This last trip to Korea, one of Nurri’s best friends showed us her new apartment, a seventh-floor studio in an outlying new town recently developed by the Doosan conglomerate. (Yes, “town” and “developed.” Not overly ambitious for an entity that offers up everything from wine and surface-to-air missiles – natürlich – to a baseball team.)
Both apartment and building were nice, sure…cozy, clean, convenient, plenty of free parking. But the town in which they’re nestled? That threw me off-balance quite badly, for reasons that will become evident.
The well-tuned suburb
I have to confess that it seemed to be a surpassingly lovely place to come home to, by any standard. The main street is a stroll-worthy promenade as generously lined with trees in full leaf as with open-air cafés and one-off boutiques; it reminded me of some iconic stretch of an Upper West Side avenue, coldbloodedly optimized for QOL. The local supermarket is an outpost of New Zealand’s Huckleberry Farms chain, where every gorgeous, unpackaged leaf of organic lettuce lies misted on a bed of a very few other specimens of same (and commands a commensurate price). And if the visage of Big Jesus looming over the freeway exit ramp is a bit unsettling, you can almost forgive that – it’s easy to imagine that life here can seem like nothing less than an unfolding of beatitudes.
An hour spent walking around convinced me that everything I thought I knew about how to evoke superior urban experience is open to serious question, or is at least so fiercely local as to be irrelevant here. Because none of this – bike paths, organic markets, iced cappuccinos, noodling jazz combos – was here two years ago. This was rice fields. Everything I’m marveling at was magicked into existence by Doosan and its partners in commerce and government.
And not a shred of it has anything to do with the facts on the ground that so complicate life in just about any city I can think of. There isn’t any visible class, ethnic or racial tension. There isn’t any zero-sum jockeying for scarce civic resources of space, quiet and fresh air. Unusually so for Korea, there isn’t any dirt, overspill or evident disorder. There are – or at least appear to be, upon initial but sensitive inspection – no fault lines. Every last soul looks good, everybody dresses well (in a mode I think of as branded and fully global upper-middle-class), the sheer happiness of the place is a tangible thing. I promise you from personal experience: the plutocrats of Worth Avenue don’t truly have it any nicer, in the end.
I’ve invoked Robert Moses before, in my writing about Korea, but I doubt even Big Bad Bob ever dreamed this big. Despite the seeming emphasis on mixed-use amenity and core walkability, there’s precious little from the standard-issue New Urbanist playbook, either – the scale is titanic compared to their piddling, partial efforts, and the dizzingly crenelated, self-contained conapt towers make an utter hash of any notion of “architecture and landscape design that celebrate local history, climate, ecology, and building practice.”
What’s an urbanist of my ilk to say to all of that? “No, here, you need a little more grit and ‘authenticity’ in your lives”? So what if the life on view has little enough to do with the ordinary processes of civic engagement, as these things are understood in the Jacobite canon? So what if this city-as-lifestyle-as-service is something consumed, as opposed to something participated in? What would raising any such claims do but complicate the swift and smooth delivery of services to the people who have engaged them?
Give the people what they want
One of the fundamental tenets of anarchist thought, as I understand it, has always been that it’s the people who live in a place who are best able to determine its appropriate disposition. The locals here don’t seem to be losing any sleep over the fact that in this case, they’ve chosen to do so through the intercessionary agency of a gigantic business entity whose decisions they have next to no control over. So why should I?
It’s my problem that the skepticism is palpably quivering inside me, wanting to snark, wanting to Pronounce that the happiness here must – must – be predicated on injustice, chaos and misery somewhere else, if not local, present and heavily repressed. But I can’t bring myself to do it.
And not so much because I didn’t want to be the one to piss in the punchbowl, but because I couldn’t muster up the piss to do it with. What am I gonna tell these people, that they’re doing it “wrong”? No, they’ve obviously gotten something very difficult very right, to the highly evident satisfaction of all users, and if their solution is prima facie unrealizable in the context of contemporary Western civilization, then it almost makes me wonder if it isn’t Western civilization that could use a few tweaks.
Let me make myself absolutely clear: I could never live in a place like this and be happy. I’m too morbid, too perverse, maybe too broken. I like a little risk, a little difficulty, even, occasionally, a smidge of danger in my life; they remind me I’m alive, and afford me the darkly glamorous (if cheap and self-congratulatory) little thrill of having willingly exposed myself to them.
What’s more, democracy – which I think of as a process that attempts to balance interests through a satisficing churn of discourse, deliberation and disputation on the part of nearly all of the members of a community – is something that runs deep in me. But for most of the people on the planet, most all of the time, I can only imagine that the natural response to such desiderata would be feh and double feh. Not when they’d get in the way of the effortless parking, the professionally-built lattes and the RFID-badged security.
No, my best guess is that an overwhelming majority of people on Earth would give their eyeteeth to live in a place like this. Who am I to quibble?
It means 4ever and that’s a mighty long time
Atop one of the larger buildings of central Seoul, there’s (inevitably) a huge, brilliant video billboard advertising one of Doosan’s peers among the chaebol – Samsung, if memory serves. And just as inevitably, it bears a slogan in English: Happy Forever.
These words in this particular conjunction strike me, of course, as Orwellian, even creepily Stepfordian. They all-but-literally send a chill running down my spine. Above and beyond that, when I honestly try to imagine it, a state of being “happy forever” strikes me as something impractical, even undesirable – although, again, figuring out just why this is certainly falls under the heading of “my issue.” I believe three things, though: these words accurately capture a mass aspiration in the contemporary Korean soul. They’re meant literally. And they’re meant seriously.
Flipping through the Cyworld sites of our Korean friends and acquaintances, what strikes me is how very often the English word “happy” appears as both a description and an ambition. “Happy” seems to be, to these particular Koreans, what “dream” was to so many of the Japanese folks I knew in my time in Tokyo. But where “dream” generally suggests a state that’s aspirational, if not eternally deferred, “happy” is a state that someone might reasonably expect to achieve in the course of ordinary existence. The new wrinkle is the “forever” part, but that’s something the chaebol seem to have a bead on, at least in its temporal aspects.
Listening to the children playing in the shelter of a pleasantly shaded courtyard here, amidst all the trappings of the Affluent Society Korean style, it’s easy to imagine that the balance of their lives will unfold as serenely and as generously as a late-spring day, in material and spiritual registers both. That the superior intelligence of the market coupled to the benign neglect of the state cannot help but converge on the optimal solution for urban living. That happiness is truly something to which one might subscribe; that most if not all will be able to do so; and that it will all last.
If only they could get the rest of the world to cooperate.