I never hear any of them say, as they used to in the ‘80s, that “There’s nothing to do in Seoul.” If anything, Seoul is one of the most underrated cities in the world. And as its buildings are built higher and higher, they are a metaphor for a higher standard of living for just about everyone.
For some unfortunate people, however, the underground passageways of the sprawling subway system are a more apt metaphor. While the standard of living has been improving steadily since the ‘80s, the ranks of the homeless have been increasing steadily, as well.
Those whose daily commute includes a ride on the subway see the homeless, anonymous people who survive on the margins of prosperous Seoul and who most commuters turn a blind eye toward.
The homeless are as much a part of the urban scene as is Starbucks, something Seoul has in common with all the world’s big cities. Although Seoul’s homeless population is nothing compared to America’s cities, where the ubiquitous homeless are taken for granted, a permanent underclass belonging to the squalid underbelly of urban society.
The Ulchi Ro Sam ga station is a popular haunt of the homeless, who are mostly invisible until late at night, when they come out of the shadows to sleep on flimsy cardboard mattresses. They are truly “street smart,” cognizant of every public W.C. and free soup kitchen.
Seoul’s homeless were the topic of conversation when I met with a former resident who returned recently to the city after a five-year hiatus. Once we exchanged pleasantries at a Starbucks and caught up on what had transpired in our own lives over the years, he said, “Have you noticed all the homeless people?”
Since I’m a keen observer of street life I knew there were more homeless than five years ago. But like everybody else I took the increase of homeless persons in my stride.
That the homeless, and not the many improvements to Seoul, were what that guy noticed on his return made me reconsider my attitude toward them, to see the homeless not as just an unfortunate underclass but as a potential embarrassment to the compelling, idealized image that Seoul presents to the world on CNN.
Then, a few days after the meeting, I happened upon Seosomun Park, a virtual homeless camp. I saw about 30 “campers” there, some still in their sleeping bags in the middle of the afternoon. After seeing the park I wonder how many other homeless camps are scattered across Seoul, out of sight.
It is a paradox of the homeless that their numbers increase with prosperity. Aside from the occasional beggar at subway entrances, there was no visible homeless problem when I arrived in a much poorer Seoul in 1981. There were laborers sleeping in the rough around Seoul Station to save money, but they were off to construction sites in the morning. Now, with prosperity, there are more and more homeless people living in the subway system and parks, while affluent Seoulites go about spending lavishly.
This paradox is evident in American cities, where the homeless are a blight on urban life. The public parks and squares that give cities charm and character are overrun with the homeless. By the end of the first week of my 2007 summer in San Francisco, one of America’s richest cities, and beloved by tourists, I began to loathe its ubiquitous homeless. I just wanted them to go away.
One of the legacies of the Ronald Reagan years is a divide between the haves and the have-nots on a scale not seen before in America. Rapacious avarice motivated a generation of yuppies. Their mantra: “Greed is good!” It was during the get-rich Reagan era that the “cult of materialism” took possession of America’s soul and the homeless became a common feature of its cities.
Winter is when you can spot the homeless straightaway, by the many layers of clothing they wear and by their comportment. While most people on the street are hurrying to and fro to get out of the cold, the homeless shuffle by aimlessly, with nowhere to go in particular. You can often see them just sitting alone, waiting until the spirit moves them. This lonely existence only exacerbates their mental illness, for they are “gravely disabled.”
During morning rush hour on Blue Line # 1, the homeless can be mistaken for Dobongsan trekkers in hooded parkas and with backpacks stuffed with personal belongings. But they stay huddled inside the subway cars, the only place that offers them warmth after a cold night spent somewhere.
One of Mayor Oh Se-hoon’s projects planned for Seoul is an underground city modeled on the one in Montreal, creating a warren of subterranean corridors connecting the many shopping arcades. Urban planners will have to consider the specter of the homeless taking up residence there, as is their wont, lest the underground city becomes a magnate for the homeless and an embarrassment to Seoul.
I welcome everything that Oh Se-hoon is doing to improve the quality of urban life and to make living here an enjoyable experience. And I was among the multitude applauding the feats of athleticism that were displayed by contestants at the Snowboarding Festival in Kwanghwamun. Kudos Mayor Oh. Yet below ground in the very center of Seoul where so many events that give the city its vibrancy take place, the festering sore of homelessness goes on.
Jack Soul firstname.lastname@example.org
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