Bukchon, Seochon, Hongdae, Kyungridangil, and Garosugil—what connects these areas? For those who have never visited them, they may be places that reflect the romance of Seoul life and for those who have visited them, they may be places that are full of memories. Yet the term “gentrification” may be new to many. Even so, for the past 10 years, an uninvited guest named gentrification has invaded these places. What is happening in Seoul?
The Heated Discussion: "What Is It?"
The word gentrification comes from the term which refers to the English middle class, the gentry. It indicates a phenomenon that makes a certain place gentry-like. Its definition may be simple, but its history shows that gentrification has changed and broadened. In the past, it was used to indicate Urban Vitalization.
As it expanded, however, such residential function of urban areas transferred to the outskirts, and rather the commercial business function was strengthened. As a result, the residential places near the urban areas, where people who cannot afford to move to outskirts remain, were deteriorated. Before long, several projects to rejuvenate such places began, and gentrification was one of them.
However, present-day’s gentrification is somewhat different from the past as its gentle intention has been degenerated. While development is ongoing, the middle class people, who left the urban areas in the past, have returned to and occupied the place again using their capital power. As a result, the original residents, who were not competitive enough, had difficulty staying and were kicked out.
Present-day gentrification occurs through the following process: artists and individual entrepreneurs open galleries and shops in an area where the cost of rents are low. As they become successful, the area becomes popular, attracting larger businesses and higher income residents. As a result, cost of rents and leases go up, often driving out the original businesses and residents.
Then, the middle class people, who usually have more economic power than the residents, open grand-scale franchise shops at those sites and the place becomes more commercialized. More practically, the rental fee of such places increases even more. As a result, conventional small shops lose their customers and the artists lose their sites of creation.
Paradox of Popular Areas
Today’s gentrification is a paradox in that many residents are forced to leave once their area becomes popular. Korea University (KU) Professor Oh Sook Hee (Sociology) has diagnosed one of the causes of gentrification as follows: “A place has two values— exchange value and utility value. However, when a group of people who pursue a maximed of exchange value through property development control the place, the place is inevitably gentrified.”
Since the early 2000s, gentrification occurred in many Korean neighborhoods, starting from the Bukchon area of Jongno-gu. Bukchon is well known for its view of hanoks, Korean traditional homes. As more and more people visited, more capital poured in, and some were forced to leave the area. According to the Hankyoreh, a Korean newspaper, the last remaining public bath in Bukchon closed down last month, an optical superstore taking its place.
▲ Many people crowds the narrow streets of Seochon. Provided by www.huffingtonpost.kr.
▲ More and more people visit Seochon, which starts to be gentrified. Provided by www.huffingtonpost.kr.
Likewise, in Seochon, which is located near Bukchon, it is now hard to feel the previous serenity created by the clusters of hanok. As a result of gentrification, rental fees soared, and the area is currently a commercial place for dating.
Solution to the Paradox
According to Professor Oh, focusing on the positive aspects of gentrification, it may shed light on better solutions. “For local governments, they can increase tax revenue by turning local areas into places for new investment. This can lead to an increase in public services provided for local residents and support for village renovation movements,” said Professor Oh.
The bottom line is that discussions over how the revenue should be used have to take place, among both new and original residents and local government officials. If residents remain passive, the area may develop in ways that do not benefit everyone.
KU Professor Kim Moon Jo (Sociology), however, claims that there is some ambiguity in calling gentrification a trend in Korea. “It is true that Korea is also under the influence of gentrification, but it seems that such happenings will not settle down or spread further than now,” Professor Kim said.
According to him, there are two reasons for such ambiguity. First, the number of urban areas eligible for gentrification is limited. Second, even in places that have been gentrified, the atmosphere of the new is the old is not widely different.
Gentrification, however, has appeared as a side effect of urban revitalization, which caused the original places that were not yet gentrified to eventually be gentrified. Therefore, such cause should also be considered to seek for solutions of gentrification.
It is obvious that gentrified areas are welcomed by many people. However, no one has invited the guest named gentrification to those areas storing gentle romance and reminiscence, so they cannot be welcomed thoughtlessly. Who it is and why it came should be figured out first. Only then will it be explicitly notified that no one wants to invite that guest evermore.