www.groovekorea.com / July 2014 40 In spring 2011, legendary Korean pop-sing- er and producer JYP released “Itaewon Free- dom,” a fun, retro parody tune about partying in Itaewon. The lyrics, all in Korean, describe a freer, alternative neighborhood where every- one can go. Less crowded than Gangnam or Hongdae, more exciting than Sinchon, it had something for all tastes. Suddenly, residents and local businesses began to see a huge influx of Korean patrons to what were once expat stomping grounds. But with Itaewon’s increasing populari- ty, rents throughout the neighborhood have been skyrocketing; according to one anony- mous source, in the alley behind the Hamilton, which has recently seen massive remodeling, they have doubled in the past year. “Which is going to be very difficult for the foreign restau- rants. All of them are going to move away.” He sighs. “The profit is not here anymore.” Paul Matthews, the British actor, likes the gentrification, but says, “It means I may have to leave.” The landlord is trying to sell the building Matthews lives in, and once that hap- pens, it’s not likely he’ll be able to afford the new rent. “Our area used to be a very family-friendly, lovely little community with a rice shop and a butcher and dry cleaner’s,” Matthews says. “It was a really nice place to live in and hang around. And one by one those places are dis- appearing.” One long-term resident, who asked to re- main anonymous, said, “I hate that Itaewon has become cool with Koreans because of some stupid song, yet they wouldn’t step foot in the ‘hood 10 years ago. From what I under- stand, foreigners have been living in Itaewon for more than 700 years, yet on a Saturday afternoon I’m stared at like a weird animal in a zoo.” Michael Hurt, a longtime expat, sees a “theme park of difference.” He says Koreans are coming in because it’s now considered cool to do things outside of their cultural com- fort zone. “Now Itaewon is a direct place to do that. Now you can go eat your good, real Italian pasta, play the ice cream game with the Turkish guy, and then go home and not see those people again,” he says. The biggest fear of all is that Itaewon will just become another trendy neighborhood, anoth- er long line of fancy cafe chains and cosmet- ics stores, says McPherson. Itaewon’s “new trendiness has raised the rents, pushing out the businesses that made it special in the first place,” he says. Gangnam’s Garosu-gil was once a street of unique restaurants and cafes. But once it became trendy, “all those restau- rants were replaced with Caffe Benes and Faceshops. The same is starting to happen to Itaewon.” He believes that Itaewon is different and needs to stay different. “For a city the size of Seoul, it suffers from an embarrassing lack of cosmopolitan diversity. It’s the largest small town in the world,” says McPherson. “Imagine McDonald’s, Starbucks and Subway taking over all the authentic restaurant space in LA’s Koreatown and San Francisco’s Chinatown. Unique cultural e nclaves hold great value to cities and should be recognized.” Zwetsloot points to Hongdae as an example of what’s going on in Itaewon. “Go to Hong- dae now, the rent can only be afforded by companies. It’s become a corporate place,” he says. “And the real Hongdae has moved to the back streets.” The popularity of Itaewon has spread to neighboring Haebangchon, which is no longer the place for North Korean refugees — now it’s filled with trendy restaurants that get high- lighted on Korean TV programs. Gyeongnidan, down the hill from Noksapy- eong station, was once a cheaper, less trendy alternative to Itaewon as well. But accord- ing to restaurant owner Daniel Tudor, that’s changed too. “Gyeongnidan is booming now, and becom- ing corporate, sadly,” Tudor says. He originally opened The Booth in the neighborhood be- cause it was cheaper than Itaewon. But now, “we’ve got chaebol-owned cafes, queues out- side every bar or restaurant, and even those red-jacketed tourist information volunteers wandering around. From a purely selfish per- spective, it’s good for business, but we hope the area doesn’t end up going over the top like Garosu-gil.” Even Hooker Hill is being gentrified, Zwet- sloot notes. After a fire burned down a bunch of juicy bars in 2011, they weren’t replaced by more juicy bars — now there’s a hotel for Chi- nese tourists. When Hooker Hill is gentrified, he says, “the old Itaewon is just about gone.” Out with the old Edited by Elaine Ramirez (elaine@groovekorea.com) COvER STORY