Seoul nightlife district is built for tragedy

At the intersection in Itaewon where emergency vehicles assembled to provide assistance to the wounded and transport those killed in the smashing of the Halloween crowd.
Photo: Jimmy Hahn/PentaPress/Shutterstock

Charlie Sim, the owner of the bar named Charlie, was very sad when I spoke to him. My middle-aged Korean business owner runs a cozy living room-size establishment just across the street from my old apartment in Hannam-dong, Seoul. It’s the place where I’ve spent countless hours drinking, hanging out with friends, and listening to his life stories. From there, it’s only a ten-minute walk to central Itaewon, where last Saturday’s Halloween celebration culminated in a massive crowd that left 156 people dead and at least 151 injured. The COVID pandemic has already devastated small businesses like Charlie, but the latest tragedy has been another blow.

What happened in Itaewon is the worst disaster in South Korea since 2014 flood ferry sankThat killed more than 300 people. many Compare this incident Because in both cases, the victims were mostly young people and the state failed to adequately enforce basic safety regulations. In Itaewon, it became apparent that the government did not provide enough police presence or coordinate crowd management plans despite the expected number of attendees. A much larger number of officers were appointed, about 6000 in total To an anti-government protest in the city center and for protect the bossYoon Suk-yeol, who moved his office to an area not far from Itaewon after his inauguration in May, instead of the Halloween crowd (only 58 officers in uniformaccording to the police). He recorded emergency calls made several hours before the crash, and the repeated warning of an impending disaster seemed to have gone unheeded.

It’s shocking news for Itaewon, which has established itself as one of the capital’s major party districts over the past ten years or so. For decades linked to the Yongsan Garrison, the large US military base to the west that was established in 1945, Itaewon has long been known as a field for American soldiers seeking relaxation. With a large number of bars and brothels in the area catering exclusively to foreign military and expatriates, the neighborhood has been classified, for many Koreans, as a dangerous place. Here, security was not just a local issue, but occasionally exploded into national or geopolitical crises. In 1997, for example, two US citizens were accused of stabbing a South Korean man to death inside the bathroom of a local Burger King restaurant (one of whom is still serving a 20-year prison sentence after a delayed sentence). The controversy over the case centered on whether the investigation was thoroughly conducted due to one of the perpetrator’s links to the US military, and even the story was immortalized in the 2009 film. Itaewon murder case.

But Itaewon was never just an abnormal stasis zone dominated by the military. In the 1990s, the area’s famous Moon Night Club was a pilgrimage site for great dancers, many of whom had success as famous musicians. The neighborhood also became a quaint haven that used to welcome foreigners like Koreans (as opposed to the quaint spaces of Jongno, another neighborhood in Seoul, which was disliked by non-Korean gays). In addition, it was an immigrant-friendly area in a city with some of the most expensive real estate in the world, providing affordable housing for low-income immigrant workers. It is also the most important Islamic neighborhood in the country, crowned with a mosque built in 1976 (the only one in the city).

The Seoul Drag Parade, South Korea’s first drag parade, was held in Itaewon in 2018.
Photo: Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images

Back in 2005, when I worked briefly as a waiter at a gay bistro behind the Itaewon fire station, one of my cousins ​​wanted to accompany me on a night out (without knowing my sexual orientation or where I work). But his mother put off the idea. “I can’t let you go to such a place,” she declared firmly, much to his disappointment. “It is not safe.”

This allusion to criminality reinforced Itaewon’s appeal to young men like my cousin as a distinctly exotic (and morally endangered) place in the heart of Seoul. This is where some also felt they could test new business ideas that might not fly anywhere else in the city. In its early days, famous comedian Hong Seok Chun (the first famous South Korean character to come out openly as gay) set the stage for improvement by Opening of a chain of modern restaurants She specialized in non-Korean cuisine, and others soon followed. The US Army, meanwhile, It began moving its base to the south of the city in 2013, with 17,000 soldiers. Real estate developers are starting to work hard, pricing small businesses and creating attractive commercial buildings that have been rented at exorbitant amounts while the narrow footprint of the backstreets remains the same. Even this year, the mayor of Seoul revived an old plan to turn Yongsan, next door, into A technology center similar to Silicon Valley.

All of this means that the neighborhood has rapidly evolved over the past two decades from a quirky, rundown enclave nurtured by the South Korean expat community, gay residents, and migrant workers into an expensive nightlife playground for wealthy Koreans and tourists. As Sim recalls, “I used to have all kinds of foreign clients. The teachers at the British school and the German school loved it here. But they’re all gone. Now only Koreans come to Itaewon, and they’re not interested in a place as small and intimate as my own.” Small bars and restaurants like Charlie’s that made the area so vibrant in the first place are now struggling to survive, if not already replaced by general franchises and restaurants with little character. When Seoul Bar, an expat favorite for more than 20 years, went out of business in 2017, its owner He told the local media Outlet, “Big Korean companies like to be in Itaewon because it’s a way to get to know more foreigners who come here nowadays. Independent companies like us can’t stay here anymore.” When his rent doubled, he closed the bar, and soon a franchise restaurant took over his lease.

In the wake of this shift to a more upscale nightlife scene, luxury apartments – like Nine One Hannam, where units go anywhere from $6 million to twice that for a penthouse – have popped up with two members of K-pop group BTS. moving in. If all goes according to the plan of the construction industry and the speculators who have purchased real estate in the area, The southern half of Itaewon will mostly be demolished in the coming years To be filled with more luxury residential towers.

Partygoers put on Halloween makeup in Itaewon, in 2018. The neighborhood has been the main Halloween destination in the country for less than a decade, and its popularity has only grown.
Photo: Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images

Against this backdrop, the annual Halloween celebration, which began less than a decade ago, has turned into the largest celebration in the country without any official organization or coordinating body, cementing Itaewon’s position as South Korea’s place to be seen and seen. korean tv series 2020 Itaewon class, based on the webtoon of the same title, lauded the phenomenon, as it features a young pioneer recently released from prison who stumbles in awe through the Itaewon Halloween Parade, and during the show, he resolutely pursues his dream of starting a humble drinking hole in the neighborhood (as If such a thing was still possible). At first, it symbolizes the kind of place Itaewon once was – a place that welcomed foreigners and fostered the dreams of young people – and ends up being a businessman running a large restaurant franchise who, ironically, is the kind that is slowly taking over the area today.

Some foreigners attended the festival on Saturday precisely because they were fans of the show. They found themselves cold to the core. A Japanese fan then tweeted, “I wanted to see the filming of Itaewon Class and it was Halloween, so I went with a light heart in a rush but instead felt death in the air,” According to the South Korean daily Seoul, Shinmun.

The scene of the disaster was a narrow alley next to the Hamilton Hotel, between the main road where the Itaewon subway station is located and a pedestrian strip about 300 meters long and five meters wide – desirable properties even within Itaewon. Lined with dozens of restaurants and bars, this little district was always so crowded, even on ordinary Saturday evenings, that my German sister-in-law, who had visited us four years before from Munich, exclaimed on one of these evenings, ‘I thought Munich was a real city, but Not when compared to this!” Although 130,000 people gathered there on a Saturday may seem like a lot, around 200,000 were reported to have attended the same occasion in 2017. Last Halloween weekend, when crowds on either side of that alley started Making her way, there was no way for those caught in the middle.

Police officers examine the location of the crowd crush two days after it occurred.
Photo: Yonhap/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Over the past several days, it has become clear how the outbreak of evolution has contributed to the tragedy. In the corner, the Hamilton Hotel itself built disallowed structures, including a temporary metal wall, kiosk, and balcony, further narrowing the corridor at the choke point where many lives were lost. The local area office allegedly ordered Hamilton to remove these structures over the years, but the hotel continued to use the space, taking precious breathing room that would have allowed more people to survive. Other businesses in the vicinity also built illegal terraces that jut into the street, making the driveway narrower than it should have been. Again, there was no serious enforcement against these custom add-ons, which doubled the death toll that night.

Although left-wing political parties and South Korean media place the bulk of the blame on the conservative government in power, Itaewon’s transformation into a powerful party center without proper infrastructure or safety protocols was not the work of a single political party. If anything, it’s a classic example of how little the country as a whole has prioritized safety when it comes to economic development, be it worker safetyor street safety or building safety.

Can old Itaewon, under pressure, survive a disaster of this magnitude? Many are confident that the young people will eventually return and that the neighborhood can retain the memory of the tragedy without becoming a ghost town again, as it was during the first two years of the pandemic. But that hope will do little to slow the trend toward more intense and fascinating developments. The Grand Ole Opry, a country music pub and Itaewon institution since the 1970s, is facing potential closure due to a planned “redevelopment” that envisions a large portion of Itaewon being demolished and rebuilt from the ground up, destroying the building along with it. Kim Sam-suk, a bar owner who is aging but assertive, insists, “They can try to take this place away from me. They don’t know who they’re dealing with!” Charlie Sim feels the same. “I still run my business in the same place. I will do my best to hold on.”

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