The Downfall of the Capital City

Featured image: Cheonggyecheon gentrification mapping workshop, Listen to the City, 2017.

I was born and raised in a capital city (Amsterdam), have always lived in capital cities (London, Seoul, Taipei), and expected I would continue to do so. I’m a cultural omnivore and food snob, and (ignorantly, I admit) thought the top-notch cultural and gastronomical offerings were only to be found in cosmopolitan cities.

Two years ago, I moved to a smaller, more rurally located city and realized how much the quality of my life increased. It suddenly became clear to me that capital cities are mostly overcrowded and overpriced; the quality of the air is terrible and you waste too much time on transportation. Though ideas may sprout, they can hardly be developed and reflected upon as everyone is busy-busy-busy trying to survive. I decided I would enjoy capital cities like one enjoys Uber or AirBnB: with no permanent commitment, temporarily making use of these services and amenities when I need them.

But a burning question kept haunting me: Have I given up on cities too soon?

I don’t seem to be the only one being pulled to the periphery. When I re-visited Seoul recently, I saw an exhibition in MMCA, the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, which showed works by the nominees for the Korea Artists Prize, including Okin Collective.

Okin Collective is a group of artists – Joungmin Yi, Hwayong Kim, and Shiu Jin – whose work often poses critical questions about contemporary Korean urban society. The collective was named after the Okin apartment complex in Jongno-gu, Seoul, where their first project was held and from where a group of residents got evicted in 2009. The exhibition included a film about artists moving from Seoul to Incheon, a bordering city where the main airport is located. The film follows an interesting group conversation where the artists explain why they traded Seoul for Incheon, and how this decision influences their lives and artistic practice. The reasons vary from “I feel less poor here” to “I just wanted to see the sea.”

Searching for Revolution, or Its contrary, single channel video, Okin Collective, 2018.

For so many artists (and non-artists), Seoul is becoming too expensive. It is a fast growing beast; the greater metropolitan area is already home to 25 million people. This population explosion forces us to reckon with gentrification and more specifically, with the ironic relationship between artists and gentrification.

You don’t have to have read Richard Florida to know that artists are often used to make a depressed area more attractive. Artists are offered affordable studios in exchange for their artistic sex-appeal. Then once the value of the property has gone up, they have to pack their bags and move further out to the fringe to gentrify another area. This phenomenon is happening all over the world and creates a tension between locals and “cheap-rent seeking artists.” However, both groups are victims of the same developers and real estate market.

A spring maker who has worked in Cheonggyecheon since 1974. Photo by Listen to the City.

A striking example of the threat of gentrification in Seoul is the Euljiro neighborhood, which is home to a lively artist community as well as some 50,000 tradespeople who sell objects you didn’t even know existed. All kinds of manufacturing parts can be found here: from tiny bolts to endless varieties of wiring. Euljiro tradespeople essentially made the postwar economic boom possible (called “Miracle on the Han” – after the river that flows through Seoul) by providing parts to build everything from phones to boats.

A craftsman who has worked in Cheonggyecheon since the 1970s. Photo by Listen to the City.

In October 2018, it was announced that the intricate ecosystem of small businesses that make up Euljiro will be replaced by swanky apartment and office buildings. Also art collective Listen to the City is located in Euljiro and yet again it is the artists standing up to developers in an attempt to save the neighborhood. They have been co-organising anti-eviction marches and protests. Listen to the City and several artists and designers have set up an organization called “Cheonggyecheon Euljiro Anti-gentrification Alliance”, organizing rallies and debates including an online poster protest. Over 100 designers have uploaded their posters against the redevelopment.

Destruction of Cheonggyecheon. Photo by Listen to the City.

It’s not the first time this has happened: the traditional market was wiped out to make space for Zaha Hadid’s Dongdaemun Design Plaza, for example, and whole communities were evicted for the Olympics and for the making of the Cheonggye stream, an artificial stream that runs through the city. On numerous occasions, Listen to the City has staged artistic interventions to address these evictions, often having to face thugs. They have produced Urban Film Festivals, published a Sustainable Event Manual (on how to organize an event responsibly), organized food sharing days and feminist urban planning seminars, as well as presented exhibitions.

These are the people who inspire me, the people who have not given up on their cities and never will. And that’s exactly what still lures me to cities: the fact that they attract diversity and convene incredible talents and energies. If these heroes get priced out (or worse, beaten out), that last bit of appeal might be lost forever and our cities will be nothing more than expensive and soulless places.

(Top image: A protest march with artists and mechanics carrying posters from the online poster protest. By Ueta Jiro , February 18, 2019.)


Curator Yasmine Ostendorf (MA) has worked extensively on international cultural mobility programs and on the topic of art and environment for expert organizations such as Julie’s Bicycle (UK), Bamboo Curtain Studio (TW) Cape Farewell (UK) and Trans Artists (NL). She founded the Green Art Lab Alliance, a network of 35 cultural organizations in Europe and Asia that addresses our social and environmental responsibility, and is the author of the series of guides “Creative Responses to Sustainability.” She is the Head of Nature Research at the Van Eyck Academy (NL), a lab that enables artists to consider nature in relation to ecological and landscape development issues and the initiator of the Van Eyck Food Lab.


Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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