In the 1960s and 70s, as Seoul’s modernization shifted into high gear, large numbers of residents living in Hannam-dong (한남동) and around the Cheonggye Stream (청계천) were relocated to make way for development projects. Overwhelmingly poor, many simply living as squatters, a large number were resettled in Sanggye-dong (상계동), in far northeastern Seoul, where roughly 1,500 small homes had been built with government assistance. The area, surrounded by mountains on three sides, was largely cut off from the rest of city and devoid of public transportation connecting it to the major markets. The government promised that this would be the residents’ final relocation and encouraged them to put down roots.
Then, in 1981 Seoul was awarded the rights to host the 1988 Summer Olympics. Despite being nowhere near the main Olympic venues, Sanggye-dong was considered an eyesore and became the target of further urban renewal efforts by the government. In 1986 the subway system reached the neighborhood, as Line 4 was extended. Soon after, the residents of Sanggye-dong were told that they would be relocated yet again so that high-rise apartments could be constructed for the middle class. The locals would be given a $1,000 per family resettlement fee and sent to Pocheon (포천), about 30 kilometers from the DMZ.
Needless to say, this was unacceptable to many of the local residents, but they were powerless to stop the bulldozers from moving in. Though many families saw no other option than to reluctantly pack their bags, others refused, and a tent city sprang up. Intermittent protests arose as well, culminating in a showdown in June 1986 between around 1,000 residents and an equal number of police and government-hired thugs. By the end of the day, at least one protestor was dead.
Ultimately the protestors were forced out, many of them relocating to Bucheon (부천) where they purchased land that abutted the highway the Olympic Torch would pass down on its way from Incheon to the Olympic Stadium. You can read more about these events here, here, and here.
All this was 25 years ago, a lifetime in terms of what happens in Seoul, and one could be easily forgiven for being shocked by abuses so similar to the widely decried actions taken by the Chinese government in the run-up to Beijing 2008 or for being totally unaware that this ever happened at all. I’ll be the first to ask for pardon. From 2009 to 2010 I lived in adjacent Junggye-dong (중계동) and used Sanggye Station all the time, yet knew nothing of the area’s history until just a few weeks ago.
It’s not hard, in fact, to imagine that Sanggye has no history, so squarely does it fit into the stereotypical image of timeless (as in, not existing in any real time in particular) middle-class Seoul. Today it’s mostly a collection of those repetitive apartment towers and indistinct commercial areas. The most salient features are Buramsan’s (불암산) deep green and tan peak rising to the east and the copious amount of hagwons catering to the families who’ve moved to Nowon-gu for its schools’ lofty reputations. Though I lived in the area for a year I never explored it much, as the neighborhood didn’t really feel like it merited much exploring, so, heading back, I was curious to see what I’d missed.
The area on the north side of the station, out Exit 3 where I started, mostly answered, ‘Not much.’ Epitomizing outer-Seoul living, it’s a garden of apartment towers, small businesses, and chain stores. The one thing that sets it apart a bit is that the metro here is an El, the tracks perched on enormous concrete pillars and hidden by long gray metal walls while steel gates like electrified torii arch above them, connected by wires to power lines. In the back streets is a pretty neighborhood of red brick apartment buildings with brick-paved alleys running between many of them. It’s very quiet, and at various times the loudest sounds were spinning barber poles, someone in a house sharpening knives, and my own footsteps.
If you go out Exit 2, turn left, and continue parallel to the elevated tracks along Sanggye-ro (상계로) you’ll come to Sanggye-ro-27-gil (상계로27길), the main entrance to the Sanggye Central Market (상계중앙시장), a standard neighborhood market that’s mostly stores with their awnings open and spilling onto the street. K-pop chimed out of a cell phone store, and the area had a casual liveliness about it, as if it had not long ago woken up from the nap that the rest of the somnambulant neighborhood seemed to be taking. Meats, breads, rice cakes, and kitchen supplies were for sale, and at a fishmonger’s the fresh fish were laid out neatly underneath a plastic sheet, pre-sliced and gutted and kept cold by plastic beer bottles that had been filled with water and then frozen.
On your way to the market, coming out Exit 2 or 4, you’ll see an area blocked off by two-meter-high gray metal fencing. On the subway map this is labeled the Danghyeon Stream (당현천), but when I peered through a gap in the fencing it looked like there was nothing there but a dried out streambed. If you’re persistent, however, and continue walking you’ll discover that a block or so down the stream actually does start and that there’s a set of stairs leading down to it.
En route, on the stream’s south side, you’ll pass a couple of small monuments. One is a statue entitled 가슴에 새기다 (Keep It in Your Heart-ish) by 양형규 that’s a tribute to 이문건, who made the first tombstone carving in Hangeul (한글 영비) in nearby Hagye-dong (하계동). The other is an engraving of the poem 새 (‘The Bird’) by the poet 천상병.
The Danghyeon is an odd little stream. Its source is a big, rusty industrial pipe in the side of a wall where water pours out, spilling onto a wide, algae-dotted slab of concrete before tumbling into what’s basically a gash in the floor, as if a tremor had cracked the paving open. The walls underneath the nearby bridge are covered in graffiti – there are pictures of Eazy E, Homer Simpson, and SpongeBob SquarePants, and another scrawl reading ‘Notorious P.I.G.’ – and if this were L.A. and not Seoul it would be where you’d go to buy crack.
Just on the other side of that pedestrian bridge, though, the Danghyeon is as nice as any stream you’ll find in the city: manicured and engineered like Cheonggyecheon or the Seongnae Stream, with carefully placed rocks on the embankments, small sandbars, and colorful wildflowers. A handful of ducks lazily drifted with the current, at least until someone’s pet terrier bounded into the water after them, futilely chasing them downstream.
Another option for neighborhood recreation is Satgat Park (삿갓공원), which you can get to by going out Exit 4, turning left, and crossing the intersection with Deokneung-ro (덕릉로). Picnic with the pensioners on pavilions in this shady, busy park, or, if you’re feeling less alliterative, join the kids on the brightly colored playground equipment. Too old for that but too young for the other? Walk back towards the station where, in the streets around Exit 1, you’ll find a moderately busy neighborhood full of bars and restaurants. Just be sure to raise a glass to the old residents of Sanggye-dong.
Sanggye Central Market (상계중앙시장)
Turn left out of the exit, continue straight on Sanggye-ro (상계로), right on Sanggye-ro-27-gil (상계로27길)
Danghyeon Stream (당현천)
Exit 2 or 4
Cross Hangeulbiseok-ro (한글비석로) to the south
Satgat Park (삿갓공원)
Left, straight on Hangeulbiseok-ro (한글비석로), cross Deokneung-ro (덕릉로)