SPACE BA settled on the fourth floor of Sewoon Electronics Plaza in November 2014. With a cheap deposit of ₩2million and a monthly rent of ₩200,000, Song Yo-bi, an art director of Space Ba, an exhibition venue for artists, found the room a suitable place to start artistic projects along with other young artists. Song found the Sewoon Plaza inspirational for her art as it offered a unique atmosphere arising from the Euljiro neighborhood, which has served as Korea’s manufacturing hub since the end of the Korean War. Craftsmen who have been in the area since the 1960s welcomed the young artists, voluntarily offering to help with mechanical problems and visiting their exhibitions.
A shocking news hit Song and the Euljiro neighborhood last October when the Seoul Metropolitan Government announced plans to speed up its urban regeneration project in this region. Granted official permission by the city government, Hanho Construction began to demolish the old buildings in the region. In just two months, 400 shops, which have nested in the region for 10 to 60 years, were closed down*. Song, who has been trading with the craftsmen since her university years, was appalled by the news. Now, craftsmen, traders, and artists in the region are vigorously fighting for their rights to their workplaces and living family heritages.
Introduction to the Euljiro Neighborhood
The Euljiro neighborhood refers to the old manufacturing mecca of Seoul, located in Jung-gu District. The Cheonggyecheon Stream flows across the region, and 50,000 craftsmen and traders have built a total of 10,000 hardware stores and small independent factories** alongside the stream. The shops are divided into districts according to their merchandise—before the demolition started, there were 140 tile shops, 210 lightbulb shops, 530 tool shops*** and various others, each category of shops forming a cluttered street. Among the maintenance shops are famous eateries including Eulji Myeon-ok and Yang-mi-ok which have been selling traditional Korean food, cold noodles and beef intestines respectively, since the Korean War era. Though it seems like Euljiro is a hidden glimpse into the past, it is actually in a highly accessible location at the center of Seoul. Numerous passers-by visit the nearby areas, including the business hubs of Gwanghwamun and the traditional Korean heritage sites of Jongro.
Press releases by the Cheonggye Anti-Gentrification Alliance prove that the region’s history dates back to the Joseon Dynasty when the government office was founded in this area to make gunpowder. During the Japanese colonial era, small manufacturing companies began to emerge. Amid dark times of the colonial era, the Euljiro area served as a base for political movements, accommodating many activists for Korea’s independence. Originally, this region had 20 houses where independence fighters used to reside, but only 10 remain as of today. There were 11 until Jan. 29, 2019, but one has already been demolished as a result of the urban regeneration project.
The manufacturing hub gained its current shape during and after the Korean War. During the Korean War, ordinary citizens got hold of tools and electronic items from the U.S. Military base. Traders and craftsmen, who had learned skills from the small manufacturing companies in this region during the colonial era, soon began to fix and sell manufactured products independently, according to Re-Sewoon Project’s official website. The Sewoon Electronics Plaza was built in 1967, officially marking the start of the Euljiro manufacturing mecca.
In the 1950s and 60s, craftsmen in the region concentrated on making radios, fixing and transporting imported home appliances. From the 1960s to the 70s, assembling and retailing home appliances were the dominant industries. From the late 1970s, the assembly and duplication of microcomputers boomed, contributing to the golden age of the Euljiro neighborhood, explain the Re-Sewoon Project representatives on their online website. At the same time, by making components for Korean chae-bol companies at a low margin, tenants of the region altogether made valuable contributions to the Miracle of the Han River, a remarkable economic success that took place from the 1970s in South Korea. Now, the Euljiro neighborhood is one of the oldest regions in Seoul since the Seoul Metropolitan Government has eliminated other remnants of the Japanese colonial era and the Korean War. According to Listen to the City, an art-design-urbanism activism collective who is currently protesting against Seoul City’s project along with Euljiro’s tenants, only 3% of buildings constructed prior to the 1920s remain in Seoul and this area is one of the few surviving legacies.
The unforeseeable future of the Euljiro neighborhood
The plan for urban regeneration in this region is nothing new. It has been around since 2006 when Oh Se-hoon, the former Mayor of the Seoul Metropolitan Government, first announced plans for the “Sewoon Plaza Regeneration Project.” This involved tearing down streets of mechanic shops in the Euljiro region, but such plans were delayed due to the 2007-2008 Global Financial Crisis****.
The Sewoon Plaza Regeneration Project was rejuvenated in 2014 under the name of “2020 Re-Sewoon Project.” As Park Won-soon became the new Seoul City Mayor, he newly devised the Sewoon Redevelopment Promotion Areas, dividing the Euljiro neighborhood into districts according to their prospects for redevelopment. Part of the plan involved renewing and decorating seven big buildings in the area including the Sewoon Electronics Plaza and tearing down everything else*****. This empty space will be filled by none other than apartments.
Last March during a press briefing, City Mayor Park revealed his aim behind the urban regeneration project, “By 2020, we will complete the urban regeneration revolution, turning the Sewoon Plaza into a maker city where production, sales, commerce and culture are united into one.” The idea of “maker city” originated from the “maker movement” used by American Magazine Make—according to Time Magazine, it is “the umbrella term for independent inventors, designers and tinkers... The creations born in cluttered local workshops and bedroom offices, stir the imaginations of consumers numbed by generic, mass-produced merchandise.” Although Park aimed to make Euljiro a self-functioning collective of manufacturers or makers, the idea that the demolition work, to the outcry and protest of 10,00 shops and 50,000 traders ad craftsmen, would not fit into his aim did not arise on the mayor’s mind.
The Sewoon Redevelopment Promotion Areas divided the Euljiro neighborhood into eight Sewoon Districts. Sewoon District 3 was hit the hardest, witnessing the destruction of self-functioning factories and hardware stores. Due to constant protests from tenants of the region, unified under the Cheonggyecheon Anti-Gentrification Alliance, the Seoul Metropolitan Government announced that it would re-examine the original plan on Jan. 23, 2019. Official statements were made that promised a modified version of the redevelopment scheme by the end of 2019. However, according to the Alliance, demolition by the Hanho Construction on behalf of the city government is still going on, pushing people out of their locale. Moreover, since the city government has not promised a full-stop to the urban regeneration project, the vast ecosystem in this region is yet vulnerable, its fate still in the hands of government officials. In an interview with News 1 Bae Woong-gyu (Prof., School of Civil & Environmental Engineering, Urban Design and Study, Chung-Ang Univ.) emphasized, “It is natural for the old and the new to coexist within a city. Prior redevelopment projects eradicated the old completely and built big buildings, completely getting rid of the traces of tradition. Keeping Euljiro’s tool shops and its ecosystem is a way to make Seoul a more natural city.”
A symbiotic ecosystem
The Euljiro neighborhood is a symbiotic ecosystem of 10,000 stores and 50,000 craftsmen and traders. If customers need a mixture of components such as drills, bulbs and glasses, they can easily get everything by visiting stores cluttered in the area. If they cannot find a component in one store, chances are, they will find it in the next shop. Assembling and fixing items works under a similar “system.” A craftsman from a garage-sized factory will do certain parts and for the other parts that he or she cannot do, another craftsman will complete the work. There is even a saying, “You can build a tank within a few hours in the Euljiro neighborhood.” This is possible because decades worth of skills perfected by the craftsmen are cluttered in the region, allowing customers to purchase or build what they need quickly, perfectly and at a low cost.
In an interview with The Yonsei Annals, Song Yo-bi emphasized, “there is no commercial district like the Sewoon Plaza and its neighboring regions.” She added, “It is a place where techniques from the post-war times to contemporary society are concentrated.” Many artists and young manufacturers settled in the Sewoon Electronics Plaza after the city government offered cheap rental prices for the young artists in 2015 as a part of the Re-Sewoon Project, promoting its aims to bring about a maker-movement here in Euljiro. However, many of them are feeling betrayed by the city government for giving its permission to demolish nearby regions other than the Sewoon Plaza. Jang Hyun-wook, an activist from Listen to the City, spoke to the Annals: “Artists and makers currently residing in the Sewoon Plaza believe that if all the nearby regions are gone, there is no reason for them to stay here. The ecosystem should remain complete as it is, in order for the artists to continue their work.”
Park Eun-seon, an urban planning researcher and director of Listen to the City organization, spoke to The Korea Times, saying, “There is a tangible future for the 50,000 traders and craftsmen of Euljiro. Having propped up the country’s manufacturing industry since the 1960s, they are optimized for the small-scale specialized production needed for the maker movement. When this tight-knit network of talent and resources is gone, who will bring your designs to reality?”
Taking into account that the current mayor originally aimed to formulate a maker-city through the urban regeneration project, the Euljiro neighborhood is ironically an exemplary area where the maker movement has already been taking place since the 1950s, before such concepts were devised by the Make magazine in the United States. Getting rid of the workplaces of manufacturers while having an aim of accomplishing maker movements appears paradoxical.
Where are they going next?
Through conducting primary research, Listen to the City found that a total of 400 shops out of 1200 shops in the Sewoon District 3 had been forced to close down in the past few months. When the organization conducted research on 50 of them, 60% had moved to nearby areas that are not exposed to threats of redevelopment yet, 10% closed shop completely and the others scattered to other regions including Gyeonggi-do, Mullae and Paju. The most imminent problem for those who left to other areas is whether they will have access to a stable customer base and a safe working environment.
In an interview with the Annals, Park emphasized, “Euljiro has a symbiotic ecosystem whereby shops rely on each other to complete a customer’s request. (By having 400 shops removed) the city government cut off one arm, so the region is experiencing difficulty with circulation. Those who left and those who stayed are both struggling to meet customers’ demands.” Jang Hyun-wook added: “The fact that many shops moved to nearby regions shows that these shops cannot function without each other’s help. If they scatter around, they really have to start from scratch.” Those who moved to other regions after staying in Euljiro for 20 to 50 years now have to look for new connections and new customers. Moreover, because the niehgborhood has long been regarded as the central manufacturing hub, the noises and lights emitted from their work were easily tolerated. However, as a result of urban regeneration project, now manufacturers would be scattered around in different areas with affordable rental costs. Therefore, they will lose a comfortable and tested working environment as well as the main customer base.
Closing shops have not been given adequate compensation either. Under the Seoul Metropolitan Government’s Sewoon Plaza Regeneration Project, those who are leaving the neighborhood will be compensated with four months’ worth of income******. However, as manufacturers in this region mainly trade with each other and pay with cash which does not incur any commission fee, it is difficult for the city government to accurately estimate a monthly income and provide sufficient compensation.
Kim Ji-sook, who had managed her store Joong-il-sa for 41 years, had to close her shop on March 1st, 2019. As she was leaving, she left behind a sobering message to the Anti-Gentrification Alliance: “I am writing this message after hosting the national flag (since March 1st is Korea’s Independence Day). Today is also my 30th wedding anniversary. I first came to Cheonggyecheon Stream at the age of 22 and my youth is buried alive here. Having spent 41 years here in Cheonggyecheon, it is like my home... I didn’t want to be kicked out either.”
In an interview with The Korea Joongang Daily the owner of Yang-mi-ok, a renowned traditional eatery in this area selling food made of beef intestines, which is also under threat of demolition, said, “We need to stay here to be the Yang-mi-ok our customers are familiar with.” Re-locating stores and restaurants to other regions will mean losing the original vibes unique to the Euljiro neighborhood.
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Speaking to the Annals, Park left behind the message that: “We need places in Seoul that show the historical layers of the city. Euljiro is a unique area where buildings from the pre-Korean War era to contemporary society all coexist.” Among these buildings, a wide spectrum of generations is working together to continue the legacy of Korean manufacturing skills and make unique works of art. Before regarding the region as merely an old hub that should be so rashly replaced by apartments, its historical, cultural and societal importance should be reflected upon.
*Listen to the City
**The Korea Times