Greater Seoul – Esquire Korea column

The following is an English translation of part 1 of a new column appearing Esquire Korea magazine, authored by Kim Shiduck (김시덕).

The column title Seoul susaek, is a pun as susaek carries the meaning “susaek” (搜索) as well as being the name of Susaek neighbourhood (水色洞) featured.

 

In Search of Seoul

The Greater Seoul road from South Gajwa, Seoul, to Gajwa, Goyang city.

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I term the metropolis including both Seoul City and the Seoul suburbs of surrounding Gyeonggi province as “Greater Seoul.” The relationship between Seoul City and Greater Seoul is similar to that between the notion of London and Greater London. If we want to understand the past, present and future of Seoul City, it is not enough only to look at the central city. We must also look at the intimately connected suburbs of Gyeonggi province.

Something I’ve come to feel while researching each area of Greater Seoul, is that – perhaps for political reasons – Seoul City, or its individual wards, and the surrounding Gyeonggi province towns are each only concerned with promoting their own stories. What’s interesting, however, is that if we trace even a little way back in time, the administrative districts of Greater Seoul were entirely different to the present.

Take Jamsil (잠실Chamsil) district as an example. In 1910, it was an island belonging to Ttukto township (뚝도면) of Goyang county (Koyang 고양군), in Gyeonggi province. However, due to the course of the Han river differing to that of today, rather than adjoining the gangnam south side of the river as it does now, Jamsil was on the north side. Consequently if we speak of Songpa ward ( Songp’a 송파구) of Jamsil (잠실동) as we know it in 2019, we cannot communicate all aspects of what “Jamsil” has been. Another example is Siheung city (Sihŭng 시흥시), Gyeonggi province, the location of which today doesn’t even overlap with that of former Sihŭng county of the Chosŏn dynasty period (1932-1910). So imagine the result if we tried to tell the history only of “Siheung” from the present administrative definition.

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Given that Greater Seoul has undergone such unparalleled changes, any strategy of exploring the metropolis from the street level must also account for such evolution. None of this “district circular walk” or “in the footsteps of famous residents” trails, such as are typically promoted by the city and district halls. We need a strategy of exploring Greater Seoul that puts the citizens – the protagonists of this democratic republic – center-stage.

In this column, I plan to introduce a method based on walking the arterial streets that extend throughout Greater Seoul and cut across administrative boundaries. That is to say, rather than a compartmentalized areal conceptualization, we can better understand Greater Seoul through lineal perspectives. Politically, economically and culturally, Greater Seoul constitutes a single mass, but has been arbitrarily divided into administrative districts. By walking such streets, we can achieve a more holistic picture. After all, few people live their daily lives thinking about the administrative centers of the districts in which they live, rather their spatial center is the location of their own homes.

The first arterial road to walk is Susaek Road (수색로). Within Seoul City, Susaek Road starts at Sacheon bridge intersection, Yeonhui of Seodaemun ward, and extends northwest to Deog’eun bridge intersection, Susaek, of Eunpyeong ward. From there it continues into Gyeonggi province, traversing through the centre of Goyang city, where it changes name to Central Street (Jung’angno중앙로), and finally finishes at the entrance of the Gajwa Village apartment complex on the western edge of Goyang.

Sacheon bridge intersection is famous for the local ppŏngt’wigi (뻥튀기) cracker store, while to its east are the sought after neighbourhoods of Yeonhui, Yeonnam and Seongsan. This area first began to urbanize from the 1930s with the establishment of the city railway. Since the 1980s it has become a desirable district to live owing to the proximity of universities and large houses.

By contrast the area to the northwest of Sacheon bridge, between Gajwa and Susaek stations and bordering Gyeonggi province, has an entirely different, military town atmosphere. There during the 1930s, to support their invasion and expected consolidation of Manchuria and China, the Japanese built the Keijō (Seoul) railway switch-yard, military barracks and a power substation. Among these, the switchyard was particularly important, and became current day Susaek station.

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Even today, the enormous scale of the Keijō switchyard can be felt through such remaining structures as the old Susaek double-level railway tunnel (수색쌍굴) and the Japanese military officer’s barracks, as well as knowledge of the fact that during its construction public cemetery for untended graves (무연고) had to be entirely relocated. The military atmosphere was maintained even after 1945, as the neighbourhood houses the 30th Military Division, the Korea Aerospace University and, until recently, the Korea National Defense University.

Today, however, the character of Sang’am, in the middle of this area, has greatly changed with the addition of the World Cup Stadium and influx of television broadcast stations. The region of the former Susaek power substation, which for a time produced its own nostalgic atmosphere of dilapidation, is also currently under redevelopment. It will likely be a century from the establishment of this area in the 1930s, that it will have entirely changed. But of course, there are still many traces currently remaining, including: Moraenae Market opposite Gajwa station; Korea’s first multipurpose pillar-elevated building, Jwawon Apartments (좌원상가아파트); the former village adjacent to Susaek station, the iron monger’s street, Yeokjeon barber shop (역전이발관 photos), and the old Sangam village. Observing how these sites will change over the coming ten or twenty years is a key point in walking Susaek Road.

In this way, and in contrast to other regions of Greater Seoul, even after 1945, various state facilities were located along Susaek-Central Road that necessitated keeping the surrounding areas clear due to both security and safety concerns. In 1973 during the height of the oil crisis, the Mapo Petroleum Reserve (now a recreational park) was established in the northeast of the adjacent Nanjido waste site (photos), and in 1992 North Seoul Oil Reserve was placed at a location close to the name change of Susaek Road and Central Street, that is, the administrative border between Seoul City and Goyang city. This was likely to minimize the security and safety risks in case of fire and explosion.

From the 1970s through to the 1990s, Nanjido of Mapo district was used as the main waste dumping site for Seoul, and still today the Nanjido Waste Water plant serving Seoul City is adjacent to this, but inside Goyang. There was likely a psychological factor involved in locating the Nanji waste site and sewage works at the administrative border between Seoul and Goyang where few ordinary people frequented due to the military, railway and other such state infrastructure. These state installations, together with various other factories, waste treatment businesses, and warehouse facilities combine to produce a unique and somewhat poignant industrial landscape absent from other areas of the border between Seoul City and surrounding Gyeonggi province.

From the point at which Susaek Road becomes Central Street, and heading towards North Seoul Oil Reserve, the road is wide and quiet. Walking among this rarely visited, spacious industrial area, one encounters business enterprises with names such as “Mapo Logistics Storage Warehouse,” and “Susaek Logistics” (수색물류).

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At one time Seoul City was greatly more powerful than other regions and so it relocated its overflowing number of destitute citizens, orphanages, crematoria and military facilities to the surrounding Gyeonggi border regions. The satellite cities forced to receive the, such as Goyang in the northwest and Seongnam to the south, nevertheless chose to use Seoul rather than their own names on many such facilities. This might be interpreted as a expression of resistance towards Seoul City. Equally however, and for reasons that can easily be guessed, some Gyeonggi residents may have actively chosen to keep the name of Seoul City. The examples of “Mapo” and “Susaek” logistics companies reflect this psychology.

On a map, the administrative border dividing Seoul and Goyang cities appears absolute, however, only if you walk the Susaek-Central road, does a more subtle, mixed psychology among the residents of these two cities become apparent. Just as the border on the ground is ambiguous, I feel in my bones there is no such thing as Seoul or Goyang citizens, but only Greater Seoul citizens.

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