“Razing History”

A writer named Jonathan Kaiman has a piece in The Atlantic about Beijing’s war on hutongs, which are still being demolished despite official claims that they would be protected:

The demolition of Beijing’s historical courtyard alleyways, called hutong, has long been one of the city’s most controversial issues. At the height of the city’s headlong rush to modernity in the 1990s, about 600 hutong were destroyed each year, displacing an estimated 500,000 residents. Seemingly overnight, the city was transformed from a warren of Ming dynasty-era neighborhoods into an ultramodern urban sprawl, pocked with gleaming office towers and traversed by eight-lane highways.

Remaining hutong dwellers are worried, and for good reason — they have a lot to lose. Their courtyard houses have survived centuries of war and revolution, the strain of collective ownership, and the turbulence of early economic reform. Passed down from generation to generation, they are often last-remaining monuments to entire family lines.

Patchy compensation schemes have left some displaced families insolvent. Unable to afford a new home in the old city, which is gentrifying almost as quickly as it’s disappearing, they are forced to move into shoddy high-rise communities on the city’s exurban outskirts.

But Zhongnanhai-area demolitions are not like other demolitions. They’re more frightening, less easy to understand. Their location eliminates the possibility of a commercial motive. I called the neighborhood police and the district government looking for answers, but their spokespeople hung up the phone or put me through to disconnected lines. Remaining tenants responded to my questions about their neighborhood’s future with incredulous stares.

In January, 2005, over a decade of negotiations between officials and hutong preservationists culminated in the passage of a sweeping proposal called the Beijing City Master Plan. The Master Plan designated a large swath of hutong in central Beijing as a “historical and cultural protected area,” immune from redevelopment. On a map of protected areas, the hutong around Zhongnanhai glowed in a bright, safe yellow. Obviously, it didn’t do much good.

Overhead satellite images viewed on Google Earth suggest that the protected safe zones were neither safe nor protected. In images from early 2005, a small area by Zhongnanhai’s eastern border appears as a dense cluster of trees and rooftops, virtually indistinguishable from any other hutong neighborhood in Beijing. In an image from April, 2006, it is a construction zone.

I decided to take one last walk through the neighborhood on a bright afternoon in early February, but found the site sealed off by a high concrete wall. I followed the perimeter until I came across a discrete metal door. Within seconds, somebody opened it.

The man wore a black police coat and ushered out another man, who was wearing a hardhat. Although I only caught a glimpse of the site, I could see immediately that the last remaining street was gone. The space was enormous, the ground covered in white dust from the wreckage. A fleet of empty police cars was parked to one side. A few men walked around holding clipboards.

Then I saw it, at the far end of the expanse — one house was still standing. Of course it could be empty, I thought. But what if it wasn’t? I strained my eyes for signs of movement. The house’s roof still looked intact, but its walls were crumbling, its windows broken. Under the circumstances, what could possibly justify staying behind?

Issues of human rights aside, it’s really sad to see China’s architectural heritage getting demolished like this. I find it hard to believe that the government couldn’t invest more in renovating these homes (many of which have water, electrical, and plumbing issues) instead of of completely destroying them, but apparently selling the land to developers makes more sense to them right now. A pity.

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Filed under architecture, development, forced demolition

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