The trash piles on the ground floors of apartment buildings in Korea are veritable gold mines for the visiting foreigner looking to furnish a studio-size room. Everything from kitchen supplies to living room furniture, can be easily found lying on the ground left by the latest resident to move out, into fresh digs. The Urban Crowd Effect is the force that compels people to ditch some of their larger belongings and buy (or find) new furniture to replace that which could not survive the trip. It pays dividends for foreign Hogwon teachers still awaiting their first paycheck but hoping to decorate the apartment a bit to make it feel, you know, a little like a home instead of a few blank walls, a tiny kitchen and a bathroom. While the couch we found this week may be a couch from the trash, it is still a couch. The cushions covers are washable, and the rest of it can be vacuumed; it’s also not too shabby for found furniture.
Goyang is far from the central city in the Seoul urban area—which near as I can tell encompasses most of the north-western corner of South Korea—and it shares many of the properties expected from a sub- or exurban area: disproportionately upper-middle to upper-class, largely commercial, and a highly planned infrastructure. In Goyang’s case this final property is not only true, but amplified to a great extent. A 2006 Newsweek article put Goyang in league with Las Vegas (one of Goyang’s many sister cities), Munich, and London as one of “The Ten Most Dynamic Cities” in the world. The article calls Goyang an “affluent enclave,” that is (or was in 2006 before President Lee Myung-bak took power, it’s hard to discern thus far what has changed since his 2008 ascension, except that the banks of the Hangang River are still completely undeveloped, with what looks like a small buffer of farmland separating the river from the city, save for the ancient fortification built near one of its tributaries) struggling to overcome its status as a commercial-based economy filled with commuters leaving for their jobs in Seoul or other Seoul-area cities. From the little bit of reading available about this place I get the impression that while there are many bars, clubs, restaurants, and cozy coffee shops, it is the type of place Koreans would say is not a place to work, but a good place to raise a family and little else. In a word it’s a suburb.
Perhaps it’s the novelty of living here still not quite having worn off, but Goyang does not feel like a suburb in the way I thought of Burnsville, MN as a suburb. Much like when I was in China and told that Zhuhai was a small city comparable with Mankato, MN by Chinese standards, the sheer volume and density of people living in Goyang makes the city feel more urban by American standards than by Korean standards. For example, an urban area in South Korea is a county with more than 150,000 people, and a town has 20,000 or more. In the United States, an urban area is an area formed around a core urban city of at least 50,000. In other words, a city like Goyang in the states with just over a million people would be in the top ten largest cities, just beating out San Jose, CA, and landing just south of Philadelphia, PA by population density. The Seoul area—housing nearly half the country’s population in just 12% of its area—with 24.5 million people would be far and away the largest metropolitan area in the United States. The sheer size of this place makes it nearly impossible to compare with anyplace back home.
There is something to smaller places that is attractive. Places with a history of industrialism and natural emergence opposed to state forced growth and expansion are just more attractive. While the incredible population growth in places like Goyang and Zhuhai, China is impressive (the former growing from a small town [20,000] to the nearly 1.1 million who live here today in something like 20 years, and the latter growing by similar margins in 30 years), it is hard to really find it as interesting or compelling a history. A place like Minneapolis/St. Paul, after learning its history, really feels like it has earned every one of the 3.5 million or so people who live there, whereas here, in Goyang, the people are here because this place was set aside, planned, or engineered, as it were, to have each of these people here.
Like any city, Goyang has local shops, small bars, cafes and locally owned dining establishments—many of which turn over weeks to months after opening, due mostly to the aggressively competitive nature of such a densely packed population’s economy—it has parks, clean streets, and all the elements of a very comfortable and livable community, but for some reason all of it ends up feeling fake. It wouldn’t be at all surprising if there were some kind of tax holiday for opening a café in Ilsan, or some kind of small business quota Goyang’s municipal government must achieve to preserve the city’s economic well-being. Even the entrepreneurship here feels fake, planned or somehow engineered. It’s this lack of purpose apart from human storage that makes it difficult to really call Goyang a home in addition to a nice and comfortable place to live.