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  • Writer's pictureEryn Gordon

The Perseverance of Korea's Traditional Neighborhoods

Updated: Apr 4

When you stop off at Mangwon station on a Saturday morning, you can hear the faint commotion of 월드컵로 (World Cup Street). The sounds radiate from the outside-a pulsing beat-and travel all the way down to the card machines within the subway. Like the commotion within a stadium, these sounds have a life of their own. They swarm around you, fill the space and atmosphere and follow you outside of the subway. A right turn out of exit four brings you to the heart of the beast.

Exploring Mangwon Station

The street was named after the installation of a nearby stadium which hosted the 2002 FIFA world cup. The tournament itself boasted a few groundbreaking firsts: the first cup to be held in Asia and France, the defending champions, were eliminated in the group stage where Korea proceeded to the semi-finals as the first non-Western country to do so.

Thanks to hosting the 2002 World Cup and the 2018 Olympics, among other things (k-pop, k-dramas, k-cuisine and the world's focus on k-culture in general), Korea has the international spotlight. Coupled with an economic boom that began in the 60's, Seoul continues to experience an ongoing surge in metropolitan growth, modernizations and perhaps also westernization.

It's a metamorphosis; a redevelopment for the sections of city lost to previous decades. A new building shoots up into the sky every month, all dark granite slabs and mirrored windows. In the expensive parts of town, slanted roofs and wood beams become more of a premium aesthetic and not simply a status-quo. As for the hanok style houses that are truly old, protected by tarps and hidden in the winding alleyways of Eujilro, their time is limited. This is more than a beautifying project, it's a battle for character.

However, this section of Mapo appears somewhere in the middle between old and new. It appears that modernization hasn't quite grabbed hold of places like World Cup Street where hawkers, butchers, fish mongers and farmers all hold strong to Korea's market culture.

South Korea's Market Culture

Days start early on this street. Walking down it gives you a passing perspective on the calm before the storm. From a front window, you can see bakers slide freshly baked red bean pastries into the front rows of their counter. Burly men carry out boxes full of their most eye catching produce for the vegetable stands and lay them on top of crate-elevated stacks. Standing signs are pulled out and set next to the door on the street. The waitstaff turn over open signs and pick up trucks park at each intersection. The driver hops out and pulls off the tarp from his bounty, piles upon piles of freshly picked mushrooms. Men wearing canvas and rubber aprons stand outside and blow cigarette smoke into the air.

What's For Sale?

The smells of this street are such a mix, a different fragrance owns particular street sections, which you can decipher at each step ahead. There is the chestnut roaster, who’s pulled his truck up to the corner. He opened the side of his truck to display a portable oven hooked up to the truck’s battery. The chestnut skins pop open from the heat and he takes short knife to finish the job.

Past him is the fish monger, a man who appears to have come directly from his boat in Incheon. He’s wearing a thick knit sweater under rubber overalls. He’s also got on rubber gloves that go up past his elbows. A woman waits with her bills as he chops the head off of a long silver fish, then uses a meat cleaver to separate the body into quarters. The process happens so quickly, the fish is in pieces by the time you pass, only a second or two goes by.

Street food vendors slide the windows of their shops open. Teokkbokki is already bubbling in a rectangular dish heated from the bottom. An older woman stirs the mixture, a spicy, sweet scent with anchovy undertones. A man buys a plastic dish full and dips pieces of blood sausage into the sauce.

In a few minutes time, the street becomes a swarm of commotion, as if all of Seoul's energy was concentrated into this one section of town. A microcosm within a macrocosm. Old ladies push ahead and will run your feet over with their rolling carts if you aren't careful. People use their elbows, rather than their words here. If you don't keep it moving, prepare to get moved.

The men who were smoking a few minutes ago bellow out pricing and special meat cuts, some stand in the middle of the road to lure in buyers. Motorbikes swerve around them as if rounding trees in a path.

What You Can Find in Mangwon's Market

Street hawkers selling all sorts of goods holler above the motorbike engines and the cars. People walk across their paths and alongside them without a second notice. People and vehicles share the road, except the cars and motorbikes are painfully outnumbered. Two pick up trucks line up behind the man selling roasted chestnuts. A woman hops out from the passenger seat of one and yanks the tarp off of the pick up bed.

Underneath is a mountain of mushrooms, all different kinds, shapes and sizes. As soon as the tarp comes off, people crowd around her, bills in hand. She pulls out a stack of plastic bags wedged in the corner of the bed and begins picking and weighing for her customers. She hands over the plastic bag and exchanges change from her fanny pack. A man rolls down the window from the driver’s seat and smokes a cigarette.

Further down the road, the crowd thins and shops with clean windows and pastel interiors multiply. There’s a cafe with wispy strands of muhly grass planted out front and a beach cruiser painted a stark white. Couples walk hand in hand toward a cafe and home scent shop, where they can build their own room perfumes and drink $6 lattes.

Stationery shops sell notesbooks, post cards and post it notes with printed cats so cute you’ll never want to write on them. A Hawaiian themed bar sits at the corner with snow covered outdoor seating and grass umbrellas rustled by the February chill.

Juxtaposing Old and New in Seoul

Perched next to each other are two sections of the same street and they each tell a story about their separate eras. On one end is the story of post-war struggle and triumph. A city almost stunted by division. A flourished, well established market culture that is intense, busy and exhilarating. The heart of an economy with the goods being sold as its blood.

The other side is a changing city and country. One that is distinguished by its love for beauty, clean lines and perfection. Some say modernization, others say westernization, though ultimately it’s gentrification. The new, the sleek, the Instagrammable, all that takes up space, raises prices and pushes out the old.

A short walk down one street will make you wonder if you've left the city for a different one all together. I once heard a real estate agent say, "I don't know why those people care so much for dilapidated, old buildings," while those people hold the different perspective of Seoul.

To them, redevelopment as a euphemism, it simply means to tear down. Redevelopment is not about beautifying, improvements, building safety or even money (though that's a big part of it), what it's about it losing one's identity.

City planners seem to envision Seoul as an international hub: a modern, smart city, with sprawling sky scrapers. It's a place where wide streets and smooth walkways take over, leaving no room for winding alleys, uneven pavement or street vendors. Whatever isn’t considered fit for the general consensus of beauty will disappear.

As cities lose their individual qualities, they begin to mirror other metropolises around the world. And while I manage to enjoy both versions of this city side-by-side, I can't help but wonder if the soul of Seoul is at stake.

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