The Cheonggyecheon Citizens’ Committee offered me a great opportunity to think about what it would mean for a mayor to walk side by side with citizens around the city they live in. It was February 28th when I took a walk with a group of citizens along the Cheonggyecheon. Our group consisted of a diverse mix of people including experts, journalists, some of my fellow civil servants in the Seoul Metropolitan Government, ordinary citizens, and children having a lot of fun as they walked along with us. Despite all the excitement and elation, I often felt that I was walking alone. When I wanted to get to the other side of the stream via a set of stepping stones, for instance, I had to cross it alone because the throng of cameramen on the other side wanted to take my picture with no one else beside me. Looking back, it was really an awkward situation. I felt I was an actor who had to perform the part given to me at the director’s call of “Ready, and action!” I crossed the stream with my fellow workers waiting behind me, looking at the numerous cameras staring at me and emitting innumerable shutter noises. I felt that I was just an object or “the hero” of the restored Cheonggyecheon. A strong sense of alienation overwhelmed me. Well, that might be the destiny a public servant like me should accept humbly.
But the moment of confusion soon passed by and I was able to focus on the report of the Cheonggyecheon restoration project before resuming the walk. Then, suddenly, a group of citizens began to yell down at us, I mean, at me. I could see that some were well-wishers, but there were also impassioned appeals. “There is a serious problem in our district,” one of the citizens called out to me earnestly while others, too, began to speak loudly about the problems in their neighborhood.
I couldn’t hear what they were saying very clearly because we were fairly distant from each other. I stopped to listen to them more closely, but the unexpected situation threw my staff members into confusion. They told me hurriedly that they would give me a detailed report later on with respect to the problems the citizens were trying to convey to me. But I felt that it wouldn’t work and that I needed to hear their voices to understand the situations that concerned them. I asked them to come down and talk about their problems. It was then when I was standing there listening to them that I felt as if I was walking together with the citizens of Seoul. It reminded me of a passage in the book, In Praise of Walking, written by French writer David Le Breton, which goes something like this: “In a city where it suddenly starts raining, anyone can feel a sense of fellowship with others upon finding themselves subjected to such a strange and unfortunate situation under the eaves of the city.”
Wouldn’t it be thus? All of us are probably fellow citizens writing the same history as we live through the same era under the eaves of the city called Seoul. We share the sunlight when it is sunny and shelter from the rain when it rains. As I looked into the sincere eyes of the citizens and listened to their ardent voices, I suddenly became aware of the role of the cameramen who were eagerly photographing every movement I made. I thanked them for all the records they made regarding the administrative services I am trying to provide for the citizens of Seoul. Sometimes I worried about their safety, of course, because they seemed to compete with each other rather too fiercely to get a good picture regardless of the unfavorable conditions surrounding the narrow stream. At any rate, we continued to walk together along the stream, talking and listening.