KUNSAN AIR BASE, South Korea — It’s 9 p.m., still early for a Saturday night, as airmen trickle into the mom-and-pop restaurants in this dimly lit neighborhood for bulgogi, ramen and greasy fried mandu. Clusters of airmen stand outside and smoke, and around the corner, where the diners turn into juicy bars, music is already starting to blare.
Welcome to America Town, a tangle of narrow streets and neon lights where generations of airmen from tiny Kunsan Air Base have gone to eat, drink, buy souvenirs and meet women.
"It’s like a legend. Everybody knows about it in Korea. People tell stories," Senior Airman Michael Downard said over dinner at Big Boy Restaurant, a clean but simple one-room diner with five tables, sagging wallpaper, and a pink plastic pig on the front counter.
Make that the former America Town. Set in the middle of sprawling farmland, this ramshackle bar district has an ambitious new name that leaders from nearby Gunsan City hope will be the first step in its makeover and, ultimately, its role as an international tourist destination.
Kunsan commander Col. Bryan Bearden suggested renaming A-Town after he arrived at the base in late spring. Now on his third tour in South Korea, Bearden said he has developed a "great respect" for the country and that it’s wrong that an area in the middle of South Korea should be named after another country.
"I didn’t want to call it America Town. I wanted it to be more representative of the community," he said.
Bearden asked Gunsan City mayor Moon Dong-shin if he wanted to change the name. The mayor agreed and even paid for the sign, Bearden said.
Bearden suggested calling the area Barley Town, or B-Town, after the barley fields surrounding the district. The city took suggestions from historians and Kunsan airmen, whose nominations included "Healing Spirits," "Peace Ville," "Global Ville" and "Holy Ville."
Moon selected the winning name: "International Culture Ville," which reflects the city’s ambitions to become a major port for Northeast Asia, and its hope that A-Town will become a tourist draw as the city grows.
Local corporations donated 12,500,000 won, approximately $9,000, for two new signs. The city quietly unveiled the signs in late September, and put the tallest one on the turnoff that leads to the town. Across the street is the old sign for A-Town, hanging on a neon orange palm tree that blinks at night.
Most airmen panned the new name.
"I laughed when I saw the sign," said Staff Sgt. Kurt Weisel.
"The military makes this place what it is, and it’s A-Town," said Staff Sgt. Cody Martin.
"I heard about A-Town before I even got here," said Senior Airman Daniel Lane. "It’s always going to be A-Town. They might change it, but it’ll always be referred to as A-Town."
Local business owners don’t think much of the name either, saying the area is far from international.
"The new name doesn’t match this neighborhood at all," said Jang Gil-hoon, who owns a sportswear store there. He said 85 percent of the area’s customers are American airmen, and the rest are workers from the Philippines and Uzbekistan. He said the town reminds him of undeveloped parts of South Korea during the 1970s. The city has done little to make the area nicer for residents or airmen, who sometimes come into his store looking for a garbage can for their cans and cigarette butts because they can’t find one on the street, he said.
"I feel personally sorry for the soldiers in this poor environment, where there is no good place to enjoy themselves," he said.
Cho Kyung-soon, owner of Mama’s Restaurant, said the name was "kind of dumb." She thinks city leaders want to improve the area, but she’s skeptical that they’ll do anything.
She said she wants Kunsan airmen to have a nicer area near their base where they can relax, instead of going to Osan or Seoul for fun.
"They see me as a real mama, and I treat them as my real sons," she said. "Serving one airman is a lot better than 10 Korean ... customers. I hope the city develops the neighborhood, so the airmen can enjoy themselves."
Even Han Byung-wan, a spokesman for Gunsan City’s construction department, said the new name doesn’t fit the town — yet.
"The new signposts are the first sign of change," he said.
Han said area residents have asked the city for years to clean up A-Town, famed for decades for its South Korean and foreign prostitutes. The prostitutes disappeared long ago, he said, and the bar area started to become less rowdy about five or six years ago.
The city wants to further spruce up the town by building a giant shopping center, and areas where troops can relax and the city can hold festivals.
Bearden said the new name will become more popular in about a year, because of the high turnover rate at Kunsan, where airmen serve one-year unaccompanied tours.
At least one airman thinks the name change is a good idea.
"I was here 10 years ago, and this place hasn’t changed a bit. Maybe if they change the name, maybe they’ll get more than just GIs coming here to drink," said Master Sgt. Dennis Hamm.