Prospective shoppers pass by one of downtown Seouls countless convenience stores. Photo: Tom Coyner

This year’s Academy Awards Best Picture winner Parasite introduced the world to two very distinct Seoul communities. However, Bong Joon-ho’s black comedy was not designed to be realistic, and there is much more to South Korea’s capital than the neighborhoods of the very rich and very poor.

First-time visitors are often surprised as Seoul’s size. The population of the metro area is almost 10 million, larger even than New York City’s 8.6 million.

Seoul and its surrounding areas – such as the port city of Incheon, the electronics hub of Suwon and various modern dormitory towns that have sprung up on its outskirts – are home to half of South Korea’s 51 million people.

The full extent of this vast megacity cannot be seen from any one, single vista – even from the summits of the mountains that backdrop Seoul.

The city consists of many and varied neighborhoods of all classes of people. This collection of images does not concentrate on Seoul’s tourism sites and districts, and does not capture Seoul’s most obvious, obtrusive (and dull) architectural feature, its ubiquitous and endless apartment clusters.

Nor does it depict the very wealthy or the very poor. Rather, it looks at the bourgeoisie – the class to which most Koreans believe they belong, in spite of wide disparities in wealth – in a handful of low-rise districts. 

All the depicted neighborhoods are in Gangbok – meaning literally, river, north – located north of the Han River which bisects the city. Gangbok is the more traditional half of Seoul, as opposed to the newer Gangnam, literally, river, south, below the Han.

Not only do the neighborhoods vary in appearance, but also their denizens, whose appearances and demeanors reflect their ages, lifestyles, outlooks and well being. 

On a technical note, several of the photos below are collages of multiple images photographed on a tripod to capture the widest possible variety of people in a single location. 

Chungshin/Naksan Village, located near the crest of the large hill that once made up the eastern defense of Joseon Seoul. In recent years, this area has become popular with couples who stroll the streets, located above the popular Daehagno entertainment district and just below verdant Naksan Park. Photo: Tom Coyner
An elderly lady sits outside a shop selling ice-cream and cool drinks in Chungshin. Photo: Tom Coyner
Street life in Jongno, one of the most traditional retail centers in downtown Seoul. In the evenings, it is a popular destination for people who wish to re-experience, often via al fresco dining, the Seoul of the 1960s through the 1980s. Photo: Tom Coyner
A traveling salesman wheels his wares through a Jongo back alley, past street diners. Photo: Tom Coyner
A garbage collector hard at work in Seocheon, just west of the central Gyeongbok Palace and southwest of the presidential Blue House. Photo: Tom Coyner
A man jogs through Seocheon, a once sleepy neighborhood that has become a lively community and popular entertainment district during the last decade. It is also popular with hikers after their descent from neighboring Inwangsan mountain to the west. Photo: Tom Coyner
Passers-by in Bukchon (North Village). At the end of the street is the well-regarded Seoul Jungang High School. When the late President Park Chung-hee’s son attended the school, the dictator thought it unbecoming for his son to commute along a traditional lane. So the lane was widened with western-style buildings replacing traditional dwellings on both sides of the street. Even so, the neighborhood still retains some traditional charm.  Photo: Tom Coyner

For a more extensive collection of Tom Coyner’s images, please visit: https://seoulman.smugmug.com/Other/Korean-Neighborhoods/)


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