For our most recent trip we hoofed it about as far as we could hoof it from our respective neighborhoods, to the far southeastern reaches of the city, beyond the Seoul Ring Expressway (서울외곽순환고속도로) even, to Geoyeo Station.
The holiday season had begun to permeate even this corner of the city, and several of the businesses around the large intersection of Ogeum-ro (오금로) and Geoma-ro (거마로) had put up decorations in their display windows. We began our visit by heading south from Exit 7 on the latter, which, south of the station, is renamed Yangsan-ro (양산로). This took us past a small junk and recycling yard, where a couple of men sorted through the piles of random metal scraps, old signs, and bags of cans while nearby some two-wheeled carts rested, tilted up on their sides.
Past this and past the Songpa Technical High School (송파공업고등학교) is the Songpa-gu Sports and Culture Center (송파구체육문화회관), a new glass and steel structure with large sections of floor-to-ceiling windows.
The spic and span building had a small playground outside where a beat up and rusty rocking horse sat in contrast with its surroundings.
The road ended a block or so later at a tall chain-link fence, beyond which sat a large garden that was tucked into some low brown hills dotted with bare trees. It was pretty glum looking, as most of the vegetables had been harvested, leaving just some scattered leaves already beginning to decompose on the black plastic sheeting that sat on the ground. Not everything had been picked, however, and a couple of seniors were out tending to some rows of cabbages that were still in the ground.
From there we turned around and wandered through some side streets to the southeast of the station, and in the process of doing so stumbled across our very first Moonie, um…er…I mean ‘Unification’ Church (통일교 송파교회) on Ogeum-ro 56-gil (오금로56길), banners of the Moonie of Moonies, 문선명 himself, replete in tux and bow tie, hanging from the façade. For those of you who might be unfamiliar, the Unification Church is a global, quasi-Christian-ish religious movement founded by 문선명, who declares himself to be the Second Coming of Christ. Even more bizarrely, he was a fervent supporter of Richard Nixon during Watergate.
More conventional religion can be had just down the street at the imposing (and rather odd looking) Geoseong Church (거성교회), the large dark brick structure with the badly clashing rough-hewn stone arches over its front doors.
Most of the time Seoul can seem like an almost uniformly prosperous place. Sure, not everywhere is Cheongdam-dong, but very seldom is outright poverty on display, and when it is, most conspicuously in places like Seoul Station and Euljiro-ipgu Station, it’s individuals who are down on their luck, the seeming outliers of Seoul’s economic advancement. So we were quite taken aback with what we saw after leaving Exit 3 and walking north on Geoma-ro, especially considering that we were in wealthy Songpa-gu. Just beyond Geoma-ro 9-gil (거마로9길) and extending for several blocks north and east is a large slum.
The neighborhood sits a few meters below street level and is accessed by a few small sets of stairs, but from the sidewalk above one can look out over the entire area and see a large swath of houses, each in various stages of disrepair, most of them with roofs covered with plastic tarps held in place by spare tiles, bricks, or tires, while between them at least eight church spires poked into the sky.
There was a faint smell of earth and decay and urine in the neighborhood, coming from the outdoor toilets attached to many of the houses and the vegetables and fruit left drying outside nearly every home. The area was crisscrossed by a few streets of average neighborhood size, and off of these ran tiny alleyways, maybe a meter wide, lined on either side with homes covered in cheap linoleum siding. Several mailboxes were stuffed to overflowing with unpaid utility bills.
At one point we passed by an exhaust pipe that was blowing steam into the cold December sky, and the hum of the air moving through it created a hollow-sounding wail that seemed to sum up the melancholic feeling of the neighborhood.
At least that’s how we felt as we walked through it, unaccustomed and unexposed to this side of Seoul’s urban fabric, unprepared for what we’d found and unsure of how to relate a scene that needs more understanding than what we usually come across in the course of this project or that we could realistically provide in the span of a couple hours on a Saturday. The homes seemed to be on an irreversible descent, but the students we saw coming back from elementary school wore bright coats and backpacks no different from those you’d see on kids in any other part of the city.
Further complicating things was the stark difference between the east side of Geoma-ro, which we’d just been walking through, and the west side, out Exit 2. Cross the avenue and you suddenly step out of a setting where home repairs are jury-rigged and commerce is minimal to a neighborhood with a shiny supermarket, Nike store, and a pet shop where a rack of dog clothes could be seen in the window, next to a poodle who was getting its hair cut and blow-dried.
If you keep heading north and west, you’ll also eventually come to the Seongnae Stream (성내천), a shallow ribbon of water lined on both sides by walking paths, shrubs, rocks, and small trees. The stream eventually runs through Olympic Park, where we had encountered in previously on our visit to that station.
Songpa-gu Sports and Culture Center (송파구체육문화회관)
South on Yangsan-ro
Unification Church (통일교 송파교회)
South on Yangsan-ro, then east on Ogeum-ro 56-gil
Seongnae Stream (성내천)
North on Geoma-ro