: A Hub of Innovation Under Threat of Destruction

This is Euljiro, nestled amid skyscrapers in Seoul’s city center It’s an area where people manufacture pretty much anything And it’s one of the latest areas in Seoul to face large-scale demolition and redevelopment This is artisan Lee Jung-sung He’s worked in Euljiro for 58 years He’s also known as life-long technician of the renowned video artist Paik Nam June I came here when I was young, in my 20s This area was just a dusty area by Cheonggyecheon Stream And maybe one of the dirtiest places in Seoul But there were still electronics sellers And tents full of anything and everything for sale Lately, young artists have been flocking to the area to work as Lee did in his 20s Media artist Jeon You-jin is one of them. This area provides technical infrastructure Within a small, limited area I could find a wide range of materials For artists, it’s natural to come to this area starting as students Having a regular, a teacher or getting help from artisans For such benefits, I also came here frequently Along with artists many young South Korean are being drawn to Euljiro Because the area has remained in its unchanged state rent has been cheap even though the location is central Young people began opening cafes, bars and restaurants turning it into an enclave of latest fashion and trends The Seoul city government has been one of the driving forces behind change It decided in 2014 that they wanted to turn Euljiro into a hub for innovation. The centerpiece of this ambitious urban renewal plan was to be Sewoon Plaza which dates back to the late 1960s They suddenly announced they were building Sewoon Plaza There are four buildings I’m in Building No. 2 When they first built it the entire complex was an electronics arcade Once a thriving shopping center for electronics parts It, however, fell into a state of decay Then Seoul city began renovating the structure In the name of urban renewal And actively encouraged young creators to move and work there The Seoul Foundation for Arts and Culture saw young creators flocking to the area It started seeing this area’s potential and launched various projects One of them was pairing old artisans and young makers to collaborate I worked with artisan Lee on a project that converts sounds into video signals Making a circuit board to turn an analog television into a visualization device I developed a workshop like that as part of a collaboration project I made it in the spirit of helping out an artist But Jeon even designed a pretty case I was amazed at how clever young artists are these days And had a wonderful time In any given week, 3 or 4 young artists come to ask for help They come in constantly They usually look hesitant but I am happy when they come The project was largely praised for reinventing an old landmark And revitalizing the whole area It seemed like the start of a new era in Seoul Where things from the past are cherished, not destroyed But the project took an unexpected turn In October 2018, the first round of demolition began Since then, hundreds of artisans have moved or closed their shops Just when young artists were hard at work in Sewoon Plaza Suddenly these banging sounds started it was so shocking We thought at first it wouldn’t last. But it just continued now there are empty fields in the area At first, the renewal plan for the area was thought to include Sewoon Plaza as well as the surrounding neighborhood But when we see what’s going on now The goal is obviously to keep Sewoon Plaza intact but everything else will become residential and commercial highrises [The city] called it a “small-scale renewal project” So I told them “Are you the fool or am I?” “Which is the one that can’t distinguish between renewal and redevelopment?” Redevelopment, or jaegaebal in Korean, is common in Seoul It means near total destruction of existing buildings in a given area And replacing them with brand-new buildings and infrastructure Proponents for redeveloping—not just revitalizing—Euljiro argue that this is necessary Because the area is in a state of dereliction posing a serious fire hazard They say the area is too dilapidated But why do you think it is? They didn’t let us redo the roofs or even repaint the walls Then they say after decades that the area needs to be torn down Does that even make sense? This is robbery That’s why I’m so angry Developers and urban planners might think this area looks run down But inside is its own special functioning ecosystem If they bulldoze it all just because it looks dilapidated All of this will disappear And this isn’t the first time the city says it’s improving an old area And allows it to be replaced with identical highrises taking away its original character Previously, when the development plan for an area called Okbaraji Alley became controversial City officials said they’ll revisit the plan But nothing changed They promised to build at least a memorial But there still isn’t a memorial The area is now just an apartment complex An important point is that each shop around Sewoon Plaza specializes in one thing From machine manufacture to individual materials It may seem trivial but they do business in collaboration with neighbors If a few crucial shops and specialists move out Then the whole system falls apart We won’t be able to do anything Seoul city government either didn’t know about this Or they thought lightly of it Or else they wouldn’t be doing this [redevelopment] It means nobody tried to understand the significance of each business I’m at a loss for words I’m an activist with the Cheonggyecheon-Euljiro Preservation Alliance We are mostly young artists and creators based in this area We lodge complaints to Seoul city government For claiming to engage in urban renewal while in reality it wants residential highrises We work closely with the shop owners We host events and do research on the area among other things We organized a poster rally Young designers created posters calling for protecting the area And used the posters in our last rally Activism seemed to pay off—at first Media reports of Euljiro’s destruction garnered public interest And this January, Seoul city mayor Park announced that he’d revisit the redevelopment plan But even after the city announced it would reexamine the plan everyday near my office, demolition continued day and night It seems like nothing has changed At first I believed that even if demolition went on for a bit longer A review had been announced so a change would come But that was months ago and it’s the same It almost seems like they are now more eager than ever to demolish things In December 2018, the city government announced that up to 90% of the land under redevelopment can be used for residential purposes And signs indicate demolition will be finished by late 2019 It means Euljiro is likely to become another forest of apartment towers Like much of the rest of Seoul They say they are building apartments here They are knocking down a whole area where tens of thousands make a living just to build apartments I am appalled at the very idea of destroying this area under the excuse that Seoul doesn’t have enough land for apartments Who thinks that way? That’s why we in Sewoon Plaza are so enraged If they tear down the surrounding area Sewoon Plaza’s value will drop 70 to 80 percent People will just be selling and buying parts here People who want to come here to make things will stop It means the end of Sewoon Plaza’s renewal What can we do without customers? I was surprised that they could simply ignore the area’s possibilities and its self-grown ecosystem This is something that has come into being organically That takes a lot of time and effort But destroying all that at once when they should be encouraging it Is what’s so shocking about this city government Especially in this day and age I think such ideas about redevelopment need to change If they keep on destroying what belongs to ordinary people and building homes for the rich The center of Seoul will turn into essentially a massive theme park That would look neat and clean But history without blemishes is a made-up history and is frankly dangerous Because it’s a history that has eliminated many truths

2 comments on “Euljiro: A Hub of Innovation Under Threat of Destruction

  1. High rise buildings, High suicide rates… High status to hide as low and souless as humanity can go. Koreans complain about Chinese hypocrisy or japanese negligence but they practice the same. Not only economically but socially. China at least is more honest and don't try to hide it from the world. All is skin deep and only visible if poses some embarrassment to the status quo… But all keeps the same. Why people are so afraid of seeing the wrong in the country instead of seeing only the surface of it? It's impossible to believe this can be healthy. Epidemic cases of negligence and abuse nobody cares because… High rise buildings keep growing and suited smiling men still shaking hands.

    As always, without Korea Expose… None of these would be even noticed or get any attention.

  2. Is there a way to support the alliance or organizations that are trying to petition against the redevelopment?

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