Making Itaewon: The evolution of Seoul’s most diverse neighborhood

Foreign visitors to Seoul walk around Itaewon in Yonsan District, central Seoul in May. [NEWS1]
Foreign visitors to Seoul walk around Itaewon in Yongsan District, central Seoul in May. [NEWS1]

Itaewon in central Seoul is one of Korea’s best-known neighborhoods, famous as a hub of multiculturalism and one of the best places in the city for dining and nightlife. But while Itaewon’s international reputation is well-established, few visitors are familiar with the neighborhood’s history.
 
Itaewon for years has cultivated a reputation as being right in the center of Seoul yet somehow culturally separate, nurturing a more open-minded image with a large foreign population and restaurants and bars catering to people from all around the world.

“Itaewon is still a great place to go, especially if you feel homesick,” said Maddy, a 26-year-old American student that has lived in Korea since 2019. “It is nice to be able to speak and order in English. A lot of Korean Americans and foreigners know exactly what people are homesick for, so it is nice to be able to go to a cafe or a restaurant and get real western food. The more I live in Korea, the more I go to Itaewon.”  

The modern history of Itaewon and the development of the neighborhood began after the Korean War (1950-53). Before then, both the occupying Japanese forces during the colonial period (1910-45) and later the U.S. Armed Forces Command were based near Itaewon. It was not until the 1960s that housing complexes were built and the American population grew in the area.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Itaewon developed into a strong and attractive commercial area thanks to saloons, bars, and a lively nightlife catering to the needs of the Americans in the area, but crime levels were also extremely high and the neighborhood was known for its high concentration of prostitutes. It was in 1973 that the famous Hamilton Hotel opened in the center of Itaewon in order to make the area more attractive to tourists, along with the first jazz club in Korea, All that Jazz.

The 1988 Olympics and the end of the Cold War marked the beginning of Itaewon’s globalization. Newspapers at that time started to call Itaewon “a foreign country within Seoul,” according to Seoul Shinmun in 1997. This made Itaewon more attractive to tourists, which in turn encouraged locals to make it a more attractive introductory point to Korea. The Itaewon Merchants’ Association, together with the national and city governments, pushed to develop Itaewon into a commercial and multicultural area, rather than a place solely targeting U.S. forces.

Since the 2000s, the international population has become more diverse with the arrival of workers from the Middle East and Africa. New cultural events are organized such as the World Food Festival, first introduced in 2002 during the World Cup.

That dynamic ability to adapt to changing times has helped Itaewon continue to develop and change, even in the face of potentially devastating problems like the Covid-19 pandemic. 

“I am going to Itaewon more since I want to buy some specific Western products, but also some books or other goods that I can only find online,” said Maddy. “There is also a young generation of expats that have opened vinyl record shops and vegan cafes, so Itaewon has a Brooklyn vibe sometimes.”  

Ewha Women’s University Professor Kim Eun-sil described Itaewon as an “Alien Space” in Seoul in a 2004 paper, but this sense of other is often what attracts not just foreigners, but also young Koreans to the neighborhood.

“Itaewon is a nice place to enjoy a lot of different bars and to have casual drinks with your friends, especially western drinks and cocktails,” said Jae-young, a 28-year-old medical student at Kyunghee University.  

A food festival held at Itaewon [BAEK JONG-HYUN]
A food festival held at Itaewon [BAEK JONG-HYUN]

Today, Itaewon continues to diversify, whether it be to new cultures from South Asia or even to non-racial minorities such as the gay community. Professor Kim argues that Itaewon has throughout its modern history been a “deterritorialized” neighborhood, meaning that it has been designed for communities other than nationals, and communities that are otherwise relatively discriminated against.

This has led to plenty of criticism in the past. According to Kim, during major international events such as the 2002 World Cup, Itaewon was criticized by the media as it did not maintain the same morals as the rest of the country. One of the latest examples is the backlash that Itaewon had to suffer during the Covid-19 pandemic when a cluster was linked to a gay club in the neighborhood. Nightlife in Itaewon faced stricter restrictions than other areas around Seoul and Korea.  

Shin Hyo-noon, a professor at Sungkonghoe University, says in a 2020 paper that Itaewon is changing, due to its fast gentrification and the settling of a “creative class.”

“Foreigners and foreignness are still important for Itaewon’s uniqueness, but they are no longer the defining feature of the place,” says Shin.

Whether it is celebrities opening bars, cafes, restaurants, or companies investing in Itaewon such as Samsung with the Leeum Museum or Comme des Garçons, all of these factors have contributed to the rapid gentrification of the neighborhood.

Mira, who works at one of the oldest bookstores in Itaewon, has seen this change happen.  

“At first, the bookstore was in a residential area with mostly foreigners,” Mira said. “However, in 2010, new and trendy stores came in and real estate prices started to become more and more expensive. Many people had to leave Itaewon, and some restaurants moved to Haebangchon, but most deserted Itaewon.

“In the beginning, the bookstore only offered used books and 80 percent of our customers were foreigners. Now, we sell new books as well because this is what the Korean customers, who represent 40 percent of our visitors, are looking for.”

Itaewon now faces another change following the closure of the nearby U.S. base and the departure of the American soldiers from the neighborhood. 

“Itaewon feels different since the American base was relocated,” said Jaeyoung, “it feels like fewer foreigners will go there, especially with the housing crisis.”  

The departure of the U.S. base has helped trigger the latest reinvention of Itaewon, as Koreans move back in and add yet another cultural influence to Seoul’s most diverse neighborhood. But Itaewon doesn’t appear to be losing its multicultural roots, as wealthy young Koreans are increasingly interested in exploring other cultures.

BY STUDENT REPORTER BENJAMIN DEVISE [kjd.kcampus@joongang.co.kr]