The Death and Life of a Great Chinese City

Richard Bernstein – The New York Review of Books

Copyright The New York Review of Books
…Beijing in the Mao years was damaged not only by the razing of old streets and houses but also by the socialist pauperization that had eliminated China’s middle class, causing a generalized dilapidation to set in. Beijing became drab and lifeless, its streets lined by ugly cement housing blocks, its markets pitifully undersupplied. It was a city stripped of the small things that had given it its everyday charm: its numerous delicacies; its hawkers and peddlers, each singing a different chant as they wandered the twisting narrow lanes, known as hutong. The city’s nightspots, theaters, teahouses, and numerous places of sin were shuttered, its restaurants nationalized, not to the benefit of the cuisine.
Now all that has famously changed as China has become an international powerhouse, and it is impossible not to feel a mixture of sadness over the transformation and admiration for the vitality of Beijing’s reconstruction, which is itself evidence of a great improvement in the standard of living of millions of its residents. Meyer, in his account of the obliteration of many of Beijing’s old neighborhoods, cites Le Corbusier, who railed against the sentimentality involved in conflating “rotten old houses full of tuberculosis and demoralization” with a medieval heritage whose preservation is deemed a sacred task. Precisely because of the Maoist impoverishment of an already poor city, many of the warrens of small lanes that were, and are, among Beijing’s idiosyncratic charms were beyond repair. So were many old-style courtyard houses, built behind brick walls, usually with four wings on all sides of a rectangular courtyard. Even in those areas where the authorities want to preserve some of the city’s old look, especially in the northcentral part behind the Forbidden City, renovating an old house usually means reconstructing it from scratch. A man who lovingly restored such a dwelling near the Beihai (North Sea) Park told me that the only element left of the original house was the pomegranate trees in the courtyard.
But the leveling of whole stretches of the old city has also had a brutality to it that adds to the sadness one feels over the loss of the features that made Beijing different and special. Like other great projects—the railway to Lhasa and the damming of the Yangtze River, for example—Beijing’s building boom illustrates both the muscular development of China as an emerging world power and the clumsiness of the one-party state. “The hutong disappeared,” Meyer writes. “Developers ‘bought’ entire neighborhoods, and everyone—even those holding full title, not just usage rights, to their homes—had to go.” In 2007, with China observing the slogan “New Beijing, New Olympics,” the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions in Geneva estimated that 1.25 million people had been evicted from their homes.
Meyer spent three years living in a single room of an old courtyard house, using a public toilet and a public bath a few minutes’ walk away, which he shared with several others, who became characters in a group portrait of ordinary people facing removal from their old homes and the lives they were used to. No sentimentalist or preservationist ideologue, Meyer acknowledges that Beijing is doing what many other cities have done in the past, even if it is doing it in exceptionally sweeping fashion. Meyer’s chief comparison is with Paris and the “drastic surgery on the medieval city center” performed in the nineteenth century by Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the big and essential difference being that Paris remained ravishingly beautiful, architecturally harmonious, and scaled to human dimensions, while Beijing managed none of those things. In 1929, Le Corbusier noted that it was no longer possible, “as in Haussmann’s day, to throw whole districts into confusion, drive out the tenants, and make a desert in the crowded heart of Paris over a space of three or even five years.” …
Click to read more

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *