A recurring theme that’s come up here (and we’re hardly the first ones to point this out) is the juxtaposition between old Seoul and new Seoul – the way the city’s laser beam quick development resulted in modern developments and lifestyles existing side by side with those a half-century old. I’ve remarked on this at numerous stops, but maybe nowhere we’ve yet been has it been quite as stark or as fascinating as it is in the area around Mullae Station.
The first thing you see, as I did, coming out of Exit 4 is the vast span of bright green mesh belonging to the driving range across the street, while behind you an enormous HomePlus sits above the station. Opposite that, by Exits 1 and 2, is the spic and span Mullae Neighborhood Park (문래근린공원), a pretty oval expanse with a walking track running around stupidly roped off lawns and bordered by beds of irises. The central part of the park is quite shady, and the air whirred with cicadas sitting in the trees. A small pond and modest flower bed lie at the park’s north end, and there’s also a memorial to Park Chung-hee.
Several other new developments sit on the corner of Mullae-ro (문래로) and Dangsan-ro (당산로), and the streets are lined with leafy, gentrification-friendly trees. If you go west on Mullae-ro, most easily done from Exit 3, the corner at the next main intersection, with Seonyu-ro (선유로), is dotted with shiny new glass office towers, each with a different coffee chain on their first floor. If you go east on Mullae-ro (Exit 4), you’ll find yourself walking between fairly new apartment complexes in affirming shades of beige.
Up past those apartments on the right is the large LOOX (Luxury One Stop Multiplex) complex, which houses, among other things, the SeaLaLa indoor waterpark and Dolphin Seafood buffet, in what has to be one of the best good-bad name combinations I’ve seen in quite some time. LOOX seemed to be suffering a bit from Garden 5 syndrome: you building it does not necessarily guarantee they will come. Much, perhaps three-quarters, of its retail space sat unoccupied, and walking through the sections open for walking through it had a similar feeling of the maybe, maybe not limbo that Garden 5 did. The complex looked quite new – there was still some plastic sheeting on its exterior flapping in the breeze – leading me to think that the development was just getting going, but then again some of the outdoor signage was starting to discolor a bit and sported peeling paint, which raised some doubt in my mind. But that could just be a result of the terrible weather we’ve been getting this summer.
In any case, there wasn’t a whole lot going on. The furniture store on the first floor didn’t seem to be doing any business, and very little was open upstairs. In addition to the seafood buffet the third floor also housed the MBC Hero Game Center, a small studio that looked like it would be used for filming computer game competitions. It gave off a dim orange glow, and inside some professional lighting equipment was scattered across the floor and three guys could be seen fiddling with stuff around what looked to be the broadcast desk. In contrast to the rest of the place, SeaLaLa, in the basement, seemed to be fairly busy, at least judging by the happy shrieks carrying up the stairs past the large sign relaying the story of Delphi that was, weirdly, all in Greek. (Except for a tiny note in English at the bottom, which is how I know it was about Delphi.)
The average age of the people on the LOOX side of the street had to have been at least 30 years younger than it was for the people on the opposite side. The smell, too, was markedly different. While around LOOX there basically was no smell – call it the scent of modernity – across the streets to the north and east the powerful aroma of hundreds of nylon bags full of onions mixed with bunches of garlic and mud. Facing LOOX in those directions is a series of squat old buildings, some hardly more than shacks, almost all of them marked with 상회, an old-fashioned word for ‘store.’ These appeared to be not so much stores as wholesalers, a link on the chain from farm to grocery store, as they were clearly selling in bulk, most places having just two or three types of produce – usually onions and garlic – piled up in enormous stacks. Walking around it looked, and felt, like being in a small provincial town, the kind where not many people under 40 stick around anymore, despite what was just across the street. Stand on the corner just before the wholesalers, look across them, past LOOX, and off into the distance where you can see the shimmering towers of the Times Square complex and take in fifty years of urban development in one glance.
Much more of this throwback Seoul lies south of the station. If you’ve picked up a latte from one of the cafes at the Mullae-ro – Seonyu-ro intersection that I mentioned earlier, take it and walk south on Seonyu-ro. You’ll first pass a stretch where car part shops line up one after another before getting to an intersection where there’s a large restaurant with the pretty awesome name of Meat Public Park (고기대공원).
Cross the avenue and turn left on Dorim-ro-141-ga-gil (도림로141가길) for a look into Mullae’s past. Mullae, and the greater Yeongdeungpo area, as we’ve brought up before, was the iron muscle that pounded out Seoul’s rapid development, filled with factories manufacturing everything from textiles to machine parts. As the capital has developed and real estate has gotten more expensive, much manufacturing has been moved to the provinces or overseas, though, as Mullae displays, by no means has all of it.
The area here is an entire neighborhood of small manufacturing shops: streets and alleys lined with one-story brick workshops and facilities that feels utterly alien to the image of Seoul that’s usually put forward but that is, ironically, largely responsible for the possibility of that image. As I entered the neighborhood one of the first things I saw was a man and woman standing behind a slightly rusty gray metal tube in the shape of a J that was about the diameter of the circle you’d make if you held your arms out in front of you in an empty hug, your fingers just touching. Occasionally he’d take out a torch and weld or bang at something with a hammer before pausing again to inspect his work.
The area smelled of wood shavings and grease – not an unpleasant smell at all – and the rhythmic whir and thud of machinery as it pounded metal provided a reassuringly consistent soundtrack. Sections of the ground were littered with little shards of steel like monochromatic confetti. Men in tank tops and dirty t-shirts operated equipment or lolled about, and one group unloaded heavy metal weights shaped like oversized cow tags from a truck. Also in the neighborhood, which surprised me a bit, but which in retrospect makes perfect sense, are some small, very basic restaurants, all run by old women. Profits certainly can’t be high, but at least they can count on a reliable customer base. How much business they get seemed a bit uncertain, as most of the workshops were closed up on the day I visited, but I’m unsure if this was because many had shut down and/or relocated, or simply because it was Saturday. More of these workshops can also be found on the east side of Dangsan-ro.
But one man’s abandoned factory is another’s potential studio. It’s almost a universal given that when manufacturers move out, young artists seeking cheap (or free) work/living space move in, and that’s also been the case in Mullae, if not quite entirely organically. With manufacturers moving out of Mullae and leaving a glut of unused space, the city encouraged artists to move in, creating the Mullae Artist Village (문래창작촌) southeast of the station as part of a larger program to help art and design flourish in the capital. It’s had, at best, mixed results.
I was quite excited to check the area out, as I’d heard a little bit about it, and some of the info I got surfing around the web stated that there were 130 artists working in 50 studios in the area. It sounded fantastic. To get there I left Exit 7 and walked south on Dangsan-ro a block until I got to a large red cube.
A YouTube video from late 2010 that I had seen showed a bright and cheery structure whose dozens of nooks were filled with brochures, each providing info on a different studio in the village. What I saw instead was a dull, dusty box that’d been left to languish. There were almost no brochures and the map on the side of the cube displaying the locations of the 50 odd studios had faded almost to the point of illegibility. I quickly reset my expectations.
Hanging a soft left there, on Dangsan-ro-2-gil (당산로2길) took me into the heart of what’s designated as the Village, which is still very much a living factory area, as the acrid smell of heated metal that greets you makes clear. The enterprises here were larger in scale than the manufacturing shops south of Dorim-ro, the pieces they produced much larger. Huge slabs of metal the size of two pool tables were stacked up inside one factory, and at another I watched a man and woman place long sheets of steel about 10 centimeters wide into a huge machine that bent them 90 degrees lengthwise. Elsewhere, long iron rods of different sizes and colors were organized in enormous shelves like pastels at an art supply store. Many of the plants were two stories tall in order to accommodate the equipment and provide sufficient storage space.
The factories were quite fascinating, completely at odds with one’s normal image of Seoul – like peeling back the skin on an uncannily lifelike android to see the gears hidden beneath – but it was art that I was looking for.
All I could seem to find, though, was some old graffiti and wall paintings, and an installation consisting of headless white mannequins and a robot-esque face made from metal and light bulbs that I happened to spy on a rooftop. I finally came across the doorway to one studio, Project Space LAB39. It seemed to be quite dead, and I was wondering if the place was still in use when I noticed a poster by the door advertising an exhibition party that the studio was hosting. I looked closer and checked the date. It was August 13th, the day that I just happened to be there. The party was scheduled to start at 5 p.m. I checked the clock on my phone. It was 4:53. There were no signs of people coming or of anything at all happening. A couple doors down Studio Stupid’s lobby seemed to have been taken over by a homeless guy. Post-Cold War East Berlin this was not.
I had just about given up on the whole thing when I walked out to Dorim-ro where something art related actually seemed to be going on. A table was set up outside a place advertising itself as 예술과 도시사회 연구소 (Research Center for Art & Urban Society), and there was a line of people waiting to get inside. A couple other art related places on that street were open as well, and I started noticing a few decidedly non-industrial-looking twenty-somethings lingering about the neighborhood. I picked up a brochure that was in a rack outside a nearby café and opened it up. Inside was the same map that was on the big red cube near the station, but on this one there were only nine studios listed, down from the original 50. The Artist Village may not have been dead quite yet, but it certainly was not thriving.
The existing art scene’s centerpiece is a couple blocks away from the village, at Seoul Art Space – Mullae (문래예술공장), one of several Art Spaces scattered around town that the city has established in an attempt to support the arts. The simplest way there is to go out Exit 7, turn left on Dorim-ro, and then turn left after crossing Gyeong-in-ro (경인로). From there take the first right, onto the very small Gyeong-in-ro-88-gil (경인로88길), followed by the first left.
Art Space – Mullae provides studio and exhibition space for artists, hosts the occasional performance, and serves as an anchor and gathering space for the local community. When I stopped by about ten people were doing woodworking in the bright, airy first floor workshop, while upstairs on the second floor a few dancers were going through steps in the dance studio. The third floor hosts a café, gallery, and recording studio. I continued my climb up to the rooftop patio. As the KTX departing Yeongdeungpo Station zoomed along the tracks behind me, I took a minute to look out over the neighborhood where all around massive glass towers could be seen springing up from the scrub of older, shorter buildings and the patchwork metal quilt of machine shop roofs.
(If you are lucky once you trek up to the roof, you’ll get to see Project Nalda practicing for an upcoming performance. They welcomed me (Liz) and my camera and encouraged me to look them up on Cyworld- unfortunately, I couldn’t find them there, but was able to find a video you can watch here!)
Mullae Neighborhood Park (문래근린공원)
Exit 1 and 2
Right out of exit, then right on Mullae-ro (문래로)
Small manufacturing shops
South on Dangsan-ro (당산로), cross Dorim-ro (도림로), right on Dorim-ro-141-ga-gil (도림로141가길) or surrounding streets
Mullae Artist Village (문래창작촌) and industrial area
South on Dangsan-ro (당산로), a soft left on Dangsan-ro-2-gil (당산로2길)
Seoul Art Space – Mullae (문래예술공장)
South on Dangsan-ro (당산로), left on Dorim-ro (도림로), left after crossing Gyeong-in-ro (경인로), right on Gyeong-in-ro-88-gil (경인로88길), then take the first left