Sixth Sense: Ghosts on Main Street

For the past seven months my wife Keywon and I been traveling around the world and it has been a veritable smörgåsbord of sites, tastes, and experiences. However, the most profound experience of a long trip like this is the shock of returning home and discovering that something fundamental has changed inside. Last week I returned from Seoul to the US for a friend’s wedding, and while I was only home for a few days, I am still reeling from the shock. When I left for the trip, I regarded my hometown of Berkeley as a pinacle of civilization. When I returned, it was as if I’d developed some kind of sixth sense, and instead saw it as a sad ghost town. After getting over the initial trauma of seeing my stomping ground in this diminished light, I began to realize that understanding what made Seoul so dynamic might also lead to constructive solutions for the US.

Home Sweet Home

From before I was born until the present, Berkeley has been a truly remarkable place in the world. Berkeley really pushes the envelope despite it’s small size. In the mid-1960’s it was the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement and one of the focal points for the tremendous cultural shifts that happened across the country during that decade. UC Berkeley is one of the best educational institutions anywhere, attracting top talent from every corner of the globe, and advancing human understanding in nearly every academic discipline. Its residents are also extraordinary, including notable authors, musicians, chefs, and so on. Berkeley tries to embrace and celebrate diversity — ethnic, cultural, sexual, religious, and otherwise. Its politics is about as progressive as they come, and to me, that’s by and large a great thing. All in all, even today, with only 110,000 residents, it’s per-capita impact on the world is phenomenal.

In addition to these more objective measures, Berkeley is my home and was a wonderful place to grow up as a kid and get educated as a young adult. I’ve lived 29 of my 37 years in the East Bay, and 5 more just across the Bay in San Francisco. From a personal perspective, I will always be fiercely proud of my home sweet home.

Paradise Lost

My hometown pride took a kick in the gut when I came back from my travels. It was like stepping out of a time machine.

My first impressionistic experience was a personal one. My parents’ home hasn’t changed in years. The trappings of 40 years of modest middle-class living has accumulated in piles in various rooms around the house. Two of my parents’ five bedrooms are used primarily for storing junk. There is a layer of dust over everything. While my parents are at least a standard deviation out on the messiness curve, the proliferation of storage lockers tells me that this amount of “stuff” is not so abnormal, with 1 in 10 US households renting a storage locker. Meanwhile the rest of the world is just starting to have the prosperity to enable families to have this kind of accumulation. I think it’s significant that the US has been enjoying this kind of abundance for years.

My next experience was about the state of commerce in Berkeley. For months I’d been craving a good American breakfast, so my first stop was the Westside Bakery Cafe. At first, I was delighted to be eating extraordinarily tasty french toast on Sunday morning, in a spacious dining room with only a handful of fellow diners scattered around the room. With a huge smile on my face, I commented to Keywon how it was such a nice and refreshing change from Seoul, which by comparison is crowded and expensive. She replied that something must be horribly wrong for the restaurant to have so few patrons during what should be the Sunday brunch rush hour. As usual, she was completely right. I left the restaurant shaken.

Businesses on Telegraph, Shattuck, and Solano, three of Berkeley’s traditional shopping streets, have been hit hard over the past five years, and the more time I spent there, the more of these impressionistic moments I had. From a sedate lunch at an almost empty Zachary’s Pizza, a local favorite that was always busy in its heyday, to a listless stroll through the heart of Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto. I’d heard this repeatedly from my mom as her employer, Sue Johnson Lamps & Shades, has struggled to stay afloat during tough times, but it was another thing to experience it first hand, particularly in comparison to Seoul, where a tiny side street can have as much foot traffic as some of the busier parts of Manhattan.


The worst part is that I don’t understand what’s going on, neither from the supply nor the demand side. From the supply side, i.e. the producers of goods and services, there seems to be a lethargy and unwillingness to adapt to the change of environment. From the demand side, i.e. consumers, there seems to continue to be an abundance of wealth in the area, but a lack of spending.

Suppliers seem to blame their situation on a combination of the diminished economy along with the the Amazons and Walmarts of the world. In my view that’s only a small part of the problem, and it has much more to do with stagnation in the midst of a rapidly evolving global market. A few days before our trip, my wife took her skirt to an East Bay seamstress for a hem. They told her no problem, but asked if she could pick it up in a couple weeks. In Seoul, by contrast, any corner cleaners can do a hem that afternoon, and 10 minutes by subway gets you can access some of the best and speediest tailors in the world.1 After laughing when my wife asked if they could do it that day, she left the shop in frustration.

Looking for Answers

In addition to making things cheaper and faster, local businesses can learn a lot from Korea in terms of service innovation. Koreans will try anything to differentiate and serve an untapped market.

Like an ice cream truck for neat freaks, this shop on wheels cruises around Seoul, selling brooms, toilet plungers, and other household supplies, broadcasting its wares by loudspeaker.

The other night I was walking through the Hongdae neighborhood of Seoul, a trendy university district with lots of bars & shops. Rolling down one of the alleyways was a truck, packed to the ceiling with toilet brushes, cleaning supplies, and other household items, hawking its wares over a loudspeaker, sort of like an ice cream truck for urban residents in need. A block later I saw a similar truck selling stuffed Angry Birds, rubber chickens, and other novelty items. I have no idea whether these trucks make good money, but you can’t fault them for not trying.

Inside a beautiful Catholic church-cum-wedding hall for a friend's wedding. An international buffet is included downstairs, and is standard fare for a Korean wedding.

A very different approach is the wedding hall industry in Korea. All over the city, wedding halls put together configurable wedding experiences at the push of a button. They may lack the individuality of a US wedding with separately coordinated venue, catering, rentals, invitations, and personal wedding planner (running a pricey $30K on average and taking months to put together), but they are infinitely more convenient with a wide range of styles and price points.

Taking the push-button wedding hall concept in a different direction, an extreme and slightly morbid example of this innovation is that some large Korean hospitals provide chapels, funeral services, and even suit rentals on-site.

Sometimes their approaches seem wild to the point of random, or seem to be crude, but the end result is a hotbed of service innovation. While the US still seems to have the edge in technology and brand marketing, I think that US local businesses can learn a lot from their Korean counterparts.

Food for Thought

After the US Debt Ceiling Crisis, there has been a lot of doom and gloom about the inevitable “fall of the US empire“. People blame the government, the military, the banks and Wall Street, and the rich and poor alike. There is more than enough blame to go around, and in my opinion the bulk of it does fall on the major strategic blunders of the the past decade ranging from tax policy to unnecessary wars to greedy and grossly irresponsible investing practices.

That said, it wasn’t until my recent trip back to the US that I realized how crazy things are on “Main Street”, and I don’t think most Americans even realize how bad it is, let alone how much we can improve if we push the status quo. To remain competitive as a country we will need to fix every aspect of our economy and social infrastructure. Observing the energy, competitiveness, and innovation of the Korean marketplace not only highlights the stagnation of US local businesses, but also points towards possible solutions.

Ghost town image courtesy of Pascal Bovet at Flickr under Creative Commons license.

  1. In Seoul, it’s the other extreme where I don’t understand how cheap this stuff can be, given the high cost of living here, but that’s another post. []

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