Home to an ever-evolving food scene, a thriving LGBTQ culture, a vast array of places of worship and what is perhaps one of the world’s wildest public Halloween celebrations, Itaewon stands out in highly homogeneous Korea as a hub of multiculturalism and diversity.
Situated near the US Army Garrison Yongsan, Itaewon has been a playground for American soldiers from the early days of the Korean War. Although the presence of the Army certainly played an influential role in the Westernisation of Itaewon, it was the nation’s exposure to external influences during the Seoul Olympic Games in 1988 that enabled significant changes in the neighbourhood.
As time went on, international restaurants and markets began opening their doors to cater to the tastes of the rapidly growing number of neighbourhood residents made up of foreign diplomats, English teachers and migrant workers.
Unbound by the norms of Korean conservative culture, Itaewon today is awash with concerts and clubs, bars and boutiques, faith and freedom. To better understand it, we asked four locals what they like most about the neighbourhood.
Actor in the popular Netflix drama Itaewon Class, Chris Lyons explains that what makes Itaewon so special is “how so many cultures can come together into one place to form such a unique amalgamation that still does justice to their respective backgrounds.”
“Coming from the United States, I grew up hearing how much of a melting pot the US is,” he says. “While that’s not untrue, everything is marketed to fit the American perspective. In Itaewon, that simply isn’t the case. Walk down the street at any time of the day, and you’re bound to hear three or four different languages on your way to that restaurant you looked up online. The food is not watered down to meet your culturally conditioned taste buds. Sit down to a lamb sandwich identical to what you might get in Morocco and walk down the street to enjoy authentic Italian cuisine. The authenticity is probably what I love the most about the place.”
“Itaewon is home to one of the two largest gay districts of Seoul,” says artist and queer social activist Heezy Yang (also known by his drag queen alter ego “Hurricane Kimchi”). “The less conservative and culturally more diverse area provided unique experiences and a sense of freedom for me.”
“When I was younger, I felt lost and confused in Korea’s conservative society – one that didn’t leave much room for freedom and acceptance of differences. Itaewon helped me figure out who I was and where I wanted to go with my life. While Itaewon is losing part of its old charm due to gentrification, its gay scene and LGBTQ scene in general are getting bigger so quickly. For these reasons, I felt welcomed and at home in Itaewon 10 years ago, and I still feel welcomed there just as much now.”
Wahid Naciri, owner of popular restaurants Casablanca Sandwicherie and Morococo Café, feels that Itaewon is a place that fosters fellowship. “The sense of community is probably what fascinates me the most about this neighbourhood,” he says. “Even with the constant flow of people coming and leaving, it’s like everyone has agreed on this unwritten promise to take care of one another.”
Painter and designer Da In Kim feels that the vibrancy and diversity of the neighbourhood cultivates a vibe that is creative and inspirational.
“Itaewon’s residents and visitors from all over the world provide a unique chance to connect with different people and try different food. This multicultural feeling is what I like most about the neighbourhood, and other artists and creatives might be similarly inspired by that. It has a bit of that grimy New York City energy!”