Monday, December 01, 2008

Street Selling

One of the things I like best about Korea is that almost anywhere you go here you will run into someone selling something on the street. Unlike a big city in the states most of these guys are actually selling you something you need. I live close to downtown and it was a very common sight for years to pile into an area packed with retail shops and straight down the middle cart after cart of handbag, five dollar hat, watch, cheap jewelery, and other odds and ends.

* Day or night downtown Daegu was a bustle of capitalist wonderment. That was until about six months ago when the city decided to aggressively pursue removing the street sellers from the middle of downtown.

As you can see from this picture of Dong-son-ro (the main downtown street) there are electric wires all over the middle of downtown. The city has decided to bury the wires. Burying the wires will be a good thing long term for the city. It will make power more stable during the occasional bad storm and in general make things a touch safer. The light are basically being buried straight down the middle of the strip where the sellers used to place their carts. The pros and cons weighed it makes some sense to have the sellers move to different areas while the rewiring is completed.

However the way the city implemented the plan was not just to move the sellers for a few weeks or to rotate the sellers as the work was being done. Instead the police first forcefully removed many of the sellers from the street. This means in many instances moving grandmothers and grandfathers by force away from their shops. Secondly the city decided the sellers would no longer be allowed to sell downtown. The ripple, however, has effected much of the city and fewer street sellers can be found in many areas.

In Korea the sellers provide a valuable service. While I do live in a country that is within one of the top ten economies in the world there are still more than a few people in Korea who struggle day to day. These street sellers provide access to goods at prices far below what would be found in a market making it possible for many people to go day to day and live.

As I was taking the car pool home on Friday we hit a lot of traffic right around my place. At first it just seemed like a Friday jam. Then we noticed the riot police. I see the riot police now and then since I live in the area where most protests tend to take place. City Hall is hardly a block from my front door. However this was the biggest gathering of the riot squad I had yet seen. We passed seven groups as we drove down the road to my place.

The question was "Why?"

When I got home I asked the roommate and we were able to piece together from several Korean newspapers that what was happening was a massive protest of street sellers.

Over 1,000 sellers from all over the country had descended on Daegu for a day of solidarity to protest the removal and the restrictions being placed on sales. The group had gathered to march through the city, shouting, chanting, and broadcasting their message.

My roommate offered the best thoughts on the situation. "It's kind of surreal. You have these young kids basically telling their grandparents that they can't make a living. It doesn't make sense." The kids being the council men that have forced the sellers out of downtown.

The group stopped for a short while at the park across from my house, chanting, cheering, and listening as the speaker continued to speak out against the situation. There was a palpable energy in the are as the protesters squatted around, chanting and shouting in time, often raising their fist and beating the air in short triplicates at the appropriate time. I stayed as long as I felt safe. There is a reason the riot police were out. Of course the mass number of riot police were proportional to the size of the demonstration. The police do not like to be outnumbered and this demonstration is the biggest one we have had in Daegu since the presidential demonstrations this summer.

How it will turn out is yet anyone's guess. The construction will be finished in about two months. **

*photo by DSwede, Dec. 11, 2007
** Last picture is of the movement of the riot police across the street. The riot squad was out for ten blocks total. We estimated that there were probably about fifteen hundred police on the street if not more. It was a big gathering.

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