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13 Jan 2011

The gentrification of Itaewon – On Monday night, Hyunjin and I went out to Itaewon with Gord and the mysterious (but always charming) Miss Jiwaku. Gord had discovered a Belgian beer place and, after talking about it for so long, we finally made a (double) date to try it out for ourselves. I had never had Belgian beer before, except for Hoegaarden—when I was an undergrad, such beers were way out of my price range, and since coming to Korea I really haven’t had the opportunity. Hyunjin tried a kriek (cherry) lambic at Mug’s Ale House in Brooklyn, but she wasn’t feeling well that day and was only able to drink half of it, so when she heard that there was a Belgian beer place in Itaewon, she was keen on wrapping up this unfinished business (or “han pulgi,” as the Korean phrase goes).

“Itaewon ... is more of a meeting place of cultures, foreign and Korean.”

Gord had said that the food at Virgin (the Belgian beer place) was on the pricy side, so we went to Chef Meili’s for some Austrian food for dinner. I was looking forward to having an excellent lamb dish they have there, but it turns out that the lamb is a seasonal dish and was unavailable. I settled for the Jaegerschnitzel with spaetzle, which was very good—I’ve never had a bad meal there. When we finished eating, I wanted to show Hyunjin the (relatively) new pie place across the street, Tartine Bakery. Every time I go to Itaewon to meet people for drinks, I make sure to pick up a mini strawberry-rhubarb pie there for her. Last time I was in Itaewon with Gord I showed him the place, but they had already closed, so he was interested in checking it out as well. We bought a “Chef Garrett’s Special” pie—a berry pie with currants and three different types of berries—that we ate yesterday, and Hyunjin said she likes it even better then the strawberry-rhubarb pie.

After procuring our pies, we made our way east, stopping at a foreign foods shop along the way. There Gord discovered some two-quart jugs of white grapefruit juice by the door and, somehow remembering my laments about being unable to find real grapefruit juice here (no, the pink stuff does not cut it, and the white grapefruit juice they sell under the “Cold” label tastes watered down), he pointed them out to me. It was 8,000 won for a jug, but I only hesitated a moment before I picked it up. Truth be told, I wasn’t as concerned about the price as I was about the prospect of lugging around nearly two kilograms of juice. But the next morning I opened the bottle and had real grapefruit juice for breakfast for the first time in a long time, and it was all worth it.

After shopping we finally made our way to Virgin. I took a quick look at the food menu and saw that the prices were indeed expensive—apparently all the food has some sort of liquor in it, which is probably what drives the prices up. The beer prices were on the high side as well, with beers running from 11,000 won to 15,000 won (not including Deus, the champagne beer that was listed at 110,000 won). But when I took a sip of my first choice, a Flemish ale called “Duchesse de Bourgogne,” I forgot all about the prices. Gord says it tastes better when it is aged longer (in addition to being a science fiction author, Gord is also a brewer and knows a good deal about beer), but it was still great. I went with a Corsendonk Pater Dubbel for my second choice and a gueuze lambic for my third drink, and both also proved excellent choices. Hyunjin was finally able to finish a kriek, and she topped it off with a shot of a liqueur called “Tears of the Bride,” which tasted quite wonderful, like a bouquet of fruit and flowers. Our portion of the bill came out to a little over 60,000 won, but it was worth every won.

All in all, the evening was a good time with good friends, and both Hyunjin and I enjoyed ourselves very much. As we left Virgin, we noticed that Edward Kwon, probably Korea’s first celebrity chef, had a fancy-looking restaurant across the street, and the area in general (just west of Hangangjin Station on the Number 6 Line) looked rather up-class. It was only then that I started thinking about just how much Itaewon has changed since I first arrived in Korea over fifteen years ago.

For the first two weeks after I arrived in Korea, I lived in an area called Haebang-chon, roughly between Namsan and Itaewon. Right down the hill from where I lived was the U.S. military base in Yongsan, and Itaewon was a favorite hangout for soldiers. The only other thing it was good for at the time, at least in my mind, was some pretty good burgers at a place called Nashville. When I moved out of Haebang-chon, I moved to a neighborhood called Bogwang-dong, which is south of Itaewon and a short walk from the main drag. Somehow it seemed liked I was a satellite orbiting Itaewon, and it began to rub me the wrong way.

Part of this had to do with the fact that I lived with a guy in Bogwang-dong whose social life consisted almost entirely of nights out in Itaewon. At the time he had been in Korea for about two years, and yet he hardly spoke a word of Korean (all he knew was the names of various types of alcoholic drinks) and seemed to be living in a comfortable little cocoon that was completely sealed off from all things Korean. In retrospect, this was probably a naive thing to assume, but that was the impression I got.

For this reason, I developed an almost pathological distaste for Itaewon and did everything I could to avoid it. It was difficult to avoid it completely while living in Bogwang-dong, but after I moved north to the neighborhood in front of Yonsei University, it became a lot easier. All the while, though, Itaewon was changing. There was probably a period of a few years that I didn’t visit Itaewon at all, but eventually I became a little less neurotic and started making the occasional trip, usually for some decent beer at the Three Alley Pub. I don’t know if it really occurred to me how Itaewon was changing, but it certainly was. Soldiers were still present, but they were part of a much more varied tapestry. It is a neighborhood that definitely caters to various foreign populations, but at the same time it is also a window into those foreign cultures, and plenty of Koreans visit the area to experience something a little different.

While Itaewon once may have been a cocoon for foreigners afraid to get out and experience the rest of Korea, now it is more of a meeting place of cultures, foreign and Korean. I’m sure that part of this is due to the changes that have occurred in me over the past fifteen years—I think I have developed more nuanced views on life and my surroundings—but Itaewon has definitely changed. You could even say it has become gentrified, although (even though I used the word in the title of today’s entry) not to the point of exclusion. It’s a strange sort of gentrification that you probably wouldn’t see in, say, Brooklyn.

But it’s definitely a positive development. Now there are plenty of good restaurants, bars, and places to pick up things that are difficult to find elsewhere (you may remember that I bought the limes for my lime pie in Itaewon, for example, not to mention my beloved white grapefruit juice). I even get my shirts tailored there. It’s hard to believe that I once used to actively avoid the area. But I guess nothing ever stays the same, especially not in a city like Seoul, a city that is intent on reinventing itself at every opportunity. It doesn’t always work, but I like what is happening down Itaweon way.

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