The Accidental Urbanist
An afternoon with Charlie Usher of Seoul Sub-urban.
Charlie Usher can be sighted most Saturdays in close proximity to one of Seoul’s many subway stations. He’ll most certainly have a pen and notebook in hand, jotting down notes about the neighborhood that he and partner-in-crime Liz Groeschen explore, he through words, she with photographs. Together, the two friends create the duo behind Seoul Sub-urban (stylized as Seoul Sub→urban), a blog that’s being noticed by Seoulites and overseas urbanites alike.
Seoul Sub-urban’s beginnings are rooted in simple curiosity. Riding the subway on his regular home-work-play route, Charlie looked beyond the sliding doors and started wondering, ‘What’s up there? What if I just got off?”
That’s exactly what he did one day in 2009.
Each of Seoul Sub-urban’s posts features a subway stop and its immediate neighborhood, ranging from the city’s most trafficked areas to more obscure places that life-long Seoul residents may not even know about. Charlie authors the blog, and Liz’s photographs bring the landmarks and observations of the neighborhoods to life. “We really try to make the city come alive,” says Charlie, “to describe it, both good and bad, and to explore and document the city at a very micro-level that no one else, foreigner or Korean, is doing.” So far, Charlie and Liz have made it to 70 subway stations, and they’ve got their sights on covering all of Seoul.
Seoulist followed Charlie, a Wisconsin native, on one of his expeditions (Liz usually heads over a day or two later). We met at Sanggye Station in the northeastern corner of Seoul proper (Sanggye Station is the second to last stop on Line 4). Charlie, wearing black framed glasses and dressed in a simple t-shirt and jeans, could have passed for any Western man on the streets, though a closer look revealed bolder accessories that hint at his creative streak: a pair of fuchsia sneakers and a leather belt embossed with images of the Virgin Mary completed his look. Coincidentally, Charlie used to live close by Sanggye during his first two years in Korea, though he’d never ventured north of the station.
First stop, the open street market by the station. Though the front entrance was not far from the station exit, we walked around the market’s premises until suddenly finding ourselves at the back entrance. “I used to have a bad sense of direction,” noted Charlie, “but that sort of disappeared from traveling a lot.” Or perhaps getting lost is not the end but rather a means to discovering something new. Sighting a 20-foot multi-colored plastic slide jutting out the side of a day care center, Charlie stopped walking to write his comments down, right below his hand-drawn map of the station surroundings and the list of sights he compiled from his pre-trip research. He would later hand this list to Liz, who ventures to the subway stops separately to photograph the neighborhood. Liz, who was described by another Seoulist writer as chatty, effervescent, and the yin to Charlie’s yang, wrote to us in an email, “some of my favorite shots are those taken off the beaten path or getting lost and really seeing the area around each station.”
As we turned a corner covered with stacks of shoeboxes, Charlie peered through the cracks of construction walls, spotting a stream 100 meters away. Having found the next target, the expedition continued as we made our way across a sculpture garden and the construction zone.
Walking along the stream, a sprightly gray terrier immediately caught our attention. Freed from its leash, it frolicked over the concrete squares forming a bridge to cross over to our side. Moments later, we saw the terrier again merrily chasing ducks, frightened by his barking, fleeing downstream, as its owner sauntered with his arms crossed, leash in hand. Laughing heartily, Charlie remarked, “Seoul is much more diverse than I thought. There’s a lot more green space here, like parks and streams, than one might expect in a large city.”
When asked to describe Seoul in three words, Charlie balked slightly and protested, “I’m a writer, so I want to search for the right words.” After minutes of contemplation, he settled with these three: “restless, anti-Confucian, and ambitious.”
Seoul Sub-urban began as Charlie’s search to “discover and learn about the city” and definitely remains so, yet in the process, Charlie’s perceptions of Seoul seem to have markedly shifted, giving rise to more nuanced commentary on the juxtapositions of new and old Seoul. The man-made stream we stumbled across and the manicured paths running beside it are just one testament to the changing physical forms of Seoul and Korea. A business or shop that one passes today may not be there several months later, replaced by a modern building. “I guess that in a sense, Charlie mused, “the blog will [someday] provide a snapshot of what used to be.”
Seoul is more than the buildings of steel and glass dotting the landscape, and evidence of its previous lives can still be found across the city. As we made our way towards Danggogae station, we neared compounds of one-story homes (jutaek) built before the onset of hi-rise apartment towers that are now synonymous with city (and even rural) living. Large yellow spiders hung suspended from webs spun between wooden electrical posts, garden walls, and unlit signs for fortune telling. Walking in the alleyways, we noticed an elderly woman pulling a cart full of cardboard. Thinly sliced cucumbers were lain out on drying racks. Cylinders of coal were stacked from floor to ceiling inside one building. A friendly Jindo puppy found a chew toy in our sneaker shoelaces as Charlie continued to write.
While Seoul Sub-urban is chronicling Seoul before more changes render some places unrecognizable, or all too familiar with nondescript modern exteriors, its very existence is evidence of change that has already taken place in Korea. As the influx of foreigners coming to Korea to study or work continues, ever-increasing numbers of them are establishing roots and calling this place home. Charlie, for example, has lived in Korea for four years, first arriving in 2005, then spending a year traveling around Asia before returning in 2009. Creative projects from the expat community like Seoul Sub-urban can be seen as cultural artifacts in and of themselves. With a global readership, Seoul Sub-urban is an important addition to existing depictions of Seoul that has the fresh perspective of an outsider but the attention to detail that only someone who has grown to love this city could conjure.
Read the Sanggye station experience on Seoul Sub-urban: Sanggye Station (상계역) Line 4 – Station #410.
To our readers: what are your three words for Seoul?