Charms and concerns of artistic districts in Korea

Charms and concerns of artistic districts in Korea
Soap and candle shop “Be New” is one among many crafts workshops strewn across the artsy Yeonnnam-dong, which still remains a predominantly residential area. Photo: The Korea Herald/ANN

n recent years, Seoul's Yeonnam-dong and Mullae-dong areas have risen as havens for struggling artists and free-spirited entrepreneurs.

Located near enough the bustling Hongdae district to attract visitors but far enough to be removed from the noise of the area's wild nightlife and expensive real estate prices, the neighborhoods have been seeing a growing number of artistic tenants and tourists for the past five years or so.

According to Song Hye-jung, Yeonnam-dong's charm lies not only in its quiet atmosphere and picturesque alleys, but also in the strong sense of solidarity among residents.

"There are many artistic areas in Seoul, but nowhere else can you find such a tightly-knit community. There are organisations here that really take care of artists and listen to their needs," said Song, who runs Be New, a workshop for handmade soaps and candles.

Many such artistic spaces have sprouted in Yeonnam-dong, from leatherwork, jewelry and floral design workshops to small publishing houses. But along with increased popularity have emerged, inevitably, a number of side effects and concerns as well.

"Gentrification is the biggest issue at hand," said Choi Hyun-jung, a longtime resident of Yeonnam-dong and director of the Living & Art Creative Center, a nonprofit social enterprise that organises various projects for the neighborhood's artists.

"Real estate prices have started to rise. Commercial facilities are slowly branching out from the Hongdae area, which means some locals have had to leave. It hasn't gotten serious yet, but (the phenomenon) is definitely starting."

Thankfully, Yeonnam-dong property owners have a strong affinity for their neighborhood and feel a responsibility to preserve its unique ambience, said Choi.

"Several landlords on our street have made a pact not to raise rents to unreasonable levels or lease their properties to large franchises."

Even so, these agreements remain at the mercy of the owners' whims. No effective legal measures are yet in place to protect small-business tenants, according to Choi.

A different problem is arising in Mullae-dong, a neighborhood that for decades has been home to a throng of ironworks. Now, the area is dotted with artisan workshops, galleries and cafes. The question is whether the industrial and the artistic can coexist, says Yeom Byeong-yoon, who started running a woodwork shop in the area after retiring from the advertisement business.

"For factory workers, this is their workplace, the front line in a battle for their livelihood," he said. "They are resentful of these creative types that have set up shop next to them and idly pursue their interests, when (the workers) are deprived of such luxuries."

The increasing foot-traffic has also caused locals to feel an invasion of privacy, and that they are being "ogled at like monkeys in a zoo."

"They're working hard because their lives depend on (their jobs), with sweat and soot on their faces. But tourists come and take photos of them like they're works of art," said Yeom.

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