Cover image: STAR MOVIE, now living only in ghost form on Streetview

To the woman who used to own the DVD rental store down the block,

Our family has been here a decade and you had been there for longer. By how much, I would not know. In my memory, your gray hair and gap-toothed smile was the same when I first moved here, an eight-year-old who didn’t know what an iPhone was, or Facebook. I did know what DVDs were. To run down with three 1000-won notes crumpled in my hand to pick out the odd Christmas movie or action flick was an errand I gladly volunteered for.

A millennium baby, I grew up clutching the coattails of the last generation that spent a childhood without smartphones. My elementary school days were colored with games of ddakji and gonggi and yes, DVDs.

Then middle school came with all the middle-school horrors and the ability to stream any movie I wanted on a screen right in front of me.  Three thousand won was cheap but zero was cheaper. Down the block was easy but my computer was easier. I think it was around this time you started selling ice cream on the side, so I still had reason to see you regularly, even until I graduated from high school. I didn’t think much of this. You were still the DVD store lady, even if I never went to you for a DVD. I didn’t think much of the fact that I probably wasn’t the only one who didn’t need DVDs anymore. 

I used to buy three chocolate ice creams daily back when I was chubbiest. When I didn’t have money on me you always let me take the ice cream and pay later. Even as everything else in the city became digitized, you never got a credit card reader. You witnessed our family change—when Mom and I moved abroad for a year, when Milton left for mandatory military service, and when I told you I was going to America to study. That I wouldn’t be seeing you again for a while.

Today I rode the subway home from the airport in a giddy rush, and on my walk from the station, I savored the crisp, sub-zero air that finally made winter real. I had just completed my first quarter of college in California, where temperatures do not dip dramatically and the passage of time is not knocked into your bones through heat and cold. Despite all my complaints about my hometown, I love how it feels when I turn a corner from the skyscrapers and am suddenly met with an alley of small businesses.

But you were gone.

In your place was a spotless, spacious convenience store that had been expanding its branches recently. I never got to say goodbye to you. I had only been gone three months, and it’s as if you were never even there. The city is morphing asymptotically towards a perfectly clean, streamlined, and tech-based future, and you were not a part of that image nor a part of the excited conversation that created that image, just as DVDs were not. I guess I’ll have to resort to ripoff convenience store ice cream this coming summer. I wonder how much time you had spent trying to hold onto your store. I wonder how long it took you to move out. I wonder how far away you are now.

Dad used to tell me most of Seoul is not beautiful because it developed so quickly. Apartment complexes rise from the dust. The dust rises from destruction of what was previously there. Historians call it miracle on the Han River, and I suppose growth is better than decay as prosperity is better than starvation, but once a historical hanok village is knocked down, there is no getting it back. Most of Seoul is not beautiful because it developed so quickly, which is to say, most of Seoul is not beautiful because it could not keep up with its own creation, with its constant birthing of itself.

One-of-a-kind eateries and corner shops in Itaewon begin to close down as rent doubles through the decades. An HBC (Haebangchon) bartender recounts how she has seen businesses close in rapid succession in the last five years, as landlords hike up the rent and leave spaces vacant until someone that can afford its spot moves in. By the time the lease is up, rent will have skyrocketed again. Garosu-gil is far from the quiet art and style hub it once was, now a rich girl haven of name-brand cosmetic stores lining a polished street. We’ve seen this happen before. It’s a constant chase. Money soon catches up to cool, and pushes it out.

I am only eighteen. I should be too young to be nostalgic for any city’s past. But with this pace of change, I’m already starting to be.

Our part of the city is not the kind that gets gentrified. It is what other parts start looking like once they are gentrified. But there was still room for “development”. I appreciated your presence a mere 5-minute walk away from one of the biggest malls in this country, right between the town butcher and local barbershop, and our less-than-pristine alley is what I call home, not the skyscrapers around the corner. I’m sure I’ll end up frequenting the convenience store that airbrushed over you so quickly. But it will be a reminder that while I was drunk on insulated happiness in America, bodies and livelihoods were being lifted from their places in my city.