Once ranked among the top seven cities in Korea at the heart of the country's textile industry, the southeastern city of Masan experienced a sorry post-industrial decline and recently merged with Changwon. Masan was turned into a free export zone in 1971 and Hanil Synthetic Fiber began operating a factory there. Soon, it became home to 50,000 textile workers and one of the bigger cities in South Gyeongsang Province.
"Masan used to bustle like Myeong-dong in downtown Seoul today," said Moon Jang-chul, the head of Changdong Artists' Village. "Every morning and evening, tens of thousands of workers would pour out into the streets like clouds in the sky, heading to work or back home."
But after the seat of the South Gyeongsang provincial government was relocated to neighboring Changwon, government agencies in Masan moved there one by one. Soaring real estate prices, high wages and a failure to reform its industrial structure prompted factories to move out of Masan in the 1990s. The population declined from 505,466 in 1989 to 414,602 this year.
In a bid to regain Masan's old glory, Changwon City formulated a master plan to revive businesses and created a village for painters and artists from empty storefronts in the area.
Last year, the city spent W2.3 billion (US$1=W1,168) to lease 50 empty store spaces and offered them free of charge to 50 artists for a two-year period. It also cleaned up the urban landscape by burying electrical cables, repaving back streets and refurbishing stores. It set up new street lights and created outdoor exhibition zones and rest areas to give the neighborhood an artsy feel.
"It's difficult for most artists to leave their work spaces, but this place allows ordinary people to visit them and communicate with them," said Kim Sung-ki, a spokesman for the artists' village.
The city is setting an example for urban revival elsewhere in Korea by creating a workspace for artists and building a thriving business district around them. "The creation of the village is an effort to add new cultural and artistic value to the area," said Changwon city official Yoo Kyoung-jong. "This aims to draw people who share the same values, ultimately reviving the region's commerce and the city as a whole."
An opening of the Artists' Village was held in May, and a wide range of festivals and other programs are taking place until June 24. Various cultural and art celebrations take place there every weekend in order to get more people to find out about the makeover of the city.