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[Op-Ed] Preserving Pimatgol

Posted October. 20, 2009 09:16,   


Most famous European cities are divided into two sections – the old city and new city. Tourists find allies of the old city who preserve the past and history especially attractive. They feel as if they are in a time machine going back to the past. Though Seoul has been the capital for 600 years, it has few traces of the past – old palaces, the traditional gates of Namdaemun and Dongdaemun, and the Korean Folk Village. Seoul has lost the scent of its past due to the Korean War and rapid industrialization and urbanization. When looking at Seoul at top of Namsan, the apartment forest on both sides of the Han River seems so monotonous.

The narrow alley behind buildings on the large street from Jongno 1-ga to Jongno 4-ga has been called Pimatgol since the Joseon Dynasty. Pimatgol means a road where laypeople walked to avoid aristocrats, who often used horses or palanquins. Many restaurants and bars existed there for merchants or ordinary people to stop by. Today’s Pimatgol was created after the Korean War. Many older people have fond memories of drinking and eating grilled fish or pajeon, or a pancake-like Korean dish, with friends.

Many Koreans lament the disappearance of Pimatgol, where the happiness and suffering of the people meshed, after the Jongno area began redevelopment in the early 2000s. The wooden signboard reading “Pimatgol” on the red door of the first floor of Le Meilleur building in Jongno 1-ga seems to miss the past. Many restaurants got new spots in the rebuilt buildings but fail to give the same impression or taste as before. Prices have risen due to expensive rent and the humble environment of the past cannot be found in the sophisticated interior.

The Seoul city government will preserve Pimatgol as is. It plans to revive the charm of the past by getting rid of electric poles, burying electrical cords, and redesigning messy signboards. Though belated, the move is timely given that the city brushed off criticism of reckless development and ignoring the traditions and unique features of the capital. Hopefully, the tradition of Pimatgol can be revived in areas where redevelopment has not yet been implemented. Stories of Pimatgol and food can be a proud source of cultural tourism.

Editorial Writer Kwon Sun-taek (maypole@donga.com)