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(Yonhap Feature) Gamcheon: Urban revitalization leads to rebirth of shantytown

All News 09:00 May 23, 2016

By Woo Jae-yeon

BUSAN, May 23 (Yonhap) -- Neither a bulldozer nor a crane was used.

The successful urban revitalization formula involving major construction that South Korea has been deploying since the devastating 1950-1953 Korean War wasn't an option for the hillside village of Gamcheon in southern Busan. It was simply too poor and neglected in the eyes of city developers.

However, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

This dilapidated village with terraced rows of shacks has rejuvenated itself into a neighborhood with irresistible charm that not only camera-toting tourists cherish but also residents hold great pride in.

The houses nestled atop a hill in Gamcheon are pretty much a microcosm of Busan's general geographical and residential features. The characteristics were somewhat forced upon the village when the outbreak of the Korean War caused tens of thousands of people to flee their hometowns and take refuge in the port city some 450 kilometers southeast of Seoul that remained relatively safe from the communist North's aggressions. The population of Busan, as a result, more than doubled from 470,000 to over 1 million by the time the war ended.

And Gamcheon wasn't an exception.

The no man's land on the bare, steep hillside was one of few options available for refugees to build a shack and start their lives all over again.

In 1955, adherents of a fringe religion called "Taekeukdo" relocated themselves to the village, following the advice of the cult's leader who called Gamcheon an auspicious "village that heaven hides away."

With a sudden influx of movers, religious leaders enforced two rules when building a house: all winding, less-than-a-meter-wide alleys should connect to each other, and a new house should be built in a way to not obstruct the view of the houses behind and above, making the most out of the village's steep topography. The design of the village, now highly appreciated for its uniqueness, is the result of the smart use of the land and resident's considerations for each other.

Sitting on the steps that lead to her house on a recent Friday, Ahn Ak-ye, a 92-year-old villager, watches the flow of tourists coming and going. There has been a "sea change" from what she described was a cluster of "box houses" when she had just moved to the village some 60 years ago, she said.

"It felt desolate in the past, but now there are so many people visiting our village. I like it."

But not all of the residents seemed happy about the newly acquired popularity of their village and the ensuing inflow of tourists.

Lee Kuem-ja, Ahn's neighbor, complained that "Some people just step inside my house without even asking."

She continued, "They go up to the roof to take photos of the view, throwing away trash like cigarette butts in the alleys."

Resolving inconveniences like noise and traffic jams that villagers have to endure from the increasing number of visitors are the top priorities, said Jun Soon-sun, vice president of the Gamcheon Culture Village Residents' Association.

According to data from the association, around 1.3 million people visited the village last year, a whopping growth from a mere 30,000 back in 2009.

"You know, if you gain one, you lose one. That is the way it is. In the beginning, residents loved people visiting. But some complain now, since we have 7,000-8,000 tourists on the weekend," Jun said.

In 2008, when urban renewal involving major construction swept through many of the other underdeveloped areas of Busan, a more non-destructive approach was suggested by artists and academics for Gamcheon which saw its population dwindling and houses quickly emptying out.

Residents and supporters applied in 2009 for the "Village Art Project" sponsored by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism and finally won the project. Based on the award money of 100 million won (US$84,600), urban regeneration started in earnest, which led to the birth of "Gamcheon Culture Village" as it is known today.

In a way, it was renewal without a massive makeover.

Following the endless, narrow back streets that allow only one person to pass at a time, visitors unexpectedly meet wall paintings, sculptures, and installation art, which give the once-dilapidated village an artistic ambiance. Old houses have been repainted in pastel colors, and convenient facilities and art galleries have popped up. The residents' association regularly meets to enhance living standards and publishes a local newspaper. Wherever you visit, you can easily bump into residents who greet you with warm smiles while going about their daily lives.

Gamcheon's urban renewal project, which entailed no major face-lift, has inspired similarly rundown cities in and out of the country.

Kim Young-kyu, manager of the Regional Development Department of the Korea Land & Housing Corporation of South Gyeongsang Province, visited the village last Friday to see if there was something he could learn from the village's successful revitalization programs.

"We are looking into the possibility of applying the same urban renewal methods of Gamcheon to our region," he said.

In recognition of its efforts to achieve peaceful, sustainable urban renewal, the village has won various awards. Most recently, it's been awarded for "creative regeneration from an underprivileged hillside to an active area" by the International Congress of Educating Cities (IAEC), a non-profit organization comprised of 478 member cities in 36 countries that are committed to educating cities.

Taking a tour around the village overlooking the ocean requires the physical strength to climb up and down a flight of steps.

"Steps to See Stars" in the middle of the village aren't meant to sound romantic but indicate the relentless physical toil that villagers go through when they struggle up each step with heavy loads and ascend endless stairs. At the top, they feel dizzy and lightheaded as if they are seeing stars.

Resident artist Na In-ju, popular for her work "Little Prince" installation, said it was actually one of her biggest complaints living in the village. Having lived here since last November, she said, "Once you are at home, you don't want to go to the trouble of climbing up all those stairs to buy something." Nevertheless, she really enjoys the uniqueness of the steep, mountainous features, an integral individuality that sets the village apart.

"I've moved in to live with the local residents and reflect their experiences onto my art," she said. "My grandmother used to live in a town like this and living here gives me nostalgic memories of her."

Nine artists, including Na, live in the village under an artist-in-residence program. They have been playing a significant role in turning the poor residential area into a unique neighborhood steeped in the arts.

In a maze of stairway-punctuated alleyways, admiring an amalgam of pastel-colored houses scaling the hillside, you could easily get lost. But here there is no need to panic. Gamcheon has no "dead ends," and all roads lead one way or another.


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