Seoul’s nightlife district was built for tragedy

Seoul’s nightlife district was built for tragedy

Seoul’s nightlife district was built for tragedy

Seoul’s nightlife district was built for tragedy

At the Itaewon intersection, where emergency vehicles gathered to treat victims and transport those killed in the Halloween mob crush.
Photo by Jimmy Hahn/PentaPress/Shutterstock

Charlie Sim, owner of the eponymous bar Charlie’s, was more than a little depressed when I spoke to him. A middle-aged Korean business owner runs a cozy living-room-sized establishment just across the street from my old apartment in Hannam-dong, Seoul. It’s where I spent countless hours drinking, hanging out with friends, and listening to his life stories. Just a ten-minute walk from there is the center of Itaewon, where last Saturday’s Halloween celebration ended in a mass stampede that left 156 dead and at least 151 injured. The COVID pandemic had already devastated small businesses like Charlie’s, but the latest tragedy dealt another blow.

What happened in Itaewon is the worst disaster ever to hit South Korea 2014 Sewol the sinking of the ferry, which claimed more than 300 lives. Many are drawing comparisons to that crash because in both cases the victims were mostly young and the state failed to properly enforce basic safety rules. In Itaewon, it became apparent that the government did not provide sufficient police presence or coordinate crowd management plans despite the expected turnout. Many more officers, about 6,000 in all, were commissioned to an anti-government protest in the city center and to defending the presidentYoon Suk-yeol, who after his inauguration in May moved his office to an area not too far from Itaewon than the Halloween crowds (just 58 uniformed officers, the police report). Emergency calls made several hours earlier, repeatedly warning of impending disaster, also appeared to have gone unheeded.

This is dire news for Itaewon, which has established itself as one of the capital’s premier party districts over the past ten years. For decades associated with Yongsan Garrison, a major US military base established in 1945, Itaewon has long had a reputation as a haven for American soldiers looking to unwind. With a large number of bars and brothels in the area that catered exclusively to foreign military personnel and expatriates, the neighborhood was coded as a dangerous place for Koreans. Here, security was not only a local issue, but sometimes erupted into national or geopolitical crises. In 1997, for example, two American citizens were charged with stabbing a South Korean man to death in the bathroom of a local Burger King (one of whom is still serving a 20-year sentence after a delayed conviction). Controversy in the case centered on whether the investigation was thorough, given one of the perpetrator’s ties to the US military, and the story was even perpetuated in 2009. Itaewon’s murder case.

But Itaewon was never just a chilly, military-dominated backwater. In the 1990s, the neighborhood’s famous Moon Night Club was a pilgrimage site for top dancers, many of whom went on to become successful musicians. The neighborhood also became a queer haven that was as welcoming to foreigners as it was to Koreans (unlike the queer areas of Jongno, another Seoul neighborhood that disliked gay non-Koreans). In addition, it has been an immigrant-friendly neighborhood in a city with some of the most expensive real estate in the world, providing affordable housing for low-income migrant workers. It is also the country’s most important Muslim quarter, crowned by a mosque built in 1976 (and the only one in the city).

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

Back in 2005, when I briefly worked as a bartender at a gay bar behind the Itaewon Fire Station, one of my cousins ​​wanted to take me out on a night out (without knowing my sexuality or where I worked). But his mother put an end to that idea. “I can’t let you go to a place like that,” he stated firmly, much to his dismay. “It’s just not safe.”

That hint of crime increased Itaewon’s appeal to young people like my cousin as a distinctly exotic (and morally compromised) place in the heart of Seoul. It’s a place where some also felt they could test new business ideas that might not fly elsewhere in the city. In the early years, popular comedian Hong Seok-Cheon (the first South Korean celebrity to come out as gay) laid the groundwork for gentrification. opening a number of trendy restaurants specializing in non-Korean cuisines, and others soon followed. At the same time, the US military. started moving its base to the south of the city in 2013, taking with him 17,000 soldiers. Real estate developers began to move in, pricing out small businesses and erecting fancy commercial buildings that rent for exorbitant sums, while the narrow, back alley footprint of the streets remained the same. Seoul’s mayor even revived an old plan this year to transform Yongsan, which is next door A tech hub like Silicon Valley.

All of which means that over the past two decades, the neighborhood has rapidly evolved from a quaint, seedy enclave patronized by the South Korean expat community, odd residents and migrant workers, to an expensive nightspot for wealthy Koreans and tourists. As Sim recalls, “I used to have all kinds of foreign clients. British school and German school teachers liked it here. But they are all gone. Now only Koreans come to Itaewon, and they don’t care about a small, intimate place like mine.” The small bars and restaurants like Charlie’s that made the area vibrant in the first place are now struggling to survive, unless they’ve already been replaced by franchises and restaurants with little character. When a Seoul pub that had been an expat favorite for more than 20 years went out of business in 2017, its owner reported the local media “Big Korean companies want to have a presence in Itaewon because it’s a way to get to know the larger number of foreigners who come here today. Independent businesses like ours can no longer survive here.” When his rent doubled, he closed the bar and his lease was immediately taken over by a franchise restaurant.

After moving to a more upscale nightlife scene, luxury condos such as Nine One Hannam, where units go for anywhere from $6 million to double the price of a penthouse, have appeared, with two members of the K-pop group BTS. If all goes according to the plan of the construction industry and the speculators who bought real estate in the area, The southern half of Itaewon will mostly be demolished in the coming years should be filled with more luxurious apartment towers.

Partygoers apply makeup for Halloween in Itaewon, 2018. The neighborhood has been the nation’s premier Halloween destination for less than a decade, and it’s only grown in popularity.
Photo by Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images

Against this background, the annual Halloween celebration, which began more than a decade ago, has grown into the largest in the country without any official organization or coordinating body, and cementing Itaewon’s status as South Korea’s place to see and be seen. 2020 Korean TV Series Itaewon Class:, based on the webtoon of the same name, paid homage to this phenomenon, featuring a young entrepreneur recently released from prison who revels in the Itaewon Halloween parade and single-handedly pursues his dream throughout the show; starting a humble drinking hole in the neighborhood (apparently such a thing is still possible). First, he symbolizes the place that was once Itaewon, welcoming outsiders and nurturing youthful dreams, and ends up becoming a business tycoon who runs a large restaurant franchise, ironically the very one 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 frozen deep. “I wanted to see the filming location of Itaewon Class and it was Halloween, so I went with a light heart on impulse, but instead felt death in the air,” one Japanese fan later tweeted. as quoted by 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 Itaewon subway station is located and a roughly 300-meter-long, five-meter-wide pedestrian strip—coveted real estate even in Itaewon. Lined with dozens of restaurants and bars, this small area was always packed, even on a typical Saturday night, so much so that my German sister, visiting from Munich four years ago, exclaimed during one such night: I thought Munich was a real city, but it’s not compared to this.” While the 130,000 people who gathered there on Saturday may seem like a lot, around 200,000 were reported to have attended the same event in 2017. Last Halloween weekend, when the crowds on both sides of that alley started to trickle in, there was no way. out for those caught in the middle.

Police officers investigating the mob scene were overwhelmed two days after the incident.
Photo: Yonhap/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Over the past few days, it has become clear how rampant development has contributed to the tragedy. On the corner, the Hamilton Hotel itself had erected unauthorized structures, including a temporary metal wall, kiosk and balcony, further narrowing the lane at the choke point where so many lives were lost. The local county office allegedly ordered Hamilton to remove these structures over the years, but the hotel continued to use the space, taking away precious breathing room that could have allowed more people to survive. Other nearby businesses also built illegal terraces that faced the street, making the footpath narrower than it should have been. Again, there was no serious enforcement against these temporary additions, which added to the death toll that night.

While leftist political parties and South Korean media blame the ruling conservative government, Itaewon’s transformation into a hotbed of party hubs without adequate infrastructure or security protocols was not the work of one political party. If anything, it’s a classic example of how little the country as a whole prioritizes security when it comes to economic development, regardless of whether worker safetystreet safety, or building security.

Can old Itaewon, already under pressure, survive a disaster of this scale? Many are confident that young people will eventually return, and that the neighborhood can preserve the memory of the tragedy without becoming a ghost town again, as it did in the first two years of the epidemic. But that hope won’t do much to slow the trend toward denser, flashier developments. The Grand Ole Opry, a country-music bar and Itaewon institution since the 1970s, may close due to a planned “redevelopment” that calls for a large section of Itaewon to be torn down and rebuilt above ground, taking with it his building. The old but determined owner of the bar, Kim Sam-suk, insists. “They can try and take this place away from me. They don’t know who they are dealing with.” Charlie Sim feels the same way. “I still continue my business in the same place. I will do everything to resist.”

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