After passing through Ichon Station, Line 4 turns north and for several kilometers runs exactly parallel to Line 1 – the two lines no more than a block apart along some stretches – before peeling away and turning east around Namdaemun Market. This little quirk of infrastructure puts Sinyongsan Station right on the doorstep of Yongsan Station, and if you go out Exit 5 of the former you’ll be able to see the huge staircase up to the front entrance of the latter just a few dozen meters away.
The area immediately around Exits 5 and 6 was a slightly odd mix of office towers and restaurants catering to their businessmen, and a few old machine shops. Delivery guys shuttling parcels around passed back and forth. The western limits of the neighborhood are delineated by rail tracks, both those for the metro’s Line 1 and those that KTX and Saemaeul trains run on between Seoul Station and Yongsan on their way in or out of the city. I walked down the alley parallel to the tracks for a while. The tracks were segregated by tall metal fencing, and on this side of the fence the alley was used as a place to process trash and recycling. Garbage was heaped up in big piles of burlap bags, and used oil canisters – the bulk-size cubes that restaurants use – were stacked in their own separate area. There were other sections for scrap rubber and for metal beams, and used cardboard filled the beds of large trucks, strapped in by green mesh netting. Above the piles of refuse, elevated offices made from shipping containers looked over the scene.
From the tracks I headed back to the main street, and on the corner passed a stop sign that had been draped with black and white ribbons and now-dried out flowers, seeming to mark the spot where someone had died in a traffic accident. In among the restaurants and cell phone shops on Hangang-daero (한강대로) was a shop selling military apparel and a real estate office with a sign reading ‘Rent for foreigners.’ I spotted two or three Koreans in fatigues walking around too, all these reminders of my proximity to the U.S. Army’s nearby base.
With the train tracks to the west of the station and the base taking up most of the real estate to the east, the neighborhood immediately around Sinyongsan is funneled into a pretty narrow strip. In the recent past, but even still now, much of that strip was a bit dingy. Think of those garbage yards near the tracks or the red light district that used to be wedged between Yongsan and Sinyongsan. But being so close to one of the city’s major train stations, the Han River, and what will eventually be an ex-military base and (fingers crossed) the city’s biggest park once the American military relocates to Pyeongtaek makes this some super valuable land, though it seems like it took people a while to wake up to this fact, or at least to act on it.
And this is where we get to what’s really interesting about the Sinyongsan area. Just outside of Exit 1 a new apartment tower development was going on, with several towers in varying stages of completion. Just south of there, near Exit 2, was a giant expanse that took up several city blocks, the whole thing screened off by tall white metal fencing. This was Yongsan District 4, and if you’ve followed urban development in Seoul over the past few years you’ll know where this is going.
Once, this area was a typical working to middle-class neighborhood, with apartments, a market, and upwards of 400 businesses. Then the government decided that it wanted to redevelop the area, meaning that the area’s residents started getting evicted. This was in 2008. Securing fair compensation for eviction has long been a problem in the Korean capital, but it’s even more problematic for business owners, who lack the same legal protections as residents, and the plan faced strong resistance, especially from said business owners. Redevelopers in Korea, in case you haven’t noticed, aren’t usually enthusiastic about the idea of compromise. As happened in Sanggye and as happened more recently in Gangnam, when the district government decided they wanted the area’s food carts gone, the construction company in charge of the Yongsan District 4 project hired thugs to harass and intimidate the area’s evictees. As the Korea Herald reported in an article from March, 2010:
Sledgehammer-wielding “gangsters” hired by construction companies showed up at [Choi Soon-kyung’s] restaurant as diners sat down to brunch and smashed to pieces everything they couldn’t carry away. This occurred even though the government had said she had until Nov. 28 to close shop and relocate…The men, officially referred to as movers, were carrying out an eviction order issued by Seoul City. (HT to Asia Pundits)
Two months after the events at Choi’s restaurant, a number of District 4 residents who opposed the eviction notices began to occupy several of the district’s buildings, both as protection from the hired thugs and as a show of defiance. The main such building, Namildang, was a four-story structure sitting right on Hangang-daero. At some point, whether in provocation or self-defense, the building’s occupiers began throwing Molotov cocktails at the surrounding thugs and police, and the anti-terrorist squad was called in to put an end to things. The police decided to use a crane to lift officers onto the building’s roof, from which they stormed the protesters inside. As a defense measure, the protestors had coated the building’s stairways with flammable liquids, and at some point during the raid a fire broke out, killing five protestors and one police officer.
Not far from Exit 2 I found what seemed to be the main entrance to the empty plot that used to be Yongsan District 4, its doors wide open. A security ajeosshi sat next to the doors, perfectly content to let me peer in from outside. Financial troubles have hampered development elsewhere in Yongsan, and inside, besides a few small construction vehicles, there was little except for several huge piles of rubble mixed with trash. There was also a shipping container office and, on the west side, a big hole in the ground that looked like it could be the first step in laying the foundations for a building. Whether it marked the first buds of development or was merely something that got dug and then walked away from I had no idea.
If you pass the non-development and keep walking south from Exit 2 or 3, you’ll eventually arrive at the Gangbyeon Expressway (강변북로). Cross that and on either side of the Hangang Bridge (한강대교) is the Hangang Observatory Rio Café (노들견우카페), one of those overpriced coffee shop cum restaurants perched at various points along the river. From the café entrances, elevators will take you down to the Han River Park (한강공원). The park along this stretch has little of the charm it does elsewhere. There’s some exercise equipment under the bridge, as well as bike paths, dirt basketball and foot volley courts, and a soccer pitch a bit to the west, all stuff you’ll typically find in just about any section of the riverside. The one facility of particular note here is a water skiing academy a short ways east of the bridge. Construction was abundant around the Sinyongsan neighborhood, and it even extended here, into the park. Right next to the bridge a square pit had been dug, though it was impossible to know what was going to go in.
Leaving the park I walked back toward the station, this time on the west side of Hangang-daero. The backstreets on that side were dotted with some third-tier-looking motels and were filled with old buildings housing billiard clubs, restaurants, and pharmacies, all interrupted here and there with spots of construction.
Back just before Exit 3, I came to what used to be a tent restaurant town, or 포장마차촌, until it, too, got slated for redevelopment. (A sign notified passersby that the tent restaurants had moved to the Nonghyup Building, outside Exit 5.) That couldn’t have been too long ago, as the stalls hadn’t yet been razed. For the time being they were merely shuttered and in varying stages of decimation – ripped canvas, busted glass on the ground. One I looked into had trash strewn all over the floor – empty red pepper paste jugs, old soju posters, electric mosquito swatters, random wires – but still had its menus firmly attached to the walls. I walked past what used to be a chicken skewer stall, its wide stove still butting up against the sidewalk, and turned in to one of the little footpaths that wound between restaurants. Several of the old proprietors, or scavengers, you wouldn’t know which, were picking through what was left of the stalls. One old man yanked on a crowbar, trying to pry loose a piece of metal, maybe to sell for scrap, until an ajumma began yelling at him. He stopped, and the woman pointed him around the corner, perhaps directing him to a more promising spot.
Hangang Observatory Rio Café (노들견우카페)
Exit 2 or 3
Straight on Hangang-daero (한강대로)
Hours | 10:00 – 24:00
Han River Park (한강공원)
Exit 2 or 3
Straight on Hangang-daero (한강대로)