Seoul is the only real city
It was Truman Capote, wasn’t it, who once averred that New York was “the only real city city”? But that was back in 1957, in the depths of the twentieth century, and whatever Capote saw in the New York of his time, the metropolitan experiences that place had on offer have been definitively superceded by others still more intense.
Now don’t get me wrong: I love New York, and I’m happy and proud to call it my home. But you really can’t compare its tepid comings and goings to life in this surging metropolis of eighteen million, hunkered down on the banks of the Han River.
Half-past eleven on a Thursday night and the line of cars waiting to get into the Tongdaemun market parking lot tails back half a kilometer – street stalls lit up like lanterns sprawl for blocks around the high-rise Dooto and Hello APM buildings at the market’s core. When we get back to the (relatively peripheral) neighborhood where we’re staying, the long narrow sidestreet that leads up into its heart pulses with activity, each minuscule concrete forecourt a platform for tables, chairs, beer, conviviality.
The infrastructure tells the story, too. Breaking out of the river frontage in a subway car at dusk, and you can take it in in a single sweep. Ten or twelve bridges, some of them a full ten lanes; tunnels, rail lines, enough highways up on pylons to make the ghost of Robert Moses squeal in revenant delight. Fifteen subway lines wrap the urban core in an octopoid tangle of transit options (albeit ones that, curiously enough, stop running at a ludicrously early hour). And because all that people-moving apparatus is wreathed in a parallel mesh of bit-moving gear, this is also the only city I’ve yet visited where I’ve seen a plurality of passengers on a subway car watching TV on their mobile phones.
Where I’ve long been wryly accustomed to a – shall we say brusque? – local service culture, there are signs of change in the air that I regard as little less than astonishing. If, in the past, my experience of the service in Korean restaurants, hotels and transit operations has run the gamut from heartfelt, warm and friendly, but a little clumsy, to outright rude, the broad improvement in quality is so noticeable I almost want to ascribe it to some national initiative – and a fairly forceful one at that. Case in point: the flawlessly turned-out attendants on the 300-kph KTX express train, who combined the warmth and consideration that Korea has always offered its visitors with a professionalism I’ve very rarely seen here before.
If you’ve never been to New York, and you nurture in your heart some impression of the place as some towering nexus of fast, dense, vibrant urban living, I would hate to be the one to disabuse you of these notions. And, for all I know, if you hail from some Alberta cowtown or similar wide place in the road, such impressions may still find some purchase. But objectively, oh, objectively it’s a different story.
In fact, I have to believe that, at some point in the not terribly distant future, all of those Korean kids whose parents have scrimped and suffered to send them to Yale and Julliard and Parsons are going to start wondering why, and with some amount of justification. America? That’s just a place where you can’t buy anything but transit with transit passes; where the phones don’t do much of anything but let you make calls; where the street lights can’t tell you how much time you have to safely cross; and where the person behind the counter couldn’t care less about helping you.
I don’t want anyone to think that my honest love of Korea is acquired through rose-colored lenses. I do see the endemic corruption, the inhibiting cultural lockdown of gender politics, the shoddy workmanship and utter laxity in maintenance that makes a mockery of all the efforts to promote design…the occasionaly appalling disregard for safety. But for anyone who still wants to believe in the peppery dynamism of broad-shoulders city life, this is what an urban place should feel like.
Apologies to Shanghai, to Toronto, to Bangalore: I haven’t yet been introduced to you, I don’t know what kind of intensities you offer your residents and visitors. For the time being, though, I can’t imagine anything better than this churning, massively parallel engine of a place. To walk the streets of Seoul is to inhabit a culture that perceives itself as working, that conceives of itself (rightly or wrongly) as a machine capable of delivering the good life to the majority of the people who live in it. In short: a culture that believes it has a future. The contrast with the city in which I wake up most of the days of my life could not be more telling.