Banpo is the sort of station that, unless you lived there, you’d never have any reason to go to. There is, to put it bluntly, virtually nothing here that would be of interest to anyone who doesn’t live in the neighborhood. The very small area that the station covers is filled almost exclusively with apartment tower complexes. Look south across Sinbanpo-ro (신반포로) and that’s all you’ll see. Look east and west and it’s the same. The station map made note of the Gangnam Underground Shopping Center (강남지하상가) at the Express Bus Terminal Intersection (고속터미널사거리) where Sinbanpo-ro and Jamwon-ro (잠원로)/Umyeon-ro (우면로) meet, but when I walked down there, just steps from Exit 4, the only thing at the intersection was a pedestrian underpass. There was plenty happening on the other side of the intersection, but that’s Express Bus Terminal Station (고속터미널역) territory.
None of this is to say that Banpo is a soulless, depressing place. It’s actually quite pleasant, with calm tree-lined streets where the buzz of cicadas is the principal summer sound. It’s just that it’s a prime example of what some people (myself quietly included) worried about when the idea for this project was first kicking about: that one place would look like the next and that an exploration of Seoul’s neighborhoods would quickly collapse under its own monotony. That this hasn’t happened is testimony to the city’s inconspicuous diversity, but now that we’ve arrived at one of the (remarkably few) stations that engender the vision of Seoul as a composition of endlessly reproduced apartment blocks it’s worth taking a look at what that vision actually looks like, at least in affluent Seocho-gu.
We expats, and especially we Gangbuk expats, tend to look at Gangnam – by which I mean Seocho-, Gangnam- and Songpa-gu, as any discussion of the south side tends to ignore their rougher and grittier southwestern counterparts – as the epitome of Korea’s econo-beauty complex where people are shunted through the hagwon-eyelid surgery-chaebol job grinder, ensuring that they all come out respectably-employed, respectably-housed, respectably-indistinguishable, and respectably-uninteresting.
If you ever do go to Banpo you might feel that it’s a pretty good example of the type of residential area that process results in, and when the major things breaking up the apartment blocks are the strip mall outside Exit 6 and Pastel Plaza (consisting of a driving range, restaurants and health clinics, a right turn and short walk from Exit 5), the neighborhood doesn’t put up much of an argument. It is, frankly, dull. Seoul would be a terribly tedious place if the whole city were like this, but, as we’ve found, neighborhoods like this are the exception, not the rule.
And for some, that mundaneness is utterly agreeable. In Banpo the parents I saw pushing babies around in expensive strollers seemed genuinely happy. The kids running around on their own seemed carefree, the people in cafes and loading groceries into cars perfectly content. One way to look at the symmetry of identical balcony rails on identical windows on identical apartments on identical towers is to see banal conformity; another is to admit that sometimes all we want is to find a simple place where we can take comfort in not being a stranger.