The gentrification of Mullae is seen most clearly just after sundown, when the doors are rolled up and the lights still on in the iron foundries and steel factories that have defined this Seoul neighborhood since the first metalworks opened in 1955. The technicians will soon head home, but now the lights go on in the artist studios next door. The tables are set at upscale bars and restaurants among new music venues like Skunk Hell.
The art scene that emerged here in the early 2000s is now in its second or third wave, as newcomers who fled rising costs in the established art districts of Daehangno and Hongdae now find themselves squeezed again by rising rents and commodified tourism. At first, artists and technicians mixed peacefully in Mullae. “The daytime belongs to the workers,” said photographer K. Chae, who owns a gallery in the district. “Artists like the night better anyway.” They selectively occupied the second and third floors of factory buildings, office spaces that were no longer in use. The artists did not seem a threat to the metalworkers, since they didn’t have enough capital to raise rent pressures, and building owners did not yet see the commercial potential. 1
Metalworkers painted over murals and removed art installations in an effort to regain control of the neighborhood identity.
But the artists needed income, too, and many opened cafes or retail spaces in buildings they renovated, slowly changing the industrial character of the neighborhood. City officials saw the proliferation of murals and street art and tried to get in on the action. They wrote a new narrative for the neighborhood under a 2008 “Urban Regeneration” plan, and soon the designated “Mullae Art Village” had a new bus stop. In 2012, social entrepreneur Lee Soju began leading cultural tours of the neighborhood, with government support. Visitors from all over Korea descended on Mullae, and their social media posts made it a hot spot for art tourism. At first, outsiders were tolerated, but as their numbers grew they gained a reputation for being oblivious to the dangers of industrial work and for gawking at technicians, who resented being photographed in their professional spaces. By 2015, the metalworkers were fed up. Some painted over murals and removed art installations in an effort to regain control of the neighborhood identity, but by then it was too late.
Today, the district’s main street, Dorim-ro, is a stage for revolving storefronts, where trendy restaurants and cafes come and go. Rents have quadrupled in a decade. Many of the new businesses borrow the “otherness” of the factories by using Mullae’s name and industrial aesthetic, but none are affordable to longtime residents. Cultural conflicts are open and pervasive. Most technicians spend their entire lives working six-day weeks, and they find it hard to understand the irregular habits of artists and the creative endeavors that sometimes disrupt factory work. Florist Lee Jeong-ju said she was denied compensation for damages caused by a factory fire last year because of the factory owner’s prejudice against artists.
“People can only think within the boundaries of their experiences in life,” explained Jeon Hee-soon, owner of a different factory, Advanced Techniques. Jeon has worked in Mullae for nearly a quarter century and is one of twenty “Masters of Iron” whose life stories were documented in a book commissioned by Lee Soju. “The artists who come into Mullae are very different in their lives and experiences,” Jeon said. “Technicians can’t see or don’t want to acknowledge the differences between artists and themselves. It’s just frustrating.”
Despite the ‘Art Village’ designation, there are more factory workers than artists here. As many as 1,355 technicians produce industrial components in Mullae.
Even as mass manufacturing jobs are lost to countries like China, the local metalworking industry thrives because the jobs are centered on research and design. Despite the “Art Village” designation, there are more factory workers than artists in Mullae. As of 2014, there were 1,355 technicians producing industrial components here. The first generation, now well into their 60s, have passed the torch to younger family members, and new factories still move to the neighborhood, drawn by the concentration of specialized talent. But the barriers to entry are higher now, since so many industrial spaces have been converted to other uses and cannot be easily retrofitted for metalworking.
While technicians blame artists for the neighborhood’s transformation, the true culprit is the government. In Seoul, tenants are only guaranteed the right to renew a rental agreement for five years, and so factories (and, more recently, artists and first-wave businesses) can be pushed out if others are willing to pay higher rents. Grant money goes to artists and businesses who “improve” the area, while factories get no public support for their contributions “to the body of urban lived experiences and lived space.” 2
Historically, Seoul planners have redeveloped “underutilized” areas without spreading the benefits through redistributive social policies. In 2015, the city sought to improve its reputation by implementing measures to “protect local residents from gentrification.” Renovation grants of up to $25,000 USD were awarded to building owners who agreed to temporarily freeze rents for small businesses. 3 Mullae was left out of that scheme, but last year several locals received a grant to participate in the government’s “city recycling” project, which aims to stem gentrification by reusing existing infrastructure. Some community leaders complain that factory owners and artists have been left out of the discussion. They say it’s not clear whether the benefits will extend beyond a select few entrepreneurs.
The situation in Mullae now calls for artists and factory owners to unite in resistance to speculative capitalism. Otherwise the neighborhood will follow the model of Daehangno, Bukchon, Seochon, Garosu-gil, and Jogno in becoming a generic shopping district. Landlords in those areas earned fortunes by raising rents until the neighborhood’s unique features were destroyed through over-commercialization. What followed was not prosperity but hollowness. Young people stopped visiting areas that were no longer seen as “authentic,” and as retail dropped off, building owners chose to leave spaces vacant rather than lower rents. We see a hint of this now in Mullae, as several spaces on Dorim-ro have sat empty for the past few months, despite strong interest. The sole hostel, Urban Art Guest House, is on the last year of its contract, and proprietor Lee Seung-hyuck is not sure whether he will stay, as the building owner intends to triple the rent.
Gentrification is an ongoing, natural process of urban growth. There is no perfect way to respond, but measures such as inclusionary zoning and rent control can lessen structural injustices and soften the blow to older residents. Unfortunately, grassroots actions in Mullae have been fractured along professional lines, especially the line between artists and industrial workers. The recent ouster of President Park Geun-hye gives some organizers hope that collective action can produce results for the people. If they can convince the government that the iron foundries and steel factories are essential resources, they may be able to secure legal protections. The goal is not to restrict commercial uses in Mullae but to protect longtime residents with social and historical claims.
Although many artists and industrial workers see each other as the opposition, they must come together if they hope to stay in the Mullae they have created. They have to fight for a value system that respects the past but also allows space for the emergence of new possibilities. I have tried to capture those values in this photo essay.