Seoul Public Places: What’s Missing?

What’s missing in this photo? Maybe you say — “nothing, looks fine to me.” This is a public underpass under a busy intersection (so Koreans in a hurry don’t have to wait for the traffic light to turn, and they’re always in a hurry). I was dumbstruck, though, at the absence of common sights in America:

  • Advertising (and the Koreans aren’t slow to advertise) and wall posters in this public space
  • No handbills advertising other “services”
  • No trash, and no trash cans (in fact, there aren’t public trash cans anywhere in Seoul)
  • No homeless people camped out to spend the night.

If I were in Denver (where I’m from), or New York City, or almost any other sizable city in America, all those would be present. I have yet to see someone rifling through trash cans. In fact, trash disposal in this huge city is tightly regulated — food waste in one bag, recycling in another, and then, finally, landfill. Recycling takes up most of the bags outside our apartment. There are no trash cans for people just walking by: take it home and dispose of it properly.

In America, the city government would be raising money by selling space to advertisers. There is certainly plenty of that on all public transportation, signs on buildings, billboards and LED displays. Koreans aren’t shy about advertising and consumer culture! And no handbills here, though handbills advertising gyms and makeup and yoga proliferate on every lamppost and telephone pole elsewhere. But not here, in this underpass.

And finally, this space in America would be full of homeless people, sleeping, camped out, dumpster diving, begging. None of that here: I’ve become so used to it in America that the absence of it here, in this obviously public place, completely stymied me. I have never seen a homeless person in Seoul. I have seen people scrounging in construction debris and recycling — that’s a common practice. But those people are clean and obviously looking for something they can fix/repair/use parts from. I’ve only seen two beggars at all at the subway station — an older man in a wheelchair, and a blind woman who walks the subway cars from one end to another, every day. That’s not true in the America I know!

Here’s the only sign posted in this underpass: it says the name of the place, and contact numbers for fire, electrical, or cleaning. That’s all.

What does this say about Seoul, Korea, and US cities by contrast? Well, in Seoul, they’re really clean and organized, sanitized even. People behave themselves according to the rules of the culture. And everyone — everyone! — works, even the old people who just sweep the gutters and pick up the leaves as they fall from the trees along the boulevard. All the public places are clean. There is no litter on the streets, anywhere.

Obviously the Korean culture is very different from American culture, and has its weaknesses. But I always have liked clean . . .