Ants on the March: Redeveloping Old Seoul

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Perched on a hill in northwest Seoul is an aerie of winding alleyways and simple stone homes inhabited by around 400 souls. Residents call this time warp Gaemi Maeul (Village of Ants) — a reference to the stoic work habits of the locals. Most are elderly but maintain a community spirit from decades ago, when the South Korean capital was home to many shantytowns like this.

Driven out of other neighborhoods by development, Gaemi Maeul's founders started squatting on this hill during the late 1950s, pitching tents and later erecting more stable dwellings. While developers eventually razed similar settlements throughout Seoul, Gaemi Maeul was left mostly untouched, thanks to a moratorium on the construction of hillside high-rises. Today, it is one of the country's last daldongne, or moon villages, a poetic nickname for squatter settlements said to have good views of the moon by virtue of being built on higher ground. Art students have brightened up the crumbling gray structures with murals, and Gaemi Maeul is a perennially popular location for filmmakers and the nostalgic.

Not for long, however. The building restrictions were repealed in 2007, and since then speculators have been quietly buying up Gaemi Maeul's empty houses. Galleries and espresso bars have gradually encroached upon adjacent neighborhoods, and change is inevitable. The residents are mostly relieved. "Of course we're losing some of our history," says Jeong Soh-won, 14, one of the neighborhood's handful of teenagers, "but this level of poverty should not exist in Seoul today."

Those interested in a glimpse of mid-20th century Seoul will enjoy visiting this unique enclave while it's in its original form. Take metro line 3 to Hongje Station, leave the station at exit No. 2 and board bus No. 7 to the last stop.

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