In a once largely neglected Seoul enclave, a trendsetting scene—and gentrification—have started to take root.
Photographs by Robert Koehler
The idea that some cities are essentially an amalgam of villages is perhaps no truer than in Seoul, where chon, the Korean word for “village,” is literally embedded in the map. Take, for example, the swarming student enclave of Sinchon (“New Village”), or Haebangchon (“Liberation Village”), a gritty central area initially settled by North Korean refugees in the 1950s. Some of these villages have always had more cachet than others. Modern Seoul is a sprawling, shifting, undisciplined entity, threatening constantly to spill over various geographic and administrative boundaries. But centuries ago, the South Korean capital revolved utterly around the royal palace at its heart, Gyeongbokgung, the focal point from which distances, directions, and careers were measured.
And so aristocrats, scholars and hangers-on from the 14th century onward crowded into the districts surrounding the palace’s walls, which developed into hotbeds of power, political intrigue, and a certain degree of refinement. Bukchon, or “North Village,” was the domain of moneyed nobles, whereas Seochon (“West Village”) was associated with less well-off—but often no less respected—artists and authors. These distinctions are still visible today, thanks to relatively strict building codes and the concentration of latter-day development in newer areas of the city. Bukchon, always the prettier sister, was quicker to find its footing when Seoul experienced a resurgence of interest in historic architecture in the early aughties, with many of its stately traditional hanok homes restored and snatched up by restaurateurs and celebrities. Seochon also had plenty of old houses, but they were largely left to decline, and it remained a quiet, slightly shabby neighborhood of winding alleyways and crumbling shops that seemed permanently short of customers.
Until recently, that is. An influx of restless creative types pushed away from Bukchon and Samcheong-dong by soaring rents is rapidly reestablishing Seochon’s reputation as a haven for artisans. The uneasy question as it emerges as Seoul’s next trendsetting district is, how long can it serve that function before it begins to go the way of its over-gentrified neighbors? This is a dilemma that many of those active in the neighborhood are keenly aware of; that by creating the places that are bringing Seochon to life, they may also inadvertently be planting the seeds of its destruction.
Take Taeyoon Kim, the youthful, internationally trained chef behind 7PM, which in its four years of existence has carved out a place in Seoul’s cutthroat dining scene by offering something virtually unheard of—reasonably priced European cuisine of an exceptionally high standard. “When it comes to Seochon I have two hearts,” Kim tells me one sunny afternoon in the laid-back venue, where simple wooden furniture and shelves crammed with knickknacks create a homey feel. “When I grew up there was nothing here; but now a rush of people and money is pushing some residents away. That hurts.”
But he also doesn’t deny that part of the reason might be his cooking, which incudes dishes such as a tangy white-fish carpaccio with baby cabbage and mustard leaves and a perfectly tender rack of lamb in a paprika-based sauce with farm-fresh spring onions and potatoes. There is a solid wine list, but even more impressive is the range of traditional liquors, with recommendations for food pairings—part of Kim’s effort to champion the local wherever possible. Having lived in the area off and on for three decades, he says, “I didn’t even consider other neighborhoods when I was planning the restaurant. What was important was to build something where I live and work, and where the people close to me can come and feel comfortable.”
Out on the street, low-rise Seochon is intimate enough (especially compared to the glass-and-steel canyons of southern Seoul) that it’s easy to imagine it being inhabited by one big extended family. Narrow side streets are ill-suited for anything but pedestrian traffic, while local landmarks are noted for being modest, like the Daeo secondhand bookstore. Founded in 1951, the diminutive shop sports a weathered signboard, slightly skewed tile roof, and permanently musty shelves.
Coffee is the new lifeblood of the neighborhood, and the list of cute cafés, bakeries, and bistros grows larger every day, each promising a more handcrafted experience than the last. Among them is 9 Coffee Roasters, an industrial-themed outlet where roasting equipment takes up most of the space and owner Park Tae-hwan brings a dose of near-superhuman intensity to every manually dripped cup. Or a few blocks south, Slow Bread Ever, where (as the name warns) the bakers adhere rigorously to the time-consuming techniques set down by their most traditional French forebears, sending a medley of scents wafting through the carefully tended courtyards nearby. The boutiques sprouting up reflect an obsession with the niche and (relatively) obscure: Seochon Garage, a hybrid design studio, bookstore, and exhibition gallery; Poco Grande, purveyor of yarn supplies and wool animal creations; and Kim’s for vintage-themed women’s wear.
Of course, even if the neighborhood as a whole wasn’t as recognized in the past, Seochon has for years boasted a handful of what could qualify as big-ticket venues. In artistic terms, the area has always punched well above its weight. There is the Park No-soo Art Museum, dedicated to the work of one of Seoul’s most celebrated modern painters, and the Daelim Museum, known for boundary-pushing exhibitions that marry design, fashion, and high art. Tongin Market, which occupies several blocks, has a well-established reputation as one of the city’s finest venues for traditional snacks like tteokbokki, cylindrical rice cakes simmered in a hot chili or savory soy-based sauce, made the old-fashioned way. Visitors even pay for purchases with tokens modeled on ancient gold coins. And while the authorities fret about development, they are also encouraging it; the former home of renowned poet and patriot Yi Sang, who died in 1937 at just 27, has been largely gutted and redone in a stylish but icy medley of steel and cement. A few remnants of Yi’s life are scattered around for viewing and the staff somewhat reluctantly offer postcards and (of course) coffee for sale. If this is the vision of restoration, it is an unsettling one.
Far better is chef Taeyoon Kim’s latest project, Sajikdong Juban, a novel bar-restaurant nestled in a cozy old laneway house. Under original oak roof beams, a young, savvy clientele chatters over bottles of wine and plates of what Kim calls “my soul food”; fire-alarm-spicy fusion dishes like masala jeonpyong, an Indian-accented version of the Korean pancake. Stocked with an impressive range of traditional liquors, it’s also helping to fill a gap that may just have kept Seochon from being completely overrun until now—a relative lack of nightlife.
When I ask Kim if he thinks Seochon will go the way of Bukchon, he insists the area will be different, just as it always has. “There are still a lot of original residents here who inherited family businesses; we all keep close and discuss what the direction of the neighborhood should be. There are also new people coming in who are conscious of the need for preservation, and we’re trying to work with them.” Pausing, he adds, “It’s a hard balance to keep, but I’m hopeful.”
SEOCHON ADDRESS BOOK
2F, 137-11, Tongin-dong.
55 Jahamun-ro 7-gil; 82-2/735-1349.
9 Coffee Roasters
140-1 Cheongun-dong; 82-2/723-2547.
Slow Bread Ever
104 Ogin-dong; 82- 2/734-0850.
24 Jahamun-ro 9-gil.
Park No-soo Art Museum
168-2 Ogin-dong; 82-2/2148-4171.
21 Jahamun-ro 4-gil.
3 Pirundae-ro 6-gil.
Yi Sang House
This article originally appeared in the December 2016/January 2017 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“It Takes a Village”).