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What About a Stairway Garden in the City?

Urban regeneration programs launched by the government to revitalize dilapidated neighborhoods through public art projects have created vibrant “mural villages” across the country. But there has been growing discontent among local residents. They claim that their once quiet neighborhoods have become playgrounds for the surging number of visitors drawn by their villages’ quaint old charms enlivened through the projects.

Making a miraculous recovery from the ruins of war, Seoul has become a cosmopolitan metropolis with 10 million residents in just 60 years. The Gangnam district, background to Psy’s global mega-hit “Gangnam Style,” is the economic center of Korea, with numerous high-rise buildings lining the streets. It’s hard to believe that just 40 years ago, this affluent district consisted mainly of farmland and orchards. In contrast, some places have been left behind in the country’s rapid urban development and still retain much of their old appearance.
Over 70 percent of Korean territory is mountainous terrain. The capital city of Seoul is formed around mountains, which explains why there are so many stairways in the city. Amid rapid modernization and urban development, the poor were steadily pushed out of their neighborhoods and forced to settle in substandard houses in the hilly areas of the city. People called these areas daldongne (literally “moon village”), since their location meant they were closer to the moon.
The steep stairs leading up to these hilltop villages speak of the harsh daily lives of the residents. And it is these stairs that have recently become the center of a brewing controversy.

At the stairway market at Usadangil in Itaewon, Seoul, young artists lure passers-by with the sign, “Capture memories with a polaroid.”

Closure of a Stairway Market
At the entrance to Usadan-gil in Itaewon, a district with a unique local culture thanks to its large number of foreign residents, there is a stairway that leads to the mosque Seoul Central Masjid. This was a vibrant neighborhood bustling with young people drawn to the charming stores with unique products and restaurants serving traditional cuisines from around the world. But when a market first opened on this stairway in 2013, things started to change.
The “stairway market” was organized and run by young entrepreneurs and artists from the vicinity. Selling trinkets, fashion accessories, and snacks, the vendors and artists took part mainly for fun or as an extension of their hobbies, and perhaps to make a small profit. As word spread, the stairs soon became packed with people on the last Saturday of each month, when the market opened. It was fun for both those selling and buying. But the market disappeared in March this year. The influx of outsiders had driven up rents and complaints had poured in from residents about the inconveniences caused by the market.

The initial hope that the market could transform a decrepit stairway into a local landmark and bring positive change to the neighborhood ended as only half a success. The stairs became a well-known attraction, but this led to a souring of relations among neighbors.

Defacement of Stairway Murals
A similar situation occurred in the mural village in Ihwa-dong, Jongno-gu. Ihwadong is an area in central Seoul that connects the theater district Daehangno and the 600-year-old city wall meandering along the ridge of the mountain behind. It was one of the 11 neighborhoods that were chosen for “Art in the City,” the 2006 public mural project sponsored by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism.
Around 70 artists took part in the project, painting murals on the walls of the old houses lining the steep hills, installing artworks, and refurbishing street signs. After this moon village, densely packed with rundown tenements and small sweatshops adjacent to the ancient city wall, received a makeover with attention-grabbing murals on the old houses and stairways, it became a popular filming location for TV shows and dramas. Soon, people flocked to the village, and it quickly became a popular date spot and tourist attraction. Then, some time ago, residents destroyed the fish and sunflower murals on the stairways. It was a form of protest to bring attention to the noise pollution, littering, and invasion of privacy that the residents have had to endure these past few years due to the rapid surge in visitors. This shocking incident has developed into a legal dispute. Visitors vs. Residents To city folks, places like Usadan-gil and Ihwa-dong are rare gems. Open views of the city, labyrinthine alleyways and stairs, and small secret spaces tucked away in the corners offer a refreshing change of scenery to the uniform, checkerboard streets of the modern city. The unpretentious, homely atmosphere of Ihwa-dong and the simple lives of the residents create the illusion that time has stopped there. With the addition of beautiful artworks and publicity from popular TV shows, the village naturally received attention as a charming neighborhood offering respite from the hustle and bustle of city life.

At the stairway The stairway market that opened in 2013 transformed the relatively quiet and pleasant neighborhood into a bustling attraction, leading to skyrocketing rental costs and rising discontent among residents. The market was closed in March this year.

But what of the residents? The main purpose of the government’s public initiative was to enable the underprivileged, who often cannot afford the luxury of cultural activities, to enjoy art as part of their daily environment, thereby improving their quality of life and promoting cultural self-esteem. However, the satisfaction of the residents didn’t last that long; it soon gave way to rising discontent that crowds of visitors had taken over the staircases and alleyways that had once been their playground, hangout, and resting place, completely disrupting their neighborhood. The clash of interests between residents wanting to protect their daily lives and visitors seeking to enjoy the neighborhood’s charming ambience led to the drastic defacement of the murals on the stairways. The authorities decided to hold the residents legally accountable for destroying artworks that had been produced with public funds. So what can be done to address this situation?

Residents of Ihwa Mural Village are divided between those who think the murals transformed their gloomy neighborhood into a vibrant place and those who don’t want their neighborhood to be a tourist spot but just want to live in peace.

The crux of the issue is coming up with a program that can satisfy both the visitors and the local community. Discussions that focus on legal rights are meaningless, since the residents and the visitors are all citizens with equal rights to use public spaces, such as stairways and sidewalks.
Murals first began to appear in Korean cities in the wake of the democratization movement in the 1980s. With the spread of grassroots activism, they were used as a means to express political discontent. These murals sparked conflict between the artists and local people, but this was short-lived since beautifying the city had not been the primary purpose. In Korea, the origin of murals as pure artworks can be traced back to the neighborhood street exhibitions organized by art students of Hongik University in 1992. With the consent and cooperation of the local community, the students enlivened the dreary walls in the neighborhood with their artworks. This event, which has been ongoing for 24 years now, inspired the government to launch an initiative for cultural urban regeneration.

Ihwa Mural Village is an old neighborhood situated on a hill under the ancient city wall of Seoul meandering along the ridges of Mt. Nak behind.

Viable Approach to Urban Regeneration
Although these programs are spearheaded by the government, their self-sustenance and the involvement of residents are of utmost importance for long-term sustainability and end results to contribute to restoring humanity in our modern city. What’s encouraging is that recent projects are applying organic approaches to the city and focusing on a citizen-centered concept of community. The “comprehensive plan for the urban renewal of Seoul,” announced by the Seoul Metropolitan Government in 2015, intends to adopt a customized approach to sprucing up neighborhoods, with the local community playing a key role from planning to implementation, so as to preserve the individual identity of each area. The key points of the plan include “customized solutions, spontaneous participation of residents, and creating long-term momentum rather than focusing on immediate tangible results.”

People walk up and down stairs. Stairs are also where people can sit down to take a rest or stand on to take in the view of the city. These basic functions should be taken into account when devising programs for these areas.

The controversy surrounding the stairs in Usadan-gil and Ihwa-dong can be approached from the same perspective. People walk up and down stairs. Stairs are also where people can sit down to take a rest or stand on to take in the view of the city. These basic functions should be taken into account when devising programs for these areas. Also, clear boundaries need to be marked so as to minimize disputes; the boundaries should be conducive to an enduring sense of harmony and coexistence. Engaging the local residents in the project is a prerequisite.
How about creating gardens on the stairways? Skyline gardens, container gardens, rooftop gardens — these are just some of the many types of gardens that can be found in cities around the world, which show how the beauty of nature can serve as a medium to connect people with urban spaces. Just the thought of a stairway garden being tended to by the locals brings a smile to my face.

Kwak Hee-soo Principal Architect, IDMM Architects
Kim Dong-hyeon Photographer


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