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Korea Blog: Los Angeles and Seoul, a Tale of Two Ugly Cities

Los Angeles and Seoul have in common enormous size and unusual structure, both of which make them difficult places to apprehend quickly, or indeed even slowly. Someone seeking a functional understanding of either one needs a “way in,” and so, when I first moved to Los Angeles early in this decade, I looked for it in books, reading all I could find about that city. When I then moved from Los Angeles to Seoul three or so years ago, I immediately began reading all I could find about this city. That in addition to the reading about Los Angeles I never stopped doing, my four years there having generated more questions than they answered. Still, my reading (and indeed writing) about Los Angeles and Seoul has revealed to me not just a great deal about the nature of each individual city, but something about their deeper, less obvious commonalities as well.

Over the past ten to fifteen years both Los Angeles and Seoul have entered new eras of self-awareness, and a greater quantity of writing about both cities (sometimes and sometimes not accompanied by quality) has resulted in that same period. In both cases some of that writing is straightforwardly celebratory, but at least as much of it strikes a pose of apology or defiance, as if these cities were inherently unworthy or even objectionable subjects. One of my favorite recent books about the Korean capital is called Even So, I Like Seoul (그래도 나는 서울이 좋다), and a good deal of the enthusiasm for Los Angeles currently expressed in text or any other medium could be similarly titled. Even the most avid enthusiasts of either city will make certain concessions right upfront — Seoul’s bad air and unruly drivers, Los Angeles’ sizable homeless population and incomplete transit infrastructure — and both seem to take as given one particular criticism of both cities so common as to be almost reflexive: that they’re ugly.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.