In South Korea, Gentrification Goes Global

Mural in Seoul by mmmmngai via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

I get wrapped up in issues about gentrification in my hometown of Seattle. When I do look up to see how the story plays out elsewhere, it’s often in nearby San Francisco or Oakland or Portland. I look there for what we can learn and what we have to lose.

My own narrow focus is why I was surprised to read about the gentrification of Mullae, an industrial-artistic district in Seoul, South Korea, where “the neighborhood’s unique features were destroyed through over-commercialization.” It’s a familiar story, as artists to join with residents to keep neighborhoods like Mullae — or Boyle Heights in Los Angeles or New York’s Chinatown — authentic and alive.

The situation in Mullae now calls for artists and factory owners to unite in resistance to speculative capitalism. Otherwise the neighborhood will follow the model of Daehangno, Bukchon, Seochon, Garosu-gil, and Jogno in becoming a generic shopping district. Landlords in those areas earned fortunes by raising rents until the neighborhood’s unique features were destroyed through over-commercialization. What followed was not prosperity but hollowness. Young people stopped visiting areas that were no longer seen as “authentic,” and as retail dropped off, building owners chose to leave spaces vacant rather than lower rents. We see a hint of this now in Mullae, as several spaces on Dorim-ro have sat empty for the past few months, despite strong interest. The sole hostel, Urban Art Guest House, is on the last year of its contract, and proprietor Lee Seung-hyuck is not sure whether he will stay, as the building owner intends to triple the rent.

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