Written and photographed by Allison Tim
When I crossed the bridge on my way to Balsan Village, I was struck by the eerie feeling that I’d been there before. Walking around Gwangju can often feel like déjà vu, with each neighborhood possessing the same collection of coffee shops, fast-food chains, and makeup stores, but this time felt different, more familiar. It wasn’t the path I took that made me think twice either. The half-hour route from downtown took me past the usual assortment of phone stores, banks, and repair shops where spare parts spilled out onto the sidewalk. Nothing was out of the ordinary, but I still felt like I was retracing my steps on my way to the village.
As I arrived at the base of Balsan Village and turned onto one of its small side streets, it all came together. I’d passed by the village many times before, while running along the river or taking a bus across town, each time completely unaware that one of the city’s most vibrant neighborhoods was just around the corner. Although Balsan Village sits between two popular landmarks, Yangdong Market and U-square, it’s easy to miss if you aren’t looking for it. There’s a bus stop (Balsangyo North (발산교 (북)) a couple blocks from the main entrance, but few, if any, signs direct you to the village.
I was surprised to find that the village isn’t that popular with locals. When I asked my friends and coworkers about it, showing them pictures I found online, I received either vague acknowledgements or blank faces. While some had heard about the village, few had visited. So, on my first trip to Balsan Village I wanted to find out why a neighborhood overflowing with pastel-painted walls, quirky gardens, and works of art was still a hidden gem for so many.
To walk through Balsan Village is to take a journey through its history, where each step encompasses the village’s past, present, and future. In the 1970s, the Jeonnam Textile Factory, located across the Gwangju-cheon river, was one of a few large-scale industries operating in the region. As the economy shifted from agriculture to manufacturing, people relocated to cities to find work. Young people from across the country arrived in Gwangju to work at the Jeonnam Textile Factory, and for these workers, who were mostly women, Balsan Village was the only place they could afford to live. Every day, they would cross the river in the morning for work, and then climb back up the hill at night. However, when business slowed down and the factory eventually closed, these workers moved away from the village, leaving behind empty houses for years to come.
Yet, Balsan Village wouldn’t remain vacant for too long. A group of artists arrived in the decades that followed, bringing a new sense of life and aesthetic to the neighborhood that are visible today. In Balsan Village, “more is more,” and this can be seen in its approach to public art and urban agriculture. There is always space for something green, which adds to the village’s bright and whimsical nature. The number of gardens gives the neighborhood an almost park-like atmosphere, with persimmon trees growing behind broken-down shacks and vegetables sprouting up around every corner. While it’s an easy climb to the top, part of the village’s magic lies in the many ways it will make you stop and marvel at its charms. Soft baby blues, lemon yellows, and bubblegum pinks coat the village’s houses, while murals and flower pots decorate the streets, rooftops, and vacant lots. Following the main entrance takes you to the village’s most photographed spot where a set of stairs painted with every color in a box of crayons leads you up the hill, past a series of faces stuffed into slippers, and on to three large sculptures placed at the top of the village.
From its humble beginnings as a working-class neighborhood, Balsan Village has undergone an immense transformation that continues to this day. Studios and galleries invite visitors to admire the work of the village’s artists, and before-and-after pictures appear on building fronts to highlight the revitalization of the community as a whole. There were signs of further development during my visit, as construction started on a new apartment building, and stacks of bricks and 2x4s showed that more renovations were underway. In the future, the city hopes that these additions and programs like the Public Art Residency Project will bring more people to the area.
During my trip, I dropped into a few places that had recently opened, and like the rest of the neighborhood, they each had their own unique style. I recommend stopping by 발산 상회 (Balsan Market), where you can choose from a variety of snacks, hang out in the market’s retro lounge, or take a seat on the rooftop patio and enjoy a view of the city. If you go down the main set of stairs and turn left, you will find the Aura Factory, a small restaurant serving an assortment of street foods, and 여기는오아시스야 (This Is An Oasis), a cafe/studio that has a nice selection of drinks as well as live music performances. At the end of your visit, you can even leave a message on the community blackboard, which is just across the street from the cafe.
Wandering around Balsan Village was a memorable experience not only for its art and nature, but also the community that supports it. As families and couples posed for pictures beside the village’s colorful houses, local kids rode around on scooters, while a group of older men sat around a table drinking coffee. Clothes hung out to dry on rooftops, and the sounds of a concert at a neighboring school could be heard in the distance.
There are plenty of opportunities for people to engage with the Balsan’s community by taking a tour, visiting an art exhibition, or even sitting down for a meal cooked by one of its residents. So, if you’re looking to take a stroll, appreciate some art, or plot your next garden, Balsan Village is the perfect place to go.
Allison Tim is a writer, teacher, and proud pedestrian living in Gwangju. After obtaining her B.A. in International Studies, she spent the following years between the Midwest and Far East, taking photographs, enjoying window seats and indulging in gratuitous coffee breaks.