Category Archives: Metropolis of the Month

Five Days of Seoul: A UHA Travelogue in the South Korean Capital

After the Korean War, Seoul, South Korea probably wouldn’t have been listed as an ideal destination for summer travelers. U.S. occupation, the burdens of a civil war that cost nearly 375,000 Korean civilian lives (to say nothing of the 138,000 Korean soldiers who perished), and persistent food shortages amidst the wreckage of conflict did not make for a prime vacation spot. “Most of Seoul lay in ruins,” Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Malcolm W. Browne remembered in his 1993 memoir, Muddy Boots and Red Socks. “The poverty was ubiquitous and obtrusive, and there was a constant danger of losing a wallet or camera to thieves.” Decades of military rule followed as did the eventual transformation to a more democratic government in the 1980s and 1990s (it’s obviously much more complicated than this but hey we’re traveling here; plus you can always check out our bibliography/overview and Russell Burge’s piece on student politics for more info!). Today, Seoul residents and South Koreans more generally wrestle with the existential threat of nuclear annihilation, so to describe the city’s inhabitants as resilient seems to be underselling their collective courage in the face of very real geopolitical struggle.

Notice the giant Kung Fu Panda in the middle. For a city under constant threat, there remains a certain playfulness at heart

Particularly, over the past decade and a half, South Korea has emerged as an economic and cultural power not only in Asia but the world. K-Pop produces chewy, delicious pop songs sung around the world. PSY’s “Gangnam Style” obliterated the pop charts in the most unpredictable of ways. (Who knew a Korean rapper dancing like a pony and mocking the city’s more fashionable citizens could capture the world’s imagination?) Stephen Colbert made frequent references to the Korean pop star Rain on his now defunct Comedy Central Show; Korean soap operas captivate Asia, and if one asks my younger sister, parts of America as well. (A thumbnail encapsulation of a typical plot usually consists of a young girl torn between loving a “bad boy” and a more wholesome rival, while at some point an older Korean lady screams at her for something – I’m simplifying here, maybe even making things up). Rising incomes and changing beauty standards – shaped by factors too complex to discuss here – have made Seoul an East Asian hot spot for plastic surgery.


Not long ago (though in today’s media environment it feels like decades), the New York Times focused on the South Korean capital in its “36 Hours” travel column, highlighting, among other aspects of the city, the Cheonggyecheon Stream: a “ribbon of water” that has flowed through the city for centuries, but had become polluted and covered by a highway. Approximately ten years ago, city officials decided to reclaim the park through urban renewal projects and it now stands as a testament to these efforts as Koreans and tourists take in its pleasures for miles. Los Angeles might take note considering its own efforts with the L.A. River. Sitting just below street level, it even escapes the sounds of the bustling city such that “you can hear birds chirping in the trees,” writes the Times. Note however, when it rains heavily the stream is closed for fear of flooding.












Like many East Asian and Southeast Asian cities, Seoul has existed for centuries. The layering of old and new is not as pronounced as in places like Bangkok, but it’s there. One can hike along the old fortressed walls of the city or visit the various gates that once controlled entrance into Seoul. They are all embedded in the modern landscape.  Still, the city feels ultra modern. At night , the buildings are sometimes lit up with cartoon characters. The subway goes pretty much everywhere and unlike in Washington D.C. or New York the trains arrive often and remain largely spotless.


You see fewer and fewer of these more traditional homes around the city, but if you know where to look, such as in Bukcon Hanok Village neighborhood, they are there. To read contributor Jieheerah Yun’s great piece about these homes, click here




The airport could not be more 21st century – it even includes a hotel for layovers and countless food options. Traveling in Asia, one wonders just what Asians might think of American airports like say, LaGuardia. The word “third world” comes to mind, but I digress.




Food in Seoul is, unsurprisingly, delicious. While Korean food is spicy, it’s not nearly as spicy as Thai cuisine, which might literally burn a hole in your stomach. Obviously, Korean BBQ can be had throughout the metropolis, though keep in mind it tends to be pricier than many other food options. Bibimbap, for example, is cheaper and ubiquitous. Seoul offers exactly what one would expect of it. You have food markets like Gwangjang market, where every iteration of street meat and beyond lay at your greedy little fingertips.

Then again, the American presence casts a cultural influence as well. Coffee shops abound, which according to one guide can be largely attributed to American G.I.’s who helped popularize the beverage. Italian food, pizza, numerous other western cuisines, and even beer and fried chicken (a tradition known as chi-maek) can be found all over the city. As in the U.S., craft beer now enjoys a burgeoning following; make no mistake, Koreans dig beer.


Gwangjang Market at midday




A Bit of the Old 

More than a few palaces populate Seoul. The peninsula’s long history and the various dynasties that ruled over it have resulted in a great deal of historic architecture. Arguably the grandest example of Seoul’s palaces is Gyeongbokgung Palace, the largest of the Josean Dynasty’s five “Grand Palaces.”  As with nearly every destination in Seoul, it is easily accessible via subway.  Admittedly, the palace has gone through various incarnations including abandonment, destruction (Imperial Japan did not view it kindly), and reconstruction (it’s been gradually rebuilt over the past two decades). The palace grounds include the National Museum of the Korean Palace and the National Folk Museum.


Looking out onto modern Seoul from its ancient past




Just one example of a palace interior









Numerous shrines also dot the city. The Jongmyo Royal Shrine, which consists of several buildings and houses the “spiritual tablets” of the Joseon Dynasty Kings and their “Queen Consorts,” serves as just one affordably priced and attractive example. The English-language tour only takes an hour.









The Quirky 

Like anywhere else, you discover the quirkier aspects of the city as you travel around its neighborhoods.


To paraphrase Mr. Hand of “Fast Times at Ridgemont High Fame“: “Aloha means hello and goodbye.”



Brush your teeth like a superhero?



Curb your pet … or don’t?!


What up dog?!


Leeum Samsung Museum of Art, located not far from the dog statues above in Hannam-dong Yongan-Gu, Seoul is worth a trip. The museum intertwines antiquities with modern art pretty effectively and is curated very well.


Like many ultra modern cities, Seoul features a great deal of unique architecture. French architect Dominique Perrault designed this campus center at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. By embedding it in the ground, the campus maintains a pastoral landscape despite being in the middle of the city. According to Perrault, it enables Ewha to grow both “outward and inward.”


This is what Perrault calls the “The Valley” which according to the architect, provides a space that is “many things at once.”




Beyond Seoul


Suwon as seen from its central train station


One need not be hemmed in by the city. About twenty miles south of Seoul, Suwon provides a pleasant day trip. You can take a train from main station in Seoul and be there in forty minutes. In addition to being the spiritual home of Samsung, Suwon offers a glimpse into its growth over time. Visitors can hike the walls of its Hwaseong fortresses to get views of the city and a sense of how much Suwon has grown.


Fortress view of Suwon


Walking the main fortress wall in Suwon


One can also check out the life of the nation’s yeoman farmers and artisans in its Korean Folk Village (technically located in Yongin about a thirty minute cab ride from the Suwon train station) which recreates village living and culture from earlier eras.


The Korean Folk Village in Yongin


While wandering around and checking out traditional Korean animal husbandry might be of great interest to some readers, the best part of the village is its daily performances. Some touch on more modern themes like Korean hip hop, but we caught a more traditional rendition that combined Korean village life, a 1970s vibe, and Dr. Seuss (check out the pretty amazing headdress donned by everyone in the video, but especially the leader; one wonders if Seuss didn’t crib from Korea in his work). In terms of swing, I’m amazed it hasn’t been co-opted by an entrepreneurial rap artist.



Suwon Train Station at Sunset


For the more daring, or really anyone willing to embark on a 10 hour round trip car ride to the South, you can explore earlier South Korean dynasties before the peninsula’s unification, such as that of the Silla Kingdom, at the Gyeongju National Museum and nearby Bulguksa Temple, Seokguram Grotto, and Cheonmachong (heavenly horse tomb, which can be accessed via Tumuli Park). We required a guide for this. The ten hour round trip from Seoul left plenty of time for shooting the breeze, which unfortunately for us involved being subjected to (admittedly reasonable) questions regarding the 2016 presidential election campaign that was just heating up. Our guide, a retired bank executive, asked simply: “What’s up with the whole Donald Trump thing?” and “Why does everyone in America have a gun?” Fair questions with hard answers; in light of recent events perhaps even more difficult to answer now.  I’ll leave broader discussions of such things to the readers.



Seokguram Grotto, which houses one of the world’s ancient Buddha’s; unfortunately photos are forbidden inside the grotto




Bulguksa Temple, built in the 6th century, is considered a highpoint of Buddhist doctrine







The not actually royal bathroom


Back to Square One

If you have more time to spare, I’d recommend an urban hike. We stayed in Namdaemun, at a hotel named Frasier Place (highly recommended, book early for a discount and make sure you reserve the larger rooms; you get a lot more space for a few more bucks, plus laundry machines). The hotel is only a 10 to 15 minute walk from the starting point of a ninety minute hike (give or take) up Namsan Mountain (north of Itaewon and the Han River). At it’s peak you’ll find the N.Seoul Tower, a city landmark, along with a small complex of restaurants and shops catering to hikers and tourist groups. Koreans take their hiking seriously, along the way you’ll see plenty of men and women decked out in spiffy hiking gear.


Walk toward the tower


Like in parts of SoCal, you’ll find outdoor exercise areas not only on hikes like this but at truck stops as well.




When you reach the summit you’ll find not only the N. Seoul Tower complex but also Christmas trees covered with locks declaring a couple’s love for one another. Romantic or, you know, just heavy?




Get Your Military History On


Outside the War Memorial of Korea


“At dawn a few days later we sailed into Inchoon Harbor in Central Korea, and my enchantment with Asia began,” wrote the aforementioned Malcolm Browne in 1993, reminiscing about his pre-journalism days as a G.I. during the Korean War. Browne had been drafted into the U.S. Army during the Korean War and like many others came to love Korea and the wider Asian world as a result. While the Korean War has faded in U.S. memory, as Vietnam sucks up much the air in terms of post- WWII military historical memory, for South Korea its legacy persists as a defining moment; the peninsula remains divided between North and South with the Demilitarized Zone as the symbol of this division.

Regrettably, due to my own stupidity, we failed to visit the DMZ, which according to all accounts is an absolutely fascinating trip for numerous reasons (it’s one of the few remaining symbols of the Cold War and, allegedly, the DMZ serves as home to an ecological system found nowhere else in the world). Granted, I have not made the trip but I would highly recommend any visitor to do so. Be sure to book a couple weeks in advance. I failed to do so and missed a prime opportunity, my one regret from the trip.




That being said, the monumental War Memorial of Korea in Seoul certainly offers a crash course in the history of the war. Its a fairly massive endeavor. Outside, one can take a tour of the various aircraft utilized in the conflict along with several monuments built to honor those who fought and died. Inside, there is no shortage of information on the war. The memorial employs a great deal of multimedia, including films and video game that are reenactments of famous battles




You’ve Got Seoul

After five days in the capital, we left for Southeast Asia; Bangkok and Chiang Mai, Thailand to be more precise. Seoul shares more in common with cities like Tokyo and perhaps Hong Kong than say Ho Chi Minh City or Bangkok, evidence of the startling diversity in Asia that too often gets collapsed by American conceptions of the continent that focus squarely on China and Japan.




The day we left, the U.K. voted to leave the European Union (#Brexit). As we waited for a shuttle to the train station to catch the express to the airport our driver spoke excitedly with a hospitality worker at our hotel and it went something like this: “Korean, Korean, Korean, “Brexit” …” a disbelieving shake of the head and a bemused/confused look shared between them.

Korea might have once been dubbed the “hermit kingdom” trapped between two colossal neighbors, but today it’s a country on the rise exerting itself culturally and economically while many western powers, like the U.K. and, judging current events, U.S. look to retreat from the global stage. If South Korea has become the cultural soul of Asia, Seoul is its modern beating heart.


Tradition Revisited: Seoul’s Makeover of Old Housing Forms

By Jieheerah Yun

Fast growing metropolises of East Asia, especially those like Shanghai and Shenzhen, are often characterized by forests of skyscrapers and residential towers. For Rem Koolhaas, this development is the future direction of urbanization, and it should be accepted as the condition of “a generic city.”[i] For others, rapid urbanization and the lack of distinct urban characteristics, including the expression of a localized architectural style, led to the discourse of identity crisis – the process moved so quickly it erased aspects of the traditional city particularly vernacular architecture which left residents and elected officials searching for an urban identity. Seoul, it seems, is not exempt from such discussions especially amid the homogenizing tendency of architectural reproduction around the world. In the economic context of being sandwiched between Chinese manufacturing industries and the innovative technologies of the U.S. and Japan, Seoul has emphasized informational technology and other forms of “soft industry.” In the context of economic and demographic growth, previously undervalued cultural resources within the capital have become evermore important. Urban planners and policy makers are eager to promote a new image of Seoul, either by resurrecting traditional forms or by redesigning modern buildings.


Figure 1a. Remodeled hanok in Bukchon, Seoul [Photos by author]
Resurrecting traditional forms in Seoul is most apparent in the remodeling of hanoks, or Korean traditional houses in the historical villages such as Bukchon (Fig 1a and 1b). Although most hanoks have disappeared from the urban setting due to the rapid pace of urban redevelopment, some have remained within the capital. With the exception of a few well-known hanoks registered as cultural artifacts, many urban hanoks were deteriorating. Yet in the new millennium, things changed, as the local government and the neighborhood associations adopted a more collaborative approach and introduced policy measures to promote the use of hanoks while enabling repairs within the interior space. The successful village regeneration project has garnered much media attention, with the Bukchon Regeneration Project winning an award from UNESCO. Soon thereafter, more urban projects following the example of Bukchon were enacted by other cities. Additionally, national and local governments began promoting research on the renovation and reinvention of the traditional housing based on contemporary demand, meaning the inclusion of air conditioning, garages, and other modern amenities.

Figure 1b. Remodeled hanok in Bukchon, Seoul [Photos by author]
This is not to say that the urban landscape of Seoul has suddenly transformed into a traditional village. Like other metropolises in East Asia, Seoul is dominated by skyscrapers and other forms of “modern” architecture. Remodeled hanoks are a rarity in in the city and can only be seen in historic neighborhoods in small numbers. Yet the “return of hanoks” is considered a very important change in the context of near-extinction of traditional homes in major South Korean cities. In June 2015, the Seoul city government issued the “Hanok Heritage Proclamation,” which detailed seven different projects to protect existing heritage sites and aid new construction of hanoks. In addition, by providing financial support for those who build new hanoks,the city established several new programs for their construction as long as the homes adhered to stylistic conventions established by the Hanok Committee, a group of experts appointed by the city. More recent experiments include Eunpyeong Hanok Village in the northern section of Seoul (fig. 2), where newly constructed hanoks in this village have larger interior spaces meant to accommodate the changing needs of occupants. The trend of remodeling hanoks has been picked up by cities in the provinces, with the consultation of National Hanok Center, a new national research institute, and the Korea Land and Housing Corporation, a state-owned enterprise. According to the report by the Architecture and Urban Research Institute (AURI), twenty-nine new hanok villages have been newly formed as of May 2016.[ii] These are newly developed villages, and are unlike the traditional villages that have long existed.

Eunpyeong Hanok Village has many remodeled hanoks, some with second floor interior spaces to accommodate contemporary lifestyles. [Photo by author]
Regarding it as an anomaly in a housing market otherwise dominated by high-rises, some may view this phenomenon as a mere fad that is unlikely to sustain itself. This is due to higher construction costs associated with building hanoks, and the relative difficulty of finding a suitable labor force. Mass production of structural elements of the hanok is much more difficult compared to detached houses made of concrete and steel, even though many R&D projects are commissioned by the state (the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport) to find ways of lowering costs and improving the comfort. In some cases, more intensive human labor is required in order to produce a more “authentic” traditional ambience. Most craft-workers of hanok specialize in cultural heritage preservation, rather than building new hanoks suitable for contemporary living. Thus, it is challenging to produce a remodeled hanok that has both an “authentic” aesthetic and good, functional performance at a reasonable cost. Admittedly, finding affordable housing in Seoul itself is challenging, but it becomes even harder if one is looking to build a remodeled hanok. So what is the reason behind the so-called “Hanok Renaissance”?[iii]

The Seoul Hanok Portal promoting the remodeled hanoks of Seoul [Source:
To answer the question, one needs to more closely delve into the prospective residents. Who are the prospective residents in remodeled hanoks? And why would they want to move into one? It is one thing for the state and local government to promote the idea of resurrected traditional houses but quite another for residents to desire them. People living in remodeled hanok dislike living in apartment complexes, and desire to live in a house that better reflects personal preferences.[iv] Although the majority of South Korean urban residents live in multifamily homes such as apartment buildings, such choices do not necessarily confirm public desires for multifamily houses. Of course, satisfying personal preference does not require a hanok, as any detached house with careful design considerations would do. Yet having traditional ambience does not hurt, and incentives provided by the local government reduce the economic burden of maintenance. Some residents are retirees, and have found deteriorating and uninhabited hanoks in rural towns that they converted into their own homes. Older people, especially boomers, have childhood memories of living in hanoks, and having fewer involved household chores. They regard the lifestyle associated with hanok living as emotionally satisfying. In such cases, nostalgia functions as an important factor. Hanoks are not exclusive to older populations, and young people also live in them.

As the Hanok Renaissance has gained momentum, some experts have expressed concern over the quality of certain remodeled hanoks—criticizing them as too experimental and not in keeping with the traditional aesthetic. Others worry that burgeoning hanok villages around the country will reduce remodeled hanoks to another standardized residential prototype, much as International Style apartment towers have become. But there are positive signs that remodeled hanoks may thrive into the future as the share of detached houses in the overall housing market has increased significantly. With the diversification of housing demand, the market share of hanoks has steadily grown. Ongoing experimentation and research exploring innovations in construction methods is being carried out by industry and academic institutions. Vigorous discussions and debates regarding how to appropriately remodel hanoks and plan hanok villages are being published in journals such as Hanok Munhwa [Hanok Culture]. While some critics point out that contemporary hanok villages lack the traditional layout of the historic hanok villages, they represent an important break from the skyscraper-dominated urban residential landscape of Seoul. Perhaps, with historic hindsight and much caution, architects and planners of contemporary South Korea may not repeat the same mistakes made by earlier generations. Yun is an assistant professor of architecture at Hongik University in Seoul, South Korea. Her recent book, Globalizing Seoul: The City’s Cultural and Urban Change, was published in February 2017

[i] Koolhaas, Rem and Bruce Mau. S,M,L,XL The Monacelli Press; 3 edition, 1997.

[ii] AURI, Hanok Village Story, AURI: Sejong, 2016. pp.57

[iii] Lee, Gilho. “2010 Hanok Runesansu Wonnyon Uro” [“2010 Hanok Renaissance’s Beginning Year”] NewDaily.

[iv] Yun, Jieheerah. “Remodeling of the Vernacular in Bukchon Hanoks” Open House International, Vol 37, No. 1, 2012: 40-47



Protest in the Streets: A Thumbnail History and Personal Account of Political Dissent in Seoul

By Russell Burge

Images of Seoul filter fitfully into American media, and when they do the city often serves as a backdrop for discussions of foreign policy or North-South Korean relations. More rarely do Americans glimpse another aspect of Seoul that South Koreans know all too well: its venerable history as a site of public protest.

This history was on vivid display in the autumn and winter of last year, as over a million people took to the streets of the city in a “candlelight vigil” to demand the resignation of President Park Geun-hye. To some, this period may already feel like a distant memory—especially following the missile crisis of 2017 and the political theater of the Pyeongchang Olympics—but in South Korea the Seoul-based demonstrations were part of a nationwide protest movement that helped accelerate the impeachment of the president and prompt a transfer of the presidency from the ruling Saenuri Party to the opposition Democratic Party of Korea.

By coincidence I was present for these protests in my first year of dissertation fieldwork, as marches overtook the city and protesters congregated in the central area of Gwanghwamun Plaza, a wide space that has come to increasingly function as a kind of town square for South Korea. In a gathering filled with music, political props, costumes, and families, protesters chanted haya, haya (“step down, step down”). Meanwhile, in a microcosm of civil society, rival protests nearby gathered under the South Korean flag and called to uphold the constitution and save the country from opposition leader Moon Jae-in, cast by some civic groups as a North Korean agent. In true South Korean fashion, both protests were lined by flanks of riot police and chabyeok, or rows of police vehicles that formed literal barriers across city streets.

Seoul Korea Kwanghwamun candle rally Dec 31 photos ops at the effigies – “Faces of Korea”, Photo by @moseka, Dec 31, 2017, courtesy of flickr

My one encounter with the riot police was both ironic and unexpected, coming as it did after I attended a student event held by Seoul National University. Having been released from the event after dark and on the wrong side of the barriers, we emerged into a neighborhood that consisted of a maze of alleyways, many of them restored to resemble a vision of Korea’s royal past. Under tiled roofs and with the guidance of police officers – many of them conscripted young men who were themselves university age – we were patiently led through the chabyeok cordon and emerged finally into the main theater of the protest, a coursing river of candlelight pulsing with music. The experience was filtered through multiple layers of protection and privilege – our affiliation with an elite South Korean university, my own identity as a white American – but still appeared quite different from the Orwellian spectacle police presented in the crackdown of the 2015 protests, when remotely manned CCTV units (part of the Seoul police force which operates under the umbrella of the National Police Agency, the KNPA) were equipped with water cannonsand pepper spray to disperse the protests in Gwanghwamun. One protester was killed; indeed, speculation over the perceived sympathy or acquiescence of the police was a major leitmotif of discourse around the candelight protests of late 2016 and early 2017.

Democratic Republican Party convention, 1967 February 2 at the Changch’ung gymnasium to select the presidential candidate : we have to select party Chairman Mr. Park Chung Hee. Photo by Minju Konghwadang, 1967, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

My own research focuses on the history of Seoul in the 1960s and 1970s, but the history of meaningful protest in the city dates back much further, and coincides with the history of Korean urbanization. Under the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) the major protest movements were agrarian. Indeed, it was a millenarian peasant-based movement that nearly toppled the monarchy and sparked the First Sino-Japanese War in 1894. Still, Seoul was at the center of many of the more raucous responses to modernity in the 1890s and played home to what writer Isabella Bird Bishop famously termed its “gusts of popular feeling.”[1]

As the extractive economies of Japanese colonialism (1910-1945) mandated the building up of ports and infrastructure, Seoul’s position at the center of an urban network only grew. It is partly for this reason that in 1919 the city became the starting point and nucleus of the most storied mass movement in Korean history: the March First Movement, a two-month-long series of protests against Japanese colonial rule that is still a major touchstone in both North and South Korean official history. The March First Movement did not end Japanese colonialism, but, after months of bloody crackdowns by colonial police, it did change its inflection and guiding policies. It even helped to inspire China’s May Fourth Movement. Thus was inaugurated a tradition of urban-based protest that continues to this day.

In 1960, urban protest toppled a sitting Korean government for the first time. The origins of these protests are complex, but the major spark came in the southeastern port city of Masan, following the death of a high school freshman at the hands of police during an anti-government protest. When the protests spread to Seoul they took on new life, as university students and faculty joined in the melee against the South Korean government. The April Revolution, as the 1960 protests came to be called, proved to have a mixed legacy. The following year military officers staged a coup by seizing the major branches of government in Seoul; the leaders also deemed their own movement a revolution, and claimed to represent the spirit of the students who had taken to the streets in 1960. Over the next two-and-a-half decades, as South Korea moved into a long period of industry-first authoritarianism, cities would become important staging grounds to express grievances and anti-government resistance. The darkest moment in this era of urban protest came in 1980, when protests in the southwestern city of Gwangju were put down with mass bloodshed at the hands of ROK armed forces.

The 1988 Olympic Games proved to be about more than just sport. Photo by Ryan Reft at the Korea Modern Design Museum in Seoul, one of the oddest museums you will ever visit, June 2016

As the Pyeongchang Olympics draw to a close, it seems timely to note that when South Korea last held the Olympics –the 1988 Seoul Summer Games – a very different kind of political theater unfolded. In the leadup to those Games millions of South Koreans took to the streets to protest the continuation of authoritarian rule by the clique led by then-president Chun Doo-hwan. With international media laser-focused on Seoul and South Korea, the Chun administration – which relied in no small part on American support for its continued existence – chose to capitulate to key demands of the democratization movement and held elections the following year. The fateful decision, still decried by hardliners on the left and the right, brought about the gradual end of authoritarian rule in South Korea and created the democratic mechanisms that govern the country today.

In 2018 the greater Seoul area is home to half of all South Koreans; by some measures, the city constitutes the second-largest metropolitan area in the world. Just as Americans have come to recognize the outsized role that rural districts and voters play in their own politics, South Koreans must contend with the outsized role of their capital city in their political discourse and protest culture. Far more than providing gusts of popular feeling, these urban spaces now help to set the national mood, and to shape the course of national and regional politics.

Featured image at top: Rally outside Seoul City Hall in commemoration of the life of Yi Hanyŏl, a Yonsei University student killed in anti-government protests. Photo from Tonga ilbo, July 9, 1987, page 10. Accessed through Seoul Photo Archive and reproduced according to the terms of the Korea Open Government License.


Kilauea PhotoRussell Burge is a PhD Candidate in the History Department at Stanford University, where he focuses on modern Korea. His dissertation examines the history of Seoul in the 1960s and 1970s.

[1] In the English-speaking expatriate community in South Korea, Bishop’s turn of phrase has been popularized by a blog of the same name by Canadian commentator Matt Van Volkenburg.

An Annotated Addendum to our Seoul Bibliography

While I’ve always hoped that I’m not the intellectual equivalent of the dullest spoon in your drawer of silverware, I’ve also always known I was not the sharpest blade in the kitchen. The former is aspirational and the latter factual, but the latter also demonstrates a valuable skill: knowing when you don’t know. Bibliographies for our Metropolis of the Month feature are always difficult; one always fears omitting some classic urban work, denying it’s author deserved public admiration and researchers a valuable source.  The reality we must all face as urbanists, however, is that no urban historian can know all cities, but collectively, with your help, we can know many of them better.

Sensing my desperation and performing the ultimate good deed, Stanford History Department PhD candidate and burgeoning Korean expert Russell Burge sent us a much appreciated addendum to our somewhat anemic bibliography. Burge provides a concise and valuable addition to our list and includes Korean language works that we regrettably ignored in our initial bibliography. Of course, Seoul being the entertainment capital of Asia, Burge included films in his list–adding to its interdisciplinary flavor.

Seoul Bibliography

Isabella Bird Bishop, Korea and Her Neighbors (1898)

14667Part of a vanished genre of English-language travelogue literature, Bishop’s book is a sprawling tour through Korea, one that moves almost seamlessly between late-Victorian chauvinism and real perceptiveness and affection for Korean geography and history. Korea and Her Neighbors is as valuable today for its colorful descriptions of Seoul as it is for capturing a way of seeing that defined early encounters between Westerners and Koreans.




Keith Pratt, Old Seoul (2002)

51DBFV6KSML._SX307_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgA loving reconstruction of Seoul as it existed on the eve of the twentieth century, this book also uses the city as a microcosm to explore the remnants and broader history of the Chosŏn Dynasty (1392-1910), the last ruling dynasty of Korea. A thoroughly engaging read for anyone who has been to Seoul and attempted to scry its past through the glass and steel palimpsests the city presents today.



Todd Henry, Assimilating Seoul (2014)

9780520293151.jpgThis book is the first of its kind: an English-language monograph of deep original research that takes up the history of Seoul as its object of study. Henry focuses on the colonial history of the city (1910-1945), and sites of encounter between Seoul’s Korean residents and the Japanese colonial state. Paradoxically, this world – with its Shinto shrines and colonial exhibition halls – appears in many ways even more distant to modern eyes than the precolonial past.

Kim Paekyŏng, Chibae wa Konggan (2009)

While English-language works on Seoul are few and far between, the opposite is true in Korean; in South Korea, Seoul has a dominating presence as both an object of study and the setting for art, media, and literature. Still, Kim Paekyŏng’s Chibae wa Konggan (Domination and Space) stands out as a work of scholarship, charting many of the key transformations the city underwent in the colonial period, and its sometimes paradoxical geographies of power.

Mark Gayn, Japan Diary (1948)

contentThis book is better known as an account of Japan following the empire’s defeat in 1945, but a significant portion of Gayn’s work is also dedicated to Korea and the goings-on in and around the political nucleus of Seoul. In many ways Gayn’s account is the inverse of Bishop’s, as the author – a Manchurian émigré and veteran newspaper correspondent – describes with candor and horror the United States’ impact on south Korea following its liberation from Japan.

Chang Yŏngch’ang, Sŏul-ŭn pul t’anda (1978)

The title of Chang’s book – “Seoul is Burning” – sets the tone for this wartime account of Seoul’s occupation by North Korean forces, as well as the protracted UN siege that ultimately broke the North’s grip on the city. By turns lyrical, liturgical, and deeply personal, this obscure and quixotic memoir offers one of the most powerful sketches of what it meant to live in wartime Seoul, a city simultaneously besieged from both within and without.

Cho Sehŭi, The Dwarf (1978)

Available in a 2006 translation from Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, The Dwarf is a classic of modern South Korean fiction, and chronicles Seoul’s rise as a sprawling jungle of exploitation and inequality during the period of rapid development in the 1970s. Many of the issues raised by Cho still haunt South Korean politics and thinking today, and the book remains relevant not only as a work of literature, but also as an introduction to an episteme.

Ch’oe Inho, “Another Man’s Room” (1972)

Perhaps no better paean exists to urban alienation in South Korea. Writing at a time when apartments were still an alien fixture in Seoul’s landscape, Ch’oe follows his protagonist – a married man with a strained and distant relationship to his wife, his neighbors, and his apartment – through increasingly surreal states of hallucination and de-personification that call to mind later work by David Lynch. A translation of this short story by Kevin O’Rourke is available.

Valérie Gelézeau, Ap’at’ŭ Konghwaguk (2007)

Literally meaning “Republic of Apartments,” Ap’at’ŭ Konghwaguk is the Korean-language adaptation (trans. Kil Hyeyŏn) of geographer Gelézeau’s pioneering French-language work Séoul, ville géante, cités radieuses (2003). By turns sociological, ethnographic, and historical, Gelézeau tells the story of a single architectural form – the gray apartment tower – and how it came to stand as an urban vernacular and symbol of prosperity in South Korea.



Dir. Bong Joon-ho, The Host (2006)

Director Bong Joon-ho’s The Host is the story of one family’s struggle against a river monster hell-bent on abducting and devouring as many Seoul citizens as possible. Simultaneously absurdist and terrifying, the real star of this film is Seoul, or rather the Han River that cuts through it and the labyrinthine network of bridges and tunnels that form its literal underbelly.

David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas (2004)

220px-Cloud_atlas.jpgA work of historical and speculative fiction, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas covers an impossibly vast geography of places and times. Still, the setting of futuristic Seoul stands out for its attention to both historical and geographic detail, down to its neighborhood-by-neighborhood commentary on the city. If Tokyo once defined the mood at the heart of cyberpunk, Mitchell makes a similar bid for Seoul in this futuristic epic, though it remains to be seen if other authors will take up the call.




Dir. Kim Kyung-mook, Stateless Things (2011)

Stateless Things is a film about abjection, and the intimate relationships that obtain between the powerful and the powerless. With Seoul as its low-thrumming backdrop, Director Kim Kyung-mook explores rarely-touched topics in mainstream Korean cinema that are a constitutive part of life in the city, such as economic abjection, discrimination against ethnic Korean immigrants from China and North Korea, and queer sexuality.



Dirs. Park Chan-wook and Park Chan-kyong, Bitter, Sweet, Seoul (2014)

One of the more creative initiatives of Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon’s administration, Bitter, Sweet, Seoul is far from the typical tourist campaign fare. Edited from 141 selected video clips out of thousands of crowdsourced submissions, the film – directed by Park Chan-wook and Park Chan-kyong – brings together various experiences of life in Seoul in a vision that is altogether more diverse, more melancholy, and more vibrant than any other.

Kilauea PhotoRussell Burge is a PhD Candidate in the History Department at Stanford University, where he focuses on modern Korea. His dissertation examines the history of Seoul in the 1960s and 1970s.

An Ancient City and Modern Exemplar of East Asian Urbanity: A Bibliography of the South Korean Cultural, Political, and Economic Capital, Seoul

Considering the explosion of interest in Korean cuisine, the ubiquity of K-Pop, and media attention devoted to the recently concluded Winter Olympics, it seems outlandish to think of South Korea, and by extension the megacity of Seoul, as a nation isolated from the developed West. Yet as recently as the mid-1990s, Seoul remained a mystery for international observers. A 1994 article in the Financial Times featured the headline “Seoul tries to throw open the door,” noting that the nation sought to “overcome its legacy of isolationism and to push for economic liberalization.”[1] Other observers commented on Seoul’s persistent if undeserved relative obscurity. “Stereotypes about the Far East, dominated by images of China and Japan, leave Korea in a vague limbo, of acronyms or bestiaries: NICs or Little Tigers,” Perry Anderson wrote in the London Review of Books.[2] A great deal can happen over the course of two decades, and indeed today Seoul feels almost like the standard bearer for East Asian urbanity.



International Trade and Japanese Occupation

Seoul’s trajectory from isolated metropole to international megalopolis spans three centuries, including Japanese occupation, post-Korean War destruction and authoritarian rule, and democratic emergence in the 1990s. From Korea’s earliest days, Seoul served as “a symbolic place of national feeling and political power, and it was the distinctive premier city” on the peninsula historian Wonsik Jeong noted in 2001.[3]

Even before the Japanese occupation in 1910, external forces shaped the Korean city. Trade arrangements functioned to pry open the once isolated capital of the “Hermit Kingdom.” The Korea-China Land and Sea Commercial Activity Treaty of 1882 resulted in imperial competition in the city, particularly between the U.S., Great Britain, Germany, Japan and China. Therefore, when the Financial Times claimed that 1994 represented the first time that Korea had attempted to open itself to “full international competition,” one might note a caveat or two.

First arrival pack horses, Seoul, bound north, Robert Lee Dunn photographer, 1905, Prints and Photographs Division

International mercantile trade birthed modern Seoul; it not only brought increased contact with other Asian and Western nations but physically remade the city. “With the opening of Seoul, the city wall was torn down, and the boundaries expanded to include the old market towns and lower class areas outside the city,” Jeong points out. The construction of the Seoul Pusan Railroad in the early 1900s further consolidated the city’s position and inaugurated “modern urban growth in Korea.”[4] Improved transportation networks furthered the nation’s place in the growing capitalist international economy.

Though never colonized or occupied by a Western power, Korea did endure decades of Japanese rule over the peninsula beginning in 1910. For better or for worse—and it was a great deal of worse and a far smaller measure of better—Japan enacted numerous economic, political, and infrastructural reforms that reshaped the city. Japanese reforms resulted in demographic expansion of the city, largely the result of three trends: natural increase, rural decline (and migration to Seoul), and Japanese immigration to the peninsula. Notably, public health measures – “prevention of infectious diseases, sanitation improvements, vaccinations, regulation of public space, and enforcement of sanitary regulations” – did ultimately result in a growing population. During the 1920s, death rates also declined by significant margins. However, as historian Todd Henry argues, the new public health regime put into place discriminatory policies toward most Koreans such that Japanese residents in Seoul were better equipped to fight off infectious disease than their Korean counterparts. Moreover, Koreans resisted police enforcement of public health policies, which stunted the system’s effectiveness and delayed the emergence of a viable and effective infrastructure until the 1920s.[5]

Japanese immigration accounted for over 350,000 new arrivals to the peninsula between 1910 and 1921, but in the years after, improved sanitation and public health also helped boost the city’s population from 250,000 in 1910 to 677,241 in 1936.[6]

Street scene showing government buildings, Seoul, Korea, between 1890 and 1923, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Unsurprisingly, Japan viewed Seoul as little more than a market for its manufactured goods and as a source of raw materials. As industrialization took hold, Japanese zaibatsus (Japanese industrial and financial conglomerates) dominated business at the expense of local entrepreneurs. As war often does, Japan’s 1937 military efforts in Asia and later in WWII boosted economic opportunity even for local Koreans, as the number of factories and Korean owners increased. “In 1939, 42 percent of the gross value of factory production was attributed to Korean-owned establishments, compared to 14 percent in 1924,” writes Jeong.[7]

The legacy of Japanese occupation manifested itself in the built environment. “[M]any spatial features of urban development during Korea’s industrialization, such as radiating and gridded street patterns, reflect those implemented during the Meiji Restoration and Taisho periods,” writes Sanghoon Jung, and “land readjustment adopted by the Japanese remained as the main means of urban development in Korea.”[8] Though Japanese land policy implemented a “modern private landowning system,” it subordinated all residents to the colonial state bureaucracy and established a trend of state control over development that would expand well past occupation as a political culture of centralization and authoritarianism became ensconced in national politics.[9]

Temple of Heaven, Seoul, Korea, 1925, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

During its occupation of the peninsula, Japan attempted to regulate public space, utilizing it as a means to “assimilate” Korean subjects into the Japanese empire. City infrastructure, public health initiatives, the construction of Shinto shrines, and other efforts served as Japan’s means of transforming Korean nationals into “reliable subjects of self government.” However, this did not always go as planned. Public spaces might carry the strong whiff of Japanese imperialism, but Koreans used them for their own ends and purposes “many of which did not converge with the state,” writes Henry.[10]


Japan’s defeat in World War II removed it from the peninsula, but did not spare Korea from military conflict. The Korean War erupted in the early 1950s and devastated Seoul. Still, as Anderson reflected decades later, the legacy of imperial rule complicated Korean existence; it undoubtedly subjugated Koreans under a totalitarian, racist regional power but one that at least built transportation networks and raised literacy above the regional average while reparations required of Japan for the occupation enabled the expansion of national and municipal finances. “The toll of empire was huge,” Anderson noted, “but privileges perversely went with it.” To be fair, Anderson included U.S. influence in this metric—noting that after the Korean War, America imposed needed land reforms and “bank rolled reconstruction.” The Vietnam War did not hurt the Korean economy either, as U.S. allies helped Korean firms establish industrial contracts in Southeast Asia; firms later harnessed this experience to strike similar deals in the oil-rich Middle East during the 1970s.[11]

Street in Seoul totally destroyed by North Korean communist forces, 1950s, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Post-Korean War Politics

After the Korean War “[m]ost of Seoul lay in ruins,” Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent Malcolm W. Browne wrote in his memoir. “The poverty was ubiquitous and obtrusive, and there was a constant danger of losing a wallet or camera to thieves.”[12] Under the rule of Syngman Rhee, who Browne described as an “autocratic old Methodist who brooked no dissent from any quarter,” Koreans enjoyed few freedoms. “During my year in Korea I could see the seeds of rebellion sprouting, as my student friends grew ever more angry at the repressions they suffered at the hands of the police, university administrators, and military authorities,” Browne remembered years later. Add to this “the demeaning aspects of American military occupation” and the student uprisings that came in 1960, sometimes referred to as the April Revolution, hardly seem unexpected. Student protests ousted Rhee in 1960, but the government quickly lapsed once again into authoritarianism under Park Chung Hi in 1961.[13]

Under Park, the state undertook massive economic development, an approach that persisted until the early 1990s. This sort of state centered development required draconian levels of repression; security forces known as the KCIA numbered over 350,000. Yet, as has proven consistent throughout Korea’s history, students refused to fully relent. They overthrew Rhee in 1960 and revolted again in 1979-1980, leading to Park’s assassination by his intelligence chief. Chun Doo Hwan took over for Park but encountered student resistance less than a decade later, in 1987, after a student activist at the University of Seoul was tortured and killed under police custody. After three weeks of unrest and some 350,000 canisters of tear gas, Chun had to concede free elections.[14]

Seoul at night, June 2016

Planning for Postwar Seoul

From the end of World War II through the 1980s, urban planning in Seoul drew from two primary influences: Japanese policies established under occupation, in terms of “planning culture, system and legislation,” remained influential. Moreover, numerous bureaucrats from occupation held over through independence. A second influence arose from Western planners like American Oswald Nagler.

After the war, the dearth of planning experts and the persistence of the Japanese model throttled attempts at redevelopment. However, foreign technical aid brought planners like Nagler to the fore. Working for the Asia foundation, later renamed as the Housing, Urban and Regional Planning Institute (HURPI), Nagler “introduced, applied and localized Western planning principles to Korea in an earnest manner,” argues Jung. Nagler also recruited numerous individuals such as Kyu Sung Woo, Hongbin Kang, Jinkyun Kim, Wan Yu and others; all would spread HURPI’s influence further in Seoul planning circles. Several HURPI members were chosen from the architecture department at Seoul National University.[15]

From Japanese occupation forward, housing in Seoul remained a problematic issue. Seeing the city and peninsula as a market for its goods and a source of raw materials, little attention was paid to building housing for residents. However, mobilization for war forced Japan to build homes for its soldiers and workers. Yet, even with this burst of construction, by 1944 housing shortage rates rested at 44 percent.

A South Korean youngster carries a sack of rice on her head after receiving it from the newly established government in Seoul during the week of May 2, 1961, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

By the mid-1950s, Seoul’s population had expanded to over 1.5 million and would continue to increase—surpassing 10 million by 2000—thereby furthering housing’s importance. Recognizing housing’s centrality to the city’s fortunes, Nagler believed in approaching urban planning from the household level and even inserted “Housing” into HURPI’s official title, which had previously excluded the term.[16] Nagler utilized an interdisciplinary approach to design and planning that emphasized architecture and civil engineering. This more comprehensive method broke from trends at that the time that focused exclusively on infrastructure development and eschewed architectural considerations.[17]


Due to the centralized business friendly approach to development, a growing population needing housing, and rapid urbanization, developers increasingly turned to higher density apartment complexes. High rise apartments, anything more than five stories, accounted for over 20 percent of construction permits issued by the central government in 1975. Fifteen years later, the percentage had more than tripled to 66 percent. A significant portion of the new housing created from the early 1970s and after arose from large-scale redevelopment projects, particularly urban renewal efforts directed at the ad-hoc communities and housing that cropped up in the 1960s. From 1973 to 1995, notes Hyun Bang Shin, about 17 percent “of all dwellings … were the result of the redevelopment of urban slums and dilapidated neighborhoods.” Unsurprisingly, these new units were subject to rampant speculation, which further victimized poor and working class residents and persisted for nearly three decades. [18]

Street Market at night, Seoul, June 2016

With democratic government emerging in the late 1980s and early 1990s, so too did organized opposition to unfettered real estate construction. This led to vocal civil society. For example, in 1990 the National Coalition for Housing Rights (NCHR), an umbrella organization consisting of various social organizations, progressive religious groups, housing activists, and evictees, formed to organize growing dissent. “Rapidly disappearing affordable housing stocks and the sharp increase in housing rents due to megadisplacement of poor tenants led to a growing awareness of housing as a basic right,” writes Shin.[19]

The efforts of civil society, and its increasing use of the “right to the city” concept, coincided with the expansion of democratization in Seoul and across South Korea; reforms included the establishment of local assemblies (1991), the election of Korea’s first civilian president (1993) and the direct election of mayors and provincial governors (1995). This opened up more space for public protest and organization, but democratization also fueled speculation and gentrification as localized government fell victim to “growth politics.” The few concessions accorded by the municipal government to displaced citizens functioned to legitimize the city’s redevelopment plans.[20] Korea’s growing civil society remains committed to enacting reforms, but change comes slowly.

Seoul at night, June 2016

Still, regardless of the odds, if there is one thing that the people of Seoul have demonstrated, it is the ability to enact major change and resist in ways large and small. We hope our bibliography captures that aspect of the city. As always, it is not comprehensive—far from it. Think of it more as a jumping off point. On Monday, Stanford PhD candidate Russell Burge is going to provide an addendum with ten annotated selections of his own.

Judging from correspondence with historians working in the field, there has yet to be a definitive history of Seoul written in or translated into English (@UrbanHistoryA if I am wrong, we’d love to add it to the list). That being said, be sure to check out work on Seoul by Elle Choi, Russell Burge, Jini Kim Watson, Hyun Bang Shin, Nan Kim and Jieheerah Yun all who have helped us with the Metropolis of the Month.

Featured image at top: Seoul – street scene toward East Gate, lantern slide, William Henry Jackson photographer, 1895, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Bird’s-eye view of Seoul, Korea, 1901, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress


——–, Seoul, Twentieth Century: Growth and Change of the Last 100 Years, Ed. Kwang-Joong Kim (Seoul Developmental Institute, 2003).

Isabella Bird Bishop, Korea and Her Neighbors (Revell, 1898).

Russell Burge, “The Prison and the Postcolony: Contested Memory and the Museumification of Sŏdaemun Hyŏngmuso,” Journal of Korean Studies (Spring 2017): 33 – 67.

Im Sik Cho and Blaz Kriznik, Community-based Urban Development: Evolving Urban Paradigms in Singapore and Seoul (Springer, 2017).

Elle Choi, “Yi Kwangsu and the Post-World War I Reconstruction Debate in Korea,” The Journal of Korean Studies (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2015).

Bruce Cummings, The Korean War: A History (Modern Library Chronicles, 2011).

David Fedman, “The Ondol Problem and the Politics of Forest Conservation in Colonial Korea,” Journal of Korean Studies, forthcoming (Spring 2018).

Tristen R. Grunow, “Western Urban Planning and Imperial Space from the Streets of Meiji Tokyo to Colonial Seoul,” Journal of Urban History 42.3 (May 2016): 506-556.

Todd Henry, Assimilating Seoul: Japanese Rule and the Politics of Space in Colonial Korea (University of California Press, 2016).

Shelia Miyoshi Jager, Brothers at War: The Unending Conflict in Korea (W.W. Norton, 2017)

Sanghoon Jung, “Oswald Nagler, HURPI, and the Formation of Urban Planning and Design in South Korea,” Journal of Urban History 40.3 (May 2014): 585-605.

Richard Child Hill and June Woo Kim, “Global Cities and Developmental States: New York, Tokyo, and Seoul” in The Global Cities Reader, Eds. Neil Brenner and Roger Keil (Routledge, 2006): 170 – 178.

Nan Kim, Memory, Reconciliation, and Reunions of Separated Families in South Korea: Crossing the Divide (Lexington, 2017).

Keith Pratt, Old Seoul: Images of Asia (Oxford University Press, 2002)

Hyun Bang Shin, “Urban Movements and the Genealogy of Urban Rights Discourses: the Case of Urban Protesters against Redevelopment and Displacement in Seoul, South Korea,” Annals of American Geographers 0.0 (2018): 1-14.

Hyun Bang Shin, “Living on the Edge: Financing Post-displacement Housing in Urban Redevelopment Projects in Seoul,” Environment and Urbanization 20.2 (2008): 411 – 426.

Hyun Bang Shin and Soo-Hyun Kim, “The Developmental State, Speculative Urbanisation and the politics of displacement in gentrifying Seoul,” Urban Studies 53.3 (2016): 540-559.

Jini Kim Watson, The New Asian City: Three Dimensional Fictions of Space and Urban Form (University of Minnesota Press, 2011).

Jeong Wonsik, “The Urban Development Politics of Seoul as a Colonial City,” Journal of Urban History 27.2 (January 2001): 158-177.

Jieheerah Yun, Globalizing Seoul: The City’s Cultural and Urban Change (Routledge, 2017).


Seoul at night from rooftop, June 2016


——, Postwar Korean Short Stories, trans. Kim Chong-un, 2nd ed. (Seoul: Seoul National University Press, 1983).

Se-hui Cho, The Dwarf, trans. Ju-Chan Fulton and Bruce Fulton,(University of Hawaii Press, 2006).

Ch’oe Inho, “Another Man’s Room,” in Ten Korean Short Stories, trans. by Kevin O’Rourke (Yonsei University Press, 1981).

David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas, (Random House, 2004).

Yoojin Grace Wuertz, Everything Belongs to US, (Random House, 2017).

[1] John Burton, “Seoul tries to throw open the doors”, Financial Times, June 23, 1994, Anthony Lewis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

[2] Perry Anderson, “Diary”, London Review of Books, October 17, 1996, Anthony Lewis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

[3] Wonsik Jeong, “The Urban Development Politics of Seoul as a Colonial City”, Journal of Urban History 27.2 (January 2001): 158.

[4] Wonsik Jeong, “The Urban Development Politics of Seoul as a Colonial City”, Journal of Urban History 27.2 (January 2001): 159-160.

[5] Todd Henry, Assimilating Seoul: Japanese and the Politics of Public Space in Colonial Korea, 1910-1945, (University of California Press, 2016), 19-20.

[6] Jeong, “The Urban Development Politics of Seoul as a Colonial City”, 160-161.

[7] Jeong, “The Urban Development Politics of Seoul as a Colonial City”, 164.

[8] Sanghoon Jung, “Oswald Nagler, HURPI and the Formation of Urban Planning an Design in South Korea: The South Seoul Plan by HURPI and the Mok-dong Plan”, Journal of Urban History 40.3 (May 2014): 587.

[9] Jeong, “The Urban Development Politics of Seoul as a Colonial City”, 171.

[10] Henry, Assimilating Seoul, 4.

[11] Perry Anderson, “Diary”, London Review of Books, October 17, 1996, Anthony Lewis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

[12] Malcolm W. Browne, Muddy Boots and Red Socks: A Reporter’s Life, (Times Books, 1993), 53-54.

[13] Browne, Muddy Boots and Red Socks, 55.

[14] Perry Anderson, “Diary”, London Review of Books, October 17, 1996, Anthony Lewis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

[15] Jung, “Oswald Nagler, HURPI and the Formation of Urban Planning an Design in South Korea”, 586-587, 589.

[16] Jeong, “The Urban Development Politics of Seoul as a Colonial City”, 166; Jung, “Oswald Nagler, HURPI and the Formation of Urban Planning an Design in South Korea”, 589.

[17] Jung, “Oswald Nagler, HURPI and the Formation of Urban Planning an Design in South Korea”, 590.

[18] Hyun Bang Shin, “Living on the edge: financing post-development housing in urban redevelopment projects in Seoul”, Environment and Urbanization 20.2 (2008): 411, 422; Hyun Bang Shin and Soo-Hyun Kim, “The developmental state, speculative urbanization, and the politics of displacement in gentrifying Seoul”, 546-547.

[19] Shin, “Urban Movements and the Genealogy of Urban Rights Discourses: The Case of Urban Protesters and against Redevelopment and Displacement in Seoul, South Korea, 8.

[20] Hyun Bang Shin, “Living on the edge: financing post-development housing in urban redevelopment projects in Seoul”, 553; Hyun Bang Shin and Soo-Hyun Kim, “The developmental state, speculative urbanization, and the politics of displacement in gentrifying Seoul”, 544

Jack at South Carolina College: Remembering Enslaved People in Columbia

By Jill Found

In December, the University of South Carolina dedicated two new historic plaques on the Horseshoe, the school’s original campus. Each marker described the school’s ownership of enslaved people and use of enslaved labor from its founding until the Civil War. One included the names of sixteen individuals owned by the college or hired out to work there. For the first time, the names of enslaved people appeared on the landscape alongside the names of slave owners and ideological proponents of slavery that currently adorn buildings across campus. Now, next to the last names of prominent South Carolinians—Rutledge, Harper, Legare, DeSaussure—a visitor can find the first names of Abraham, Amanda, Anna, Anthony, Charles, Henry, Jack, Jim, Joe, Lucy, Mal., Peter, Sancho, Simon, Toby, and Tom—the only enslaved people whose names appear in college records.


The lives of these white men can easily be accessed through histories of South Carolina, biographies, and even Wikipedia articles. Very little has been written about the enslaved people named on the plaques. This comes, in part, from the fact that enslaved people did not have the same opportunities as prominent white men to leave behind a written record in their own voice. Still, we can know something about their lives and how they lived them. Reading between the lines of institutional sources and adding context through a broader understanding of the lives of enslaved people in South Carolina, we can begin to understand who these people were in their own right rather than just as property of the college.

Jack was the first person purchased by South Caroline College (the name of the school before the Civil War), but he did not live his entire life in Columbia. Before being hired out to South Carolina College, Jack lived on the plantation of John Wallace, on the border of Laurens and Newberry Counties, some eighty miles to the northwest of Columbia. There, he was part of a community that included nine other enslaved people. When Wallace died, he divided up this community, giving Jack to his wife Amy. In his will, Wallace separated Jack from people he had lived alongside and formed bonds with—some of whom could have been his family members, and many of whom he would have formed strong relationships with.

In 1811, Amy Wallace hired Jack out to South Carolina College. Wallace used an intermediary, James Bostick, to manage Jack’s hire and collect payments from the college that for Jack’s labor. Hiring out presented enslaved people with the opportunity to mediate their condition. Rather than being owned by one person for whom they also worked, slaves who were hired out answered to different masters. While this presented the challenge of balancing interests, it also allowed enslaved people like Jack explore other means toward their own interests. At South Carolina College, Jack could do just that.

Despite its recent founding, life in Columbia looked very different from the life that Jack knew on the plantation. With a population of less than a thousand people when Jack arrived, the town showed sure signs of growth. Two key institutions played an important role in that development: the state government and the college. The decision to move the capital away from Charleston had necessitated the creation of a new city, a planned city with a grid street system at the juncture of the Broad and Saluda rivers in 1786, though it only became a town in its own right in 1805. The state legislature chartered South Carolina College in 1801, but it did not start offering classes until 1805.[1] From its earliest days of operation, the school planned to use enslaved laborers to assist in the school’s operations. The Board of Trustees of the college hired enslaved people to clean students’ rooms, cook meals, and complete other necessary tasks to keep the college running smoothly.

University of S.C., Columbia, S.C., circa 1909, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Jack’s job was different. He worked in the chemistry laboratory and cared for the “philosophical apparatus,” a set of instruments used for science experiments and demonstrations. According to the professor who he worked most closely with, Jack quickly became integral to the adequate functioning of the laboratory. Through the laboratory Jack developed specialized skills and an important working relationship with the chemistry professor, Edward Derrill Smith. During his earliest years at the school, Jack “acquired a tolerably good knowledge of this business and is enabled thereby to aid some of the Professors considerably in the Mechanical part of their duties.”[2] Smith worked hard to ensure that he would not lose Jack’s labor, writing letters to Bostick, the faculty, the Board of Trustees, and the Governor to keep Jack in the laboratory. When Jack’s owner decided to sell him at auction and Samuel Green, a local druggist and hotel owner, purchased Jack, Smith obtained Jack’s continued hire to work the laboratory. A year later Smith secured $900 of funding from the state legislature for the college to purchase Jack. By the end of 1816, South Carolina College owned Jack.

Slave quarters behind First Professors House [Presidents House], 1940s, SCL (courtesy of Special Collections Thomas Cooper Cooper Library, University of South Carolina)
This change required Jack to reorient his life at South Carolina College. For many enslaved people purchase meant a change of location and the loss of friends or family, though for Jack this had occurred years before. Now he would have to renegotiate his relationship with the college. No longer did he have an outside party to turn to for redress of grievances, if needed. Instead Jack had to rely on his relationships within the college, primarily professors. The Board of Trustees gave the professors of the college the responsibility of determining Jack’s upkeep, which they did not discuss for almost a year. Finally, the faculty determined that Jack could hire himself out in order to pay for his room and board. This meant an increased burden on Jack’s labor, but also the ability to determine for whom he labored. Jack chose to work for the students. He hired out his time to undergraduates which brought him out of the Chemistry lab and provided him with opportunities to interact with the broader campus.

The extra work provided for Jack’s lodging, which likely changed throughout his time at South Carolina College. The Board of Trustees and faculty never explicitly described where Jack lived, though they make suggestions. At some point he probably lived on the campus. No known slave quarters existed during Jack’s time there, so he would have slept in another building on campus. Jack could have lived with Bostick, who managed his hire. Green, who briefly owned Jack, lived only two blocks from the college and had twenty-eight enslaved people living on his property during Jack’s time at South Carolina College. Wherever Jack lived, he now had to pay his own way.

Jack’s life shifted again when Smith decided to leave South Carolina. His replacement, Thomas Cooper, resented Jack’s ability to hire himself out to the students and saw Jack as a problem, calling him, “idle, careless, void of veracity, and of honesty.”[3] Cooper asserted that he needed the right to physically punish Jack, something that Smith had apparently never done. He even asked the Board of Trustees for permission to remove Jack from campus, hiring him out to someone else, a complete reversal from Smith’s persistent efforts to keep Jack in the Chemistry lab. This change drove Jack to find another mode of institutional support.

Thomas Cooper Library, University of South Carolina courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In the months after Cooper’s arrival, Jack sought membership at Columbia’s Presbyterian Church. Unlike many other churches in Columbia and across the South, Columbia’s Presbyterian Church had not made efforts to reach out to African American members. Jack’s impetus to join likely came from his desire to have connections outside the campus and his familiarity with the church from Smith, who had been a member. Jack’s bid for membership confounded the board of the church, which delayed a decision on his membership four times, stringing Jack along over the course of a year. Finally they consulted with the “principal officers” of the college, likely Thomas Cooper who had become president of the college in the year since. The school reported unfavorably upon Jack and the church denied him membership. Jack did not have the opportunity to gain membership in another organization. On March 4, 1822 the faculty of the college ordered $8.50 be paid for Jack’s burial.

Knowing Jack’s life requires more than a plaque. Understanding the true past of colleges and universities certainly means acknowledging their connections to slavery. More deeply though true awareness requires an examination of the lives of the people enslaved by the institution. Jack’s life mattered because he was a person, not just because of his benefit to the college. Today, the marker bearing his name frames him only as a value to the school, not in his own right. To do this requires reading institutional materials beyond the records of South Carolina College and asking questions of them that take the story of an individual person outside of the college itself and place them in a broader context within their community. For the University of South Carolina and Columbia, this means seeing how slavery connected the college and the town, as enslaved people had to navigate both.


Today, prospective students and families on tours of the university may or may not stop and read Jack’s name on its plaque, listed among many. But almost all tours visit the university’s main library, named for Thomas Cooper.

MeJill Found is a Ph.D. student at the University of South Carolina. Her research looks at the lived experiences of enslaved people on college campuses. 

[1] John Hammond Moore, Columbia and Richland County: A South Carolina Community, 1740-1990 (Columbia, S.C: University of South Carolina Press, 1993).

[2] E. D. Smith, Letter to Andrew Pickens, December 5, 1816, South Carolina Department of Archives and History.

[3] Thomas Cooper, Letter to Board of Trustees of South Carolina College, 22 April 1821, South Caroliniana Library.

The City Bureaucracy Rebuilt: Columbia’s Mid-Century Moment

Image above: 1919 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of Ward 1, the African American neighborhood the university acquired and demolished through Urban Renewal. LBC&W’s Carolina Coliseum was built on the block just south of Greene Street, facing east onto Assembly Street. Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps of South Carolina Collection, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.

By Lydia Mattice Brandt

An antebellum city with few antebellum buildings, Columbia has long lagged behind its charming coastal cousin in the recognition of its historic fabric. Charleston, with its narrow cobblestone streets and quintessential single-houses, is undeniably old, seemingly making it South Carolina’s logical leader for historic preservation and tourism. But Columbia’s time has finally come: its tremendous twentieth-century building stock is now just old enough to be considered “historic” by the dominant metrics of the National Register of Historic Places. Generations born too recently to know these buildings as “new” now regard them with interest and appreciation, seeing the plate glass, steel beams, and clean lines through the lenses of West Elm and Mad Men.

3. Russell House_preview
Russell House University Union, University of South Carolina, 1955. LBC&W and others convinced university officials not to build a colonial revival student union on the Horseshoe and instead to construct a Modern structure on a vacant site to the south. Photograph by Russell Maxey. Walker Local and Family History Center, Richland Library, Columbia.  

From the mid-1950s through the mid-1970s, bureaucracy rebuilt Columbia in the Modernist guise. The postwar growth of the state’s government and flagship university guaranteed that Columbia would be a hotbed for construction at mid-century. The University of South Carolina’s enrollment tripled in this period, necessitating entire mini-campuses of structures that reached out in all directions from the tight, inward-looking arrangement of the nineteenth-century campus or “Horseshoe.” Close relationships between government officials and the university’s administration greased the wheels for the acquisition of acres of downtown for expansion. USC displaced entire neighborhoods, including the predominantly African American Ward I, with Urban Renewal and built impressive new facilities and acres of surface parking that would lay undeveloped for decades. With offices scattered across Columbia in leased spaces, the mushrooming state government also demanded land and buildings. A new master plan doubled the size of the government’s footprint around the state house, replacing a jumbled mix of buildings with rational axes and “Heroic” structures of cast stone.

2. Capitol Complex_preview
View through the LBC&W designed buildings and landscape to the South Carolina State House, 1979. Photograph by Russell Maxey. Walker Local and Family History Center, Richland Library, Columbia.

These new buildings and landscapes staunchly rejected the medley of historical revival styles that made Columbia look like many other southern cities built after the Civil War. They embraced the scale of its wide, planned grid, creating platforms and plazas for towering, starkly Modern structures that confidently projected optimism, organization, and control. It was a new dawn for a city long mired in the politics and pitfalls of the nineteenth-century South. While a number of firms contributed to this new architectural image, one dominated every aspect of this urban re-imagination: Lyles, Bissett, Carlisle and Wolff (LBC&W). The firm operated from 1948 until the mid-1970s and employed hundreds at a time across its offices in Columbia, North Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, and Washington, DC.

LBC&W became the one-stop-shop for Modernism in South Carolina, offering a full range of services from planning and engineering to architectural design and contracting. LBC&W’s four savvy partners – William G. Lyles, Thomas J. Bissett, William A. Carlisle, and Louis M. Wolff – cornered the market on university and government contracts in the region. Its varied design team (seemingly every architect who worked in South Carolina in this period went through the office at some point) and the steady hand of chief designer Louis M. Wolff ensured their competency in a range of contemporary styles: sleek International Style, fortress-like Brutalism, and even graceful New Formalism (also known as the “Ballet Style”). As trends in ahistorical architecture shifted, so did LBC&W.

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Drafting room in LBC&W’s office on Bull Street, Columbia, circa 1949. Photograph by Russell Maxey. Walker Local and Family History Center, Richland Library, Columbia.

The firm introduced Columbia – and South Carolina – to Modernism. Wolff explained important dictums such as “form follows function” in a plain-spoken article in a 1953 volume of South Carolina Magazine, surely aiming at a client base that needed a little educating. He efficiently summarized his response to the new zeitgeist: “The mechanical age has resulted in a cramped condition within our cities. Careful planning with great imagination and foresight is now necessary to fit our modern living into practical and humanly congenial architectural form.” The firm convinced the University of South Carolina to build its first International Style building, an engineering lab, on a prominent corner downtown in 1952. LBC&W’s late 1960s master plan reorganized the statehouse grounds, finally giving form to a symbolic center for the state’s public identity. Other governmental and commercial commissions quickly followed, reshaping the visual and physical experience of Columbia.

4. Coliseum_preview
Carolina Coliseum, the University’s basketball arena, faces wide Assembly Street in 1969. It was the first major building constructed on the site of the former African American neighborhood, Ward 1. Photograph by Russell Maxey. Walker Local and Family History Center, Richland Library, Columbia.

LBC&W’s contribution to Columbia cannot be overstated; the density of buildings and landscapes designed by the firm is truly impressive. Within approximately five blocks of the State House in all directions are USC’s Carolina Coliseum (1969), Sumwalt Engineering Building (begun 1952), Thomas Cooper Library (begun 1959), James F. Byrnes Building (1967), Humanities Complex (1968), and Russell House University Union (1955); the residential Claire Towers (1950) and Cornell Arms (1949); the skyscraping Bankers Trust Tower (1974) and Rutledge Building (1965); a Miesian post office (1968); and the statehouse complex, including four buildings by the firm (1967-1970s). Together, they are a clear statement of Columbia’s rebirth as a glistening modern center for commerce, legislation, and academic research.

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Thomas Cooper Library at the University of South Carolina in 1967. Edward Durrell Stone was the architect of record, with LBC&W as his local liaison. University Archives Photograph Collection, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.

From a preservation perspective, these buildings are challenging. They were often built with tight construction budgets and non-existent maintenance allowances, dooming their materials to age less gracefully than those by mid-century masters like Mies van der Rohe. They lack the nostalgic appeal and domestic familiarity of the “Atomic Ranch.” Their ubiquity and universality also works against them. As buildings designed closely together in time and space, they look like each other all while being literally next door to one another. As buildings designed according to theories of rationalism and functionalism, they also naturally look like Modern buildings elsewhere. It’s easy to argue that they are lesser versions of great Modern monuments in more cosmopolitan places like Chicago or London. For many, they are simply too young to appreciate. Recent, heated discussion over LBC&W’s Byrnes Building and the demolition of the firm’s first modern building on Clemson University’s campus suggest that these prejudices are gaining steam.

5. Sumwalt_preview
Sumwalt engineering building, the first Modern-style building on the University of South Carolina campus, begun in 1952. This photograph is circa 1960. University Archives Photograph Collection, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.

So why preserve them? Because they define Columbia in the same way that columns and fanlights say “Charleston.” They speak to the unique condition of a place largely demolished in the Civil War, rebuilt in fits and starts after the dismantling of the plantation system, and born anew thanks to institutional expansion. They are evidence of the chutzpah of a group of architects to grab onto a new market and to shape it to their abilities. They are emblems of a moment in which Columbia stood tall for a New South — and they remind us that those supposedly progressive agendas were often racist, classicist, and elitist. Respect for their embodied energy offers an opportunity to be mindful of the environment, rather than tearing them down for something new. Most importantly, their preservation would speak to the respect Columbia has for its own, local history and the stories that only it can tell. Designed to make the city relevant to the rest of the world, Columbia’s mid-century landscape proposes different historic narratives than Charleston. And that’s a good thing.

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Picture of Brandt with the students from her spring 2017 seminar in front of Thomas Cooper Library. Brandt back row, far left.

Lydia Mattice Brandt is associate professor of art history at the University of South Carolina. Since 2015, she and her students have researched Columbia’s mid-century architecture and landscapes. She thanks Lois Carlisle for her help with this post. Her book, First in the Homes of His Countrymen: George Washington’s Mount Vernon in the American Imagination, explores the impact of preservation and memory on contemporary architecture.

(1)  Louis M. Wolff, “Modern Architecture — Its Purposes and Aims,” South Carolina Magazine (January 1953): 70.

(2) For more on arguments for/against these buildings’ preservation, see Richard Longstreth, Looking beyond the Icons: Midcentury Architecture, Landscape, and Urbanism (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2015); Lydia Mattice Brandt, “Preserving and Researching Modern Architecture Outside of the Canon: A View from the Field,” Arris (The Journal of the Southeast Society of Architectural Historians) 26 (2015): 72-5.

Columbia and the Problem of Confederate Memorials

By Thomas J. Brown

Columbia comes logically to its current position at the forefront of the national debate over Confederate memorials. The city has a good claim to be both the place of birth and the place of death for the Confederacy. The antebellum South Carolina College, now the University of South Carolina, was the academic hothouse of proslavery secessionist ideology. The political culture centered on the state capital provided the institutional framework through which the disunion campaign developed. The culminating secession convention met at First Baptist Church on December 17, 1860. Fear of a smallpox outbreak caused the delegates to finish their business in Charleston, but before they left Columbia they adopted a unanimous resolution to break from the United States.

Union soldiers who reached Columbia on February 17, 1865 after almost four years of war were eager to hold the city accountable for its leadership in the rebellion. The fires that destroyed the state house built in the 1790s and at least one-third of all other buildings in town resulted in part from high winds and local failure to destroy the stockpiles of alcohol that intoxicated federal troops and the cotton bales that spread flames, but the burning of Columbia served as an exclamation mark for the triumphant Union policy of hard war.[1] General William T. Sherman declared a few months later that “from the moment my army passed Columbia S. C. the war was ended.”

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George N. Barnard, The New Capitol, Columbia, S. C. Negative made in 1865,published in Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign (1866). Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum.

Confederate memorials abound in Columbia in all forms, including cemeteries, statues, historic buildings, memorial trees, roadside plaques, and names of streets, parks, schools, and other locations. My book Civil War Canon: Sites of Confederate Memory in South Carolina (University of North Carolina Press, 2015) touched on many aspects of this profusion in a close look at the places of national significance–the grave of Confederate poet laureate Henry Timrod at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, the monuments to the exemplary Confederate man and woman at the state house, and the display of the Confederate battle flag at the state house.

It was no coincidence that two of those three chapters focused on the state house grounds, by far the most important public space in town. The state house has been crucial to the relationship between Columbia and the Confederacy since the decision to build a new capitol amid the acceleration of the secession movement in the 1850s. Located at the corner of the Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway and the Robert E. Lee Memorial Highway, the grounds present a remarkable array of Confederate commemorations, including flamboyant dramatization of the wounds suffered by the building in Sherman’s wartime attack.[2] Dell Upton’s What Can and Can’t Be Said: Race, Uplift, and Monument Building in the Contemporary South (Yale University Press, 2015) thoughtfully analyzes the ways in which this Confederate landscape inflects the African American History Monument unveiled at the state house in 2001. The tension between conflicting memorials epitomizes the challenge of reconfiguring the racial environment to realize the ideals of the civil rights movement.


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Wade Hampton Monument and African American History Monument at South Carolina state house. Courtesy of Dell Upton.

Columbia opened a new chapter in the history of Confederate memorialization with the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the state house grounds in July 2015. This decision responded to Columbia native Dylann Roof’s murder of nine African Americans at a Bible study session in Charleston and the subsequent discovery of a website at which Roof had recorded his hopes to start a race war and posted photographs of himself posing with the battle flag. To be sure, the South Carolina legislature aimed not to begin but to close a chapter by removing the flag; state celebrations of the southern cross had by then ended at all other capitols except through its incorporation in Mississippi’s state flag. But in the wake of the church massacre, the recoil against Confederate remembrance extended from the battle flag to monuments. Although protesters had begun to “tag” monuments after the killings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, calls for removal started to gather substantial momentum when New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu endorsed the “Take ‘Em Down NOLA” campaign four days after the discovery of Roof’s website. As that movement developed over the next two years and spread widely after the white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville in 2017, Columbia stood at the vanguard in the defense of Confederate memorials and even in the creation of new Confederate memorials.

South Carolina has furnished the model for the state legislation that has suppressed debate over the future of Confederate monuments in hundreds of southern cities and counties. The Heritage Act of 2000,  which moved the battle flag from the state house dome to a position near the state monument to the Confederate dead, provided that no war memorial (or Native American history or African American history memorial) installed on the property of the state or any political subdivision “may be relocated, removed, disturbed, or altered” and that no public site “named for any historic figure or historic event may be renamed.” This measure was much more purposeful and airtight than the Virginia law of 1904 and amendment of 1997 at issue in the recent controversy in Charlottesville. The South Carolina statute even purported to require a two-thirds vote for modification or repeal, despite the dubious enforceability of such provisions. Georgia followed suit in 2001 in conjunction with the controversy over the southern cross in its state flag, and Mississippi enacted parallel legislation in 2004. North Carolina adopted such a measure two weeks after South Carolina took down its Confederate battle flag in 2015. Tennessee, which had established restrictions in 2013, made them more difficult to overcome in 2016. Alabama passed a similar law in May 2017. The strategy has shifted authority over monuments in most of the former Confederacy from the wide variety of local communities to Republican-controlled state legislatures.

The experience of Columbia suggests the efficacy of the statutory regime in stifling opposition to Confederate remembrance. The legislative decision to raise the battle flag at the soldier monument in 2000, rather than removing it from the state house grounds, was opposed by twenty-two of the twenty-six black members of the House of Representatives and drew steady criticism from Columbia residents in the following fifteen years. Even the coach of the University of South Carolina football team, a stalwart of the local establishment, called for removal of the flag in 2007. The legislature remained adamantly committed to foreclosure of debate and did not revisit possible removal of the flag until forced to do so after the horrific murders at Emanuel AME church, in which one of the victims was a state senator. The region-wide laws that bar alteration or removal of memorials seem likely to eviscerate municipal reconsideration of Confederate monuments across the heart of the South, despite extraordinary examples of defiance in Durham, Memphis, and possibly Charlottesville.

Even apart from the suppressive legislation, Columbia illustrates the special powerlessness of a capital city to act on its residents’ opposition to icons of white supremacism. The Heritage Act of 2000 does not apply to the local monuments that have lately been most controversial, the state house tributes to Ben Tillman and J. Marion Sims. Neither work is what the Heritage Act calls a “War Between the States” memorial, though both men typified Confederate racial ideology. Disability prevented Tillman from serving in the Confederate army before he began his political career as a proponent of disfranchisement, segregation, and lynching. Sims left South Carolina for New York in the 1850s after his gynecological experiments on enslaved women helped him become the leading specialist in the country, and he decided to sit out the Civil War in Europe. Despite recent protests (and the plan of a New York City commission to remove a Sims statue in Central Park), these embodiments of white supremacism are probably as safe at the South Carolina state house as the marble figure of a Confederate soldier who continues to stand where the battle flag flew until July 2015.

In this season of iconoclasm, Columbia is instead focused on the installation of new Confederate memorials. Two projects have attracted national attention. Republican legislators Bill Chumley and Mike Burns, both of whom voted against removal of the Confederate battle flag in 2015, have introduced legislation to create an “African-American Confederate Veterans Monument Commission” that would redress the supposed neglect of black South Carolinians who supposedly took up arms for the proslavery republic. When told that extensive historical research on this precise topic has shown that no black South Carolinians fought for the Confederacy and that African Americans who labored in non-combatant roles were enslaved or pressed into duty without pay, the legislators told a newspaper reporter that “we don’t see that’s a problem.” With little prospect of passage, the proposal illustrates the aggressively provocative white supremacism and contempt for fact-based decision-making typical of the Republican party at the state as well as the federal level.


Illustration 3
Removal of Confederate battle flag from South Carolina state house, July 10, 2015. Courtesy of John Allen.

The older project stems from the removal of the Confederate battle flag at the state house in July 2015. The General Assembly provided that “upon its removal, the flag shall be transported to the Confederate Relic Room for appropriate display.” Separate legislation that took effect around the same time placed the Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum under the control of a commission composed of a member chosen by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, another chosen by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, three more appointed by the governor, two others appointed by the president of the senate, and finally, two members appointed by the speaker of the house. Taking its cue from legislators who had resisted removal of the flag at the state house and hoped to exhibit it alongside the Relic Room’s collection of wartime flags in a reverential setting, the commission asked the General Assembly in December 2015 for a $5.3 million appropriation and a 50% increase in annual operating expenditures to open a new wing in which the flag removed from the state house would be displayed in front of a jumbo-sized electronic screen that scrolled the names of the 22,000 (white) South Carolinians who died in the Confederate army. Despite widespread ridicule and the refusal of the state legislature to consider such a grand expenditure, the commission voted again in January 2017 to “vigorously advocate” its proposal.

Recent news reports indicate, however, that the commission may have become amenable to a plan set forth at the outset by Relic Room director Allen Roberson to seek an appropriation of approximately $400,000 to convert vacant offices into display space for the state house flag. The shift is interpretive as well as budgetary. Perhaps more alert than the commission to the implications of presenting the Dylann Roof flag alongside Confederate soldiers’ flags, Roberson argues that “the flag needs to be displayed separately from the military theme… It’s more of a political artifact.” He has suggested that the exhibition may trace the story of the southern cross from the war years through the present, with full attention to the campaign that brought removal of the flag from the state house dome in July 2000 and the circumstances that prompted its removal from the state house grounds in July 2015.[3] The Relic Room commission will decide at its upcoming February 15 meeting whether to present Roberson’s plan to the state legislature.

The discussions at the Confederate Relic Room prefigure, though in a different form, the debates likely to take place in many communities over the fate of Confederate memorials removed from public display and the addition of fresh contextual interpretation to Confederate memorials that remain on public display. For citizens of Columbia, the initiative at the Relic Room–like the statutory ban on alteration or removal of monuments–underscores legislative dominance in the capital landscape of remembrance. City residents and officials will need to be more creative to participate fully in the national reckoning with the Confederate legacy.

Picture at top: Drawing of Union Troops raising the American flag over the original South Carolina State House, illustration by William Waud appearing in Harper’s Weekly 9, April 8, 1865. 

brown_thomasThomas J. Brown is professor of history at the University of South Carolina.

[1] Mark Grimsley, The Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy toward Southern Civilians, 1861-1865 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997). For a vivid description of the fire, see Charles Royster, The Destructive War: William Tecumseh Sherman, Stonewall Jackson, and the Americans (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991), chap. 1.

[2] I discuss the local performance of victimhood in Thomas J. Brown, “Monuments and Ruins: Atlanta and Columbia Remember Sherman,” Journal of American Studies 51 (May 2017): 411-436.

[3] W. Eric Emerson, “Commemoration, Conflict, and Constraints: The Saga of the Confederate Battle Flag at the South Carolina State House,” in Interpreting the Civil War at Museums and Historic Sites ed. Kevin M. Levin (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017), 87.

Capital on the Congaree: A Bibliography for Columbia, S.C.

By John Sherrer

Columbia, South Carolina was intentionally designed to be a very livable city from its inception. Founded in 1786 as the Palmetto State’s second capital, its location holds both geographic and symbolic meanings. The city’s original two-mile-by-two-mile footprint was set atop a plain overlooking the Congaree River at the state’s fall line, where the waterway ceased to be navigable from the coast. Conveniently, this natural crossroads rested in the middle of the state, a benefit to lawmakers interested in achieving political parity between Lowcounty elites and growing numbers of backcountry citizens.

As with most fledgling towns or cities, Columbia developed at its own pace and in its own style. Early impressions of this upstart capital, as can be imagined, differed. During his May 1791 visit, George Washington recorded it as “. . . an uncleared wood, with very few houses in it, and those all wooden ones . . ..” A few years later, in 1805, Connecticut native Edward Hooker opined, “There is very little verdure in the town; the soil being too dry and sandy to produce grass. Consequently, the streets are very deficient in that life and freshness of appearance which usually prevails in the towns of New England.”


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Detail of Mills Atlas of South Carolina, 1825
Columbia’s grid-patterned footprint and relationship to waterways featured prominently in Robert Mills’ survey of Richland District. Historic Columbia collection


Further commentators offered their perspectives on the city’s climate . . .

We thought the heat of Philadelphia, New York, and Albany, about this time last year, excessive; but at Columbia its effects in prostrating the strength, and destroying all energy and all capacity for action, was even still greater . . . . I never have suffered so much inconvenience from the heat in Bengal, or any part of India. The soil is extremely sandy, but this contributes much to the healthiness of this place . . .” James Silk Buckingham, 1841


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South Carolina College, 1850
Among the handful of drawings and paintings that artist Eugene Dovilliers depicted of Columbia during the 1840s through 1860s is this likeness of what is today known as the “Horseshoe” at the University of South Carolina. Image courtesy of South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia.


By the time the well-traveled English author rendered his assessment of the capital city, Columbia had evolved for two generations. Its physical growth included the founding of South Carolina College (1801), the construction of notable public and private buildings and the accumulation of great wealth made possible by the slave-based, agricultural economy that permeated all aspects of life in the city, state and region. By the 1830s, Columbia had matured into what its planners had envisioned: a seat of state government and a center of commerce, transportation and education. By the middle of the 19th century, in 1851, Daniel Webster found Columbia to be “one of the handsomest and nicest looking of our little inland cities.”


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Columbia circa 1859. German immigrant artist Augustus Grinevald rendered his impression of the capital city shortly before the Civil War. Image courtesy of South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia


Shortly thereafter, amid this antebellum grandeur, representatives throughout the state gathered at what is today First Baptist Church, not with worship in their hearts but with secession on their minds. While the Union was dissolved slightly later and farther southeast, in Charleston in December 1860, Columbia’s reputation as the birthplace of secession left an indelible impression upon locals and people from away. A little more than four years later, 1/3 of the city lay in fiery ruins, as the Civil War Columbians helped start had returned to its place of origin. (The blame behind the conflagrations remains a hotly debated topic in some circles.)


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Columbia, 1865. The April 1, 1865 edition of Harper’s Weekly featured a series of panoramic images of Columbia detailing the city’s partial destruction two month earlier. Historic Columbia collection, HCF 2009.3.1

While physical recovery from the war came in fits and starts, a sea change in the social and racial order that had defined the city for its existence arguably brought greater change more rapidly. As the state capital, Columbia was ground zero for many of the opportunities Reconstruction offered people of color, newly enfranchised and freed, and white citizens who had formerly ceded power to planter elites. Visitor Richard M’Ilwaine penned in 1870, “Columbia was a most agreeable place of residence . . . Its broad avenues, lined with two, three, or four rows of stately oaks, gave it an air of delightful repose. Its fine mansions, sometimes occupying a whole square, surrounded by roses, evergreens and other shrubs and trees, added dignity to the scene, while its less pretentious cottages with their broad verandas were pleasing and attractive . . . .”

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Birdseye Map, 1872C. Drie’s Birdseye Map of the City of Columbia, South Carolina, sold for $5 when released in 1872, during the middle of the Reconstruction era. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

This flirtation with a new order proved brief, as Columbia and the remainder of the state slipped back into the antebellum racial status quo with the end of Federal support for Reconstruction’s policies and a re-affirmation of power by former Confederates powerbrokers. “Old South” values underpinned an evolving New South city, an odd coexistence that lasted for the better part of the next century. Paying homage to old traditions, leaders erected monuments to fallen soldiers, aging or dead politicians and to past events for whom meaning was billed as universal, all the while championing the city’s temperate climate, cultural attraction and capable workforce. With these assets in hand, Columbians were poised to build their hometown into a New South city with all the hallmarks of modernity one would expect of such a distinction – large mills, skyscrapers, public transit and fashionable homes.


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Columbia, circa 1875
Many advancements made by African Americans during Reconstruction were curtailed during the advent of Jim Crow. Here a child laborer operates an oxcart during the mid-1870s. Historic Columbia collection, HCF 2016.5.1



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1600 Block of Main Street, circa 1880
Many commercial enterprises established after Main Street’s destruction during the Civil War would operate for decades thereafter. Today, some of the buildings in which these businesses operated are being put to new uses. Image courtesy of Lynn Boyd


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Main Street, circa 1895
By the late 19th century, Columbia was in the process of turning itself into a New South City by embracing the hallmarks of modernity. Soon after, the city’s early skyscrapers would pierce the skyline. Image courtesy of South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia

International conflict brought opportunity as Columbians, who once looked askance at Washington leaders, embraced Federal funds that came with the founding in 1917 of Camp Jackson. One of the many World War I cantonment centers established throughout the state, today Fort Jackson ranks as the nation’s largest Army basic training facility. Within the shadows of success lurked deeper issues—educational and health disparities, racial strife and urban decay, all of which were both predicated on and prolonged by Jim Crow laws. In the aftermath of the War to End All Wars, some progressives lobbied for and, to an extent, enjoyed partial improvements to these conditions, but it would not be until the decades following World War II, a period in which Columbia saw extensive growth and redevelopment, that greater change would be realized.

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World War I Victory Parade, April 1919
The establishment of Camp Jackson in 1917 forever altered Columbia geographically, socially and financially. Historic Columbia collection


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Powell Residence, circa 1920
Early suburbanization included many remarkable houses, such as the Prairie Style Powell House in Melrose Heights, and more numerous bungalows, cottages and American Four-Square residences. Image courtesy of the Powell family

Like cities throughout the United States, Columbia in the 1950s through early 1970s was forever altered by Urban Renewal, which reduced generations-old inner-city neighborhoods to either memories or a shell of their former selves. In their place came the University of South Carolina, state, local and federal government and new development that paved the way for a new vision of a city enjoying the prosperity longed for during the lean times of the 1930s and war years. Mid-century architecture reshaped how people interacted—how they worked, recreated and lived—in the city and in its second-generation suburbs, which bloated as upper- and middle-income residents sought larger houses on more land. The stakes were high for those whose commute went from a reasonable walk or a short car ride to a prolonged trip downtown. Widening of main thoroughfares and the building of interstates offered some respite while further stimulating sprawl, a story played out elsewhere throughout the country time and time again. Columbia’s commercial vitality migrated from downtown to the ever-increasing number of suburban malls floating in seas of pavement, a trend that would be repeated every decade into the early 21st century.

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Widening of Streets, 1955
Post-World War II infrastructural improvements, implemented to enhance automobile ingress and egress to Columbia, would drastically change the character of many 19th and early 20th century primary roads, including the destruction of buildings, yards and community cohesion. Image courtesy of South Carolina Department of Transportation




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Urban Renewal, circa 1955
During the late 1950s through 1960s, Columbia leaders set their sights on removing downtown poor and working-class neighborhoods through a “Fight Blight” program whose results heavily impacted African American citizens. Image courtesy of South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia


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Civil Rights, circa 1963
Like in other southern cities, activists demonstrated along Columbia’s Main Street and at lunch counters during the early 1960s. Today, telling those stories is a central part of the ColumbiaSC63 initiative’s work. Image courtesy of South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia

Concurrent with these larger trends was an appreciation for downtown amenities and a rebirth in interest for older buildings, which had, by the later 1980s, enjoyed a tenuous following. A redefinition of what defined a livable city offered surer footing by the later 1990s and early 2000s, as entrepreneurs, historic preservationists and city planners met success in adapting old buildings to new uses through various incentives. Old department stores, office buildings and textile mills found new life as condominiums or apartments for new urban dwellers—college age through empty nesters—who flock to unique living arrangements. Nearly a generation old, this reinvestment in Columbia has placed the capital city at an interesting crossroad, but one whose paths have been trod, to an extent, by earlier citizens. Revitalization pays great dividends to many while running the risk of displacing long-time owners or tenants. Finding new uses for old places and filling in blank tracts can make for an aesthetically stunning skyline. Meanwhile, such improvement and growth can encourage homogeneity resulting in a monolithic character not in tune with contemporary aspirations for a truly modern city.


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1600 Main Street, 1975
The success of suburban malls during the 1960s through 1980s sapped much of Main Street’s commercial vitality, often leaving behind empty buildings that had been reskinned in mid-20th century slipcover facades in the hope of retaining patrons. Image courtesy of Richland Library

With developers and entrepreneurs adapting 19th and early 20th-century buildings to new uses, Columbia’s Main Street has enjoyed a renaissance during the past decade. Today, Columbia is known as “the real southern hotspot,” which speaks to both its storied climate, as well as its burgeoning attractions.

To learn more about how South Carolina’s capital city got to where it is today, consider exploring the following resources that speak to the history of Columbia, either in a general or detailed sense:
Print Resources

Deas-Moore, Vennie. Columbia, South Carolina. Black America Series. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2000.

Edgar, Walter B. and Deborah K. Woolley. Columbia:  Portrait of a City. Norfolk, VA: The Donning Company, Publishers, 1986.

Nell S. Graydon. Tales of Columbia. Columbia, SC: The R. L. Bryan Company, 1964.

Helsley, Alexia. Lost Columbia: Bygone Images from South Carolina’s Capital. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2008.

Hennig, Helen Kohn ed., Columbia: Capital City of South Carolina, 1786-1936. Columbia, SC:  The R.L. Bryan Company, 1936.

Israel, Charles and Elizabeth Durant. Columbia College. The College History Series. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2001.

Jansen, John. Going to Blazes: A 200-Year Illustrated History of the Columbia, South Carolina Fire & Rescue Service, 1804-2004. Evansville, IN: M.T. Publishing Company, Inc., 2005.

Lumpkin, Alva M. Vignettes of Early Columbia and Surroundings. Columbia, SC: The R.L. Bryan Company, 2000.

Maxey, Russell. South Carolina’s Historic Columbia: Yesterday and Today in Photographs. Columbia, SC: The R.L Bryan Company, 1980.

Montgomery, John A. Columbia, SC:  History of a City. Woodland Hills, CA: Windsor Publications, Inc., 1979.

Montgomery, Warner M. Eau Claire Memories: A Pictorial History of the Eau Claire  Neighborhood in Columbia, South Carolina, 1890-2000. Columbia, SC: The Columbia Star, 2000.

Montgomery, Warner M. Shandon Memories: A Pictorial History of Shandon, a Neighborhood in Columbia, South Carolina. Columbia, SC: The Columbia Star, 2000.

Moore, John Hammond. Columbia and Richland County: A South Carolina Community, 1740-1990. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1993.

Salsi, Lynn Sims. Columbia: History of a Southern Capital. The Making of America Series. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2003.

Scott, J. Edwin. Random Recollections of a Long Life, 1806-1876. Columbia, SC: Charles A. Calvo, 1884.

Selby, Julian A. Memorabilia and Anecdotal Reminisces of Columbia, South Carolina. Columbia, SC: The R. L. Bryan Company, 1905. (REPRINTED 1970)

Sennema, David C. and Martha D. Columbia, South Carolina: A Postcard History. Postcard History Series. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 1997.

Sherrer III, John M. Remembering Columbia. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2015.

Williams, J. F. Old and New Columbia. Columbia, SC: Epworth Orphanage Press, 1929.

West, Elizabeth Cassidy and Katharine Thompson Allen. On the Horseshoe: A Guide to the Historic Campus of the University of South Carolina. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2015.

Woody, Howard. South Carolina Postcards, Volume V: Richland County. Postcard History Series. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2000.

Web Resources

Allison Baker, Jennifer Betsworth, Rebecca Bush, Sarah Conlon, Evan Kutzler, Justin McIntyre, Elizabeth Oswald, Jamie Wilson, and JoAnn Zeise, Slavery at South Carolina College, 1801–1865. (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Libraries, 2011).

Historic Columbia, Web-Based Tours of Columbia. (Columbia, SC: Historic Columbia Foundation, 2017).

Richland Library, Russell Maxey Photograph Collection. (Columbia, SC: Richland Library, 2013).

Richland Library, South Carolina Postcards Collection. (Columbia, SC: Richland Library, 2017).

South Carolina State Museum. Standard Federal Photo Collection Columbia, SC 1865-1980. (Columbia, SC: South Carolina Digital Library, 2009).

South Caroliniana Library, John Hensel Photograph Collection. (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Libraries, 2008).

South Caroliniana Library, Joseph E. Winter Photograph Collection. (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Libraries, 2007).

South Caroliniana Library, View of Columbia, S.C. (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Libraries, 2007).

Columbia SC 63. Our Story Matters. (Columbia, SC: Historic Columbia Foundation, 2017).

A Columbia native, John has served Historic Columbia in a variety of curatorial and administrative capacities since 1996. In his current position as Director of Cultural Resources, he recently authored Remembering Columbia, which chronicles South Carolina’s capital city from its earliest years through the late 1970s. Previous museum experience includes stints at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, the National Trust’s Drayton Hall Plantation, Old York Historical Society in York, Maine and Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

He holds a Bachelor’s of Arts degree in English and history and a Masters of Arts in English from Clemson University, a Masters in Public History from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in museum management from McKissick Museum. Continuing education has involved a summer program with the Museum of Southern Decorative Arts and a certificate from the Southeastern Museum Conference’s Jekyll Island Management Institute.

Goodbye, Cleveland…

I have never been so sad to bid farewell to one of our Metropoles of the Month. Not only did the blog feature some incredible history and personal reflections on Believeland in October, but the SACRPH Conference this past weekend took the utmost advantage of #CLE and showcased everything the city has to offer.

There were great panels….

And great tours….

And  the most epic battles for twitter supremacy at #SACRPH ever as Amanda Seligman and Nancy Kwak competed for the coveted Richard Harris Dope Orange Sweater prize:

Winner to be decided at #UHA18 in Columbia, SC!

Breakfast and Lunch were discussed, interrogated, and ultimately hyped:

There was even debate about the undeniable fabulousness of eminent urban historian Carl Nightingale:

But all good things must come to an end…