Wednesday, November 4, 2009

A little bit of Seoul in Orange County (Or, The City That Eats Itself)

No, this isn't about restaurants. In that sense, there's already a lot of Seoul in Orange County (I may have told you about a place called Koreatown). Nah, this is something else, and a lot less pleasant.

Anyone who has lived in Seoul (or probably just about anywhere else in Korea) is familiar with the relentless drive to verticalize the just about every pyong of urban space in the ROK. When you live in the third most densely populated country* in the world, land is at a premium, and the authorities decided long ago that if people were to be given decent sized living spaces, then there's nowhere to go but up. Hence the "forests of apartments" in places like Seoul.

And this means that a lot of the old ends up facing the backhoe (wrecking balls aren't the weapon of choice when taking down a traditional tiled kiwa home or a small brick-and-cement structure nestled just off a narrow lane somewhere).

That's what happened with the home I lived and worked in [above] prior to buying the apartment I now own. It was a sturdy brick structure that had been built in 1935, but it was razed when the owner (who had lived there from the time the house was built until her husband died in around 1995) was coerced by her daughter to sell. The buyers knocked it down and built a cookie-cutter five-story flat.

The whole neighborhood is an older one area that was upper middle class during the Japanese occupation era, and many of the homes are well-built, well-maintained structures from that area. Sadly, they face the same fate in a few years, as the entire area has been slated for redevelopment (재개발) over the next few years.

My new place is also in the same area, which likely means I'll get a new apartment. I'm not sad about the 1981 apartment being knocked down for something bigger and better, although I have grown attached to the place, but it will be upsetting to see that entire old neighborhood gone for good.

Many of the homes are still occupied by their original owners, or the children or grandchildren of the original owners. The picture above is owned by one Mrs Nam, who is now a retired Japanese language instructor. She has a beautiful lawn just beyond the gate, and she converted her upper floor into two small apartments that she rents out. Mrs Nam is pushing eighty, I believe, and she would be at a loss as to where to go, even though she has the means to go just about anywhere. She has lived in this home, I think just about all her life.

Anyway, the fate of this neighborhood that hundreds of thousands pass by every week without knowing of its existence is something that always weighs down on me a bit. It informs my life experience as a Seoulite. And that's how I look at stories like this one in the Orange County Register:
More than a dozen old homes have a date with a wrecking crew – over the objections of historic preservationists – as the city clears the way for an ambitious redevelopment project near downtown.

Those preservationists have argued that the homes have real historic value and should be spared the bulldozer – and maybe refurbished as shops or restaurants. But the City Council has voted 7-0 to move forward with plans to demolish most of the homes by the end of the year.

The city has big plans for the land where the homes now stand. It has been working with a development team to draw up a project of new homes, new storefronts and new opportunity in the area just east of downtown. It calls that vision the Station District.

The city owns 18 homes inside the proposed Station District, the last standing remnants of its multimillion-dollar effort to buy up land there for redevelopment. The oldest of those homes dates to before the turn of the last century, according to the Santa Ana Historical Preservation Society.

But all of them would need serious work to bring them back to what they once were. Many have been renovated and rebuilt so much over the years that their original owners would hardly recognize them. And only one has ever been recognized as a bona fide historic resource on the city's official registry.

The city plans to move that one – a stately old Victorian – and two others, rather than knock them down. It estimates that it will cost as much as $50,000 each to move the homes and $500,000 or more each to fix them up – a cost that either the city itself or a private buyer will have to cover.

Preservationists – joined by some residents and business owners from the Station District neighborhood – urged the council to postpone a decision on the other homes at least until it has a development plan in place. They said the old buildings could be refurbished as homes or as businesses – a "seed for redevelopment," as Jeff Dickman, a member of the Historical Preservation Society, put it.
Orange County doesn't have a lot of old stuff. There's Mission San Juan Capistrano, of course, which is over 230 years old, but no one's talking about knocking that down. Most of the homes from the 19th century are gone, as are the cattle ranches and orange groves of which many were a part (Orange County just narrowly missed being called Cow County).

But OC faces the same type of questions: What deserves saving? The above home still looks like an old house from the early 20th or late 19th century, but some of the homes Santa Ana is scheduled to knock down have been stuccoed and re-stuccoed beyond recognition. And what counts as sufficiently old? Does a seventy-year-old house count (like the one I'd lived in, way above)? How about a fifty-year-old home?

My old neighborhood in Compton is full of houses built in the mid-1940s, constructed immediately after World War II to satisfy soaring demand as Americans migrated out west. While my family and I might see value in that quaint, old neighborhood, with its eclectic mix of houses that all look completely different from each other (a rarity in any Southern California community today), others might laugh at any attempt to gain some sort of special status for the area and it's sexagenarian houses. Not that anyone's trying.

I like that the Santa Ana case has some people trying to find real solutions for the impasse. I like the idea of refurbishing the old homes and converting them into shops. San Diego does a lot of this, and there are even some neighborhoods of Seoul that have taken structures from the 1950s and 1960s and converted them into businesses. There are several rows of restaurants and cafés in the Hongdae area, for example, that are just converted older homes. Same down in Kangnam, in places like Karosu Street [가로수길].

It's tempting to get rid of the unremarkable, but if you one day wake up and realize all the unremarkable old stuff is gone, you may just realize — albeit too late — that the unremarkable really was something.

* When I say country, I'm referring to "real countries," not easier-to-manage city-states that throw off stats on things like development, literacy, etc. Singapore, Vatican City, Monaco, Hong Kong, etc. You know who I'm talking about. Singapore being crowded, for example, is not the same thing as Bangladesh, Taiwan, and South Korea being crowded.


  1. Mikeinkorea uploaded videos about this on youtube

  2. About Seoul or about Orange County? I'm assuming it's the former.

    Anyway, got a link?


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