Late on a Saturday afternoon, Itaewon was nothing like the way it is described in most Seoul tourism books.
People could be seen walking down the street in sparse numbers. Stores were almost empty. Some had gone out of business and displayed “for rent” signs in their windows.
Granted, this neighborhood is better known for its nightlife, but it was too quiet for a place once known as a “magnet” for expats and locals alike.
An owner of a souvenir shop on the neighborhood’s main street told The Korea Herald that Itaewon’s golden days were history. He was also planning his exit.
The rent was too high, but there was no sign of a pickup in sales, he explained.
“Rents soared during the (area’s) heyday about five or six years ago and haven’t come down despite slowing sales,” he said.
When he first opened the shop some 15 years earlier, he paid about 1 million to 1.5 million won a month in rent. Now, the rent is over 6 million won ($5,300).
“I just can’t afford it anymore.”
A tailor at Hilton Tailor, who has done business on Itaewon’s main street for over 40 years now, said last year’s move out of Yongsan by the US military base had dealt a severe blow to old businesses in Itaewon.
“It was not only the military personnel and their dependents. Many companies and businesses that catered to them also left Itaewon,” he said.
According to the Korea Appraisal Board, the vacancy rate for commercial spaces in Itaewon was 22 percent during the third quarter of last year, more than double the national average of 10.8 percent.
Signs of decline were even more evident on nearby Gyeongnidan-gil, a street in Itaewon 2-dong near Noksapyeong Subway Station, where a row of four stores at the very entrance of the street stood empty.
Between 2015 and 2017, when Gyeongnidan-gil was on the rise as an up-and-coming street full of hip cafes and eateries, rents surged 10.2 percent -- six times the average for all of Seoul during the same time frame, which was only 1.8 percent.
“Only a few years ago, the place was crowded with people even at this time,” a realtor there said. The sidewalks were so full of people that some even had to walk on the roadway, he added.
Shops for rent along Gyeongnidan-gil (Shin Ji-hye / The Korea Herald)
As he spoke, two girls were looking alternately at their smartphones and at the building where the realtor’s office was located. They must have been looking for a dessert cafe that was no longer in business, he said.
Daniel Tudor, the British co-founder of a beer company that started in Itaewon, said gentrification and the greed of local landlords had ruined the neighborhoods.
“Itaewon is basically nothing special anymore due to typical landlord greed,” he said.
As unique and interesting places draw people, making the neighborhood more popular, landlords raise rents so high that only big franchise chains backed by conglomerates can afford space there, he explained.
It is an all-familiar narrative of neighborhoods around the world being gentrified.
Haebangchon (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
“It feels like there is a constant chase going on. Cool and interesting businesses and people come along, they get chased out by high rent and go somewhere else, then five years later that new place goes the same way,” Tudor said.
Also, trends for hot places among young Koreans seem to change very fast nowadays, he added.
Not all of Itaewon and Gyeongnidan-gil seemed doomed to disappear. Some stores -- both new and old -- were drawing crowds.
In the middle of Gyeongnidan-gil, dozens of young people were waiting their turns to visit the Winnie the Pooh pop-up store, opened by Walt Disney last month.
People wait in line outside a Winnie the Pooh pop-up store on Gyeongnidan-gil. (Shin Ji-hye / The Korea Herald)
The store, which has many hashtags on Instagram, was full of young people looking around at the character merchandise and having coffee with dessert.
A pizza place in Itaewon was also packed with guests from early evening.
“Thankfully, we still have many customers, both foreigners and Koreans. They seem to hear about us through word of mouth,” said the owner, who had opened the restaurant seven months earlier after running a pizza store in the US for more than 30 years.
But reviving Itaewon’s past glory will take more than individual efforts, said Ryan Kim, an associate director at the commercial real estate services firm CBRE Korea. It will take the combined efforts of the local government, developers and landlords, as well as tenant businesses, he said.
Jason Yun, Retail COO at Cushman & Wakefield Korea, suggested that a more flexible and diversified rent structure could benefit both landlords and tenants.
“For instance, landlords can lower fixed rental fees and instead they can get more sales commission when business goes well. Such ways can give more financial stability to both landlords and tenants,” he said.
By Shin Ji-hye (firstname.lastname@example.org)