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Everything You Need to Know About Ulsan

The Evolving Soul of Seongnamdong

If you happened to navigate the labyrinthine alleyways of Seongnamdong in Ulsan, South Korea back in the early 2000s, you’d recall a neighborhood vastly different from the vibrant, well-lit streets and trendy cafes that grace the area today.

Sure, the iconic shigyetop intersection stood as a beacon, but back then, it merely signaled your escape from the red-light district, ushering you back into the shopping domain. However, the resemblance ends there.

The skeletal structure of the “Old Downtown” still lingers, but the atmosphere has undergone a metamorphosis. For years, decay gnawed at the area, and the local authorities attempted to slap on band-aids in the form of covered archways, offering shelter to shoppers and a feeble attempt to make the markets more inviting. Yet, it was a superficial fix.

The crux of the issue lay in Seongnamdong’s lack of premier stores and attractions, unlike its Ulsan counterparts. Those in search of a 500,000 won padding jacket weren’t flocking to Seongnamdong; they were making a beeline for Hyundai department store in Samsandong.

The youth seeking a vibrant night out gravitated towards mugeodong and the nightclubs dotted around the city. The business people out on their corporate-sponsored drinking marathons found their haven in Samsan’s nightlife district. This left Seongnamdong with little more than middle school kids exploring aging multi-bangs and stationery stores between their academy classes.

The turning point

A turning point arrived with the emergence of retro and unique cafes. In the pricier locales like Samsandong, affordable spots with character were a rarity. Coastal areas were too distant to lure locals regularly. Entrepreneurs seeking to establish quaint cafes or eateries found their answer in Seongnamdong’s surplus of old buildings begging for rejuvenation.

As cafes and restaurants breathed life into abandoned spaces, people trickled back. Add to this equation the plethora of festivals and night markets, catering to aspiring Instagram influencers, and you’ve got a revival, sans the need for elaborate murals or themed streets.

This transformation doesn’t align Seongnamdong with your typical shopping district or a venue for reckless booze-fueled revelry and (later) questionable motel choices. Instead, it has become a destination where people invest their time—an evolution worth embracing.

You shop at UpSquare Mall in Samsandong, grab cheap food and drink between classes near babo-seogori in mugeodong, but in Seongnamdong, you just wander—and that’s the allure. With its array of small cafes, restaurants, a recently constructed art museum, and traditional park, Seongnamdong isn’t a place with a singular destination; it’s a collection of inviting stops.

Attempts to replicate Samsandong’s design street in Seongnamdong’s “youth street” fell short. Movie theaters, albeit aging, dot the landscape, but it’s the alleys and cozy cafes like Paan—with its nonchalant sleepy sheepdog—that truly define the area. Venture through the side streets; stumbleupon hidden gems exclusive to “old downtown.” I wholeheartedly recommend you explore this treasure before it’s transformed beyond recognition.

Development is coming

While these cafes and shops attracted more visitors, they inadvertently opened the floodgates to development. Seongnamdong, inching towards space scarcity, now witnesses the surge of high-end apartments between the Bukbu Beltway and the shopping district.

As I recently meandered through the older precincts of Seongnamdong, the unmistakable signs of impending change surfaced—abandoned buildings tagged with red spray paint, swaths of the neighborhood deserted, and “for sale” signs adorning the rest. This, mind you, is within spitting distance of the new apartment block that sprouted up just last year.

As these new establishments roll in, so will the chains. Quaint cafes will morph into Starbucks and Pascuccis, and the once-charming restaurants will succumb to the generic chains found throughout the city. A somber day awaits as the last vestiges of character are swallowed by the march of progress.

There’s not much one can say to halt this inevitable shift, but taking a couple of strolls down there before the apartment towers rise might just provide a poignant glimpse of what’s at stake.