Seoul: Cute Urbanism
Two weeks after arriving in Seoul, I'm ready to write my first post on the city that has rapidly become known as one of the most forward-thinking, innovative, stylish cities in the world. Only a decade or so ago, Seoul had a similar reputation as Beijing currently has: polluted and industrial. Today, it presents a sharp contrast to its neighbor across the Yellow Sea.
The arrival of South Korea as a major economy has been marked by the global spread of K-POP, the quasi-ritualistic worship of viral video Gangnam Style, and the ubiquity of Samsung phones, LCD screens, and increasingly, Korean food. Seoul's fashionable malls and new office towers showcase this modern, stylish sheen of South Korea. Yet the quiet back-alleys of the city also reveal its not so distant past.
I am staying in Sinchon, a student neighborhood next to Yonsei, Ehwa, and Hongik Universities. Coffee shops of all themes and decorating schemes proliferate: from the usual Starbucks, to Korean chains Cafe Bene, to small quirky shops like the one pictured below (Hello Kitty Cafe). I've come across a cafe decorated in vintage American movie paraphernalia, and have yet to explore the much-discussed cat-cafes, a recent trend from Japan. Small boutiques and restaurants line all the narrow alleys that wend away behind the main streets. Seoul, like other rising Asian cities, is covered with much of the same homogenous sheen of global brands and consumer culture. Yet, there is a charming cuteness that exists alongside it. The quiet alleys of Sinchon (whose name means 'new village') are lined with humble apartments and small homes that suggest a more modest past that Seoul has only recently left behind.
In recent years, Seoul has gone to great efforts to remake the urban landscape to be more "humane". The most commonly cited example is the removal of an elevated highway over the Cheonggyecheon stream, turning a blighted river into a popular park in central Seoul. Korea is also building an ambitious "eco-city" in Songdo, near Incheon Airport.
However, in my first two weeks here, the most humane aspects of Seoul have been the smaller details of the city, the quirky cafes and narrow alleys that make walking pleasant and keep heavy traffic out of residential neighborhoods. This type of "cute urbanism" as I have called it, offers an alternative to the grand schemes of new eco-cities and large-scale urban renewal that mayors, states, and real-estate developers increasingly perpetrate on urban populaces worldwide. My use of the word "cute" is deliberate: contrasting the "sexy urbanism" of big phallic glass towers and wide roads with a more modest idea of "cute cities" that could serve as a paradigm to understand the war between human-centered cities and capital-dominated urbanism that is playing out most dramatically in Asia, but also in cities around the world.
More later on Seoul's myriad cafes, Zizek in Korea, and other topics.