The view from Beijing’s Gulou, or Drum Tower, is dominated by the labyrinth of threadlike lanes — the city’s famous hutongs — spreading in all directions, filling in the superblocks formed by the city’s broad, rectilinear avenues. Gulou, built in the 13th century by the Mongol Yuan dynasty, is one of Beijing’s most popular — if not immediately recognizable — attractions, drawing thousands of visitors each year. The resulting crush of tour buses making their way into the drowsy, low-slung square outside the landmark may seem incongruous with the humble hutongs, but the area profits immensely. The square is lined with bars popular with both Beijingers and the Lonely Planet set, and rickshaw tours of the environs take off in all directions.
As a result, the neighborhood, also known as Gulou, has gentrified just enough to make it a good example of how the hutongs might prosper if preserved. Such slow, organic improvements to city life don’t seem to have impressed local government officials, though. The entire Gulou area is set to be demolished and “restored” with historicist buildings that will, allegedly, evoke the look and feel of Ming-era Beijing. This facelift will be for the supposed benefit of tourists alone; the neighborhood’s businesses will be purged, and its residents moved elsewhere.
The widespread eradication of Beijing’s hutongs has been well-documented for several years, and criticized as vehemently by locals as outsiders. Civil society opposition to the demolitions is now formally organized; in 2003, opponents of this form of destructive form of urban renewal founded the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center. But mere attempts to gain detailed information about the government’s plans for Gulou have proven as fruitless as any to limit or stop the neighborhood’s destruction.
The New York Times picked up the story last month with an alarmist account of the neighborhood’s likely future, which would include “courtyard homes for the rich, a ‘timekeeping’ museum and an underground mall, presumably well-stocked with Rolexes and Cartiers — or presumably their more affordable counterfeit cousins”. “It’s going to look like Universal Studios,” a local architect laments of the planned redevelopment, which awkwardly translates as “Beijing Time Cultural City”. (The Gulou, and its neighboring cousin, the Bell Tower, historically functioned as timekeeping devices.)
To be fair, the Times also cites a local resident’s enthusiasm to leave: “tear the whole place down,” he advises (though his opinion, it turns out, is far from universal). The government has supplied some vague reasons why it should, deeming the area “unhygenic and unsafe”. It’s true that many of the hutongs are uncomfortably dusty, the old houses lack adequate heat, and indoor plumbing is hardly universal — many neighborhood residents use Mao-era communal restrooms.
But there are cheaper means to improve the local standard of living than the sort of “slum clearance” tactics that, arguments over the overzealous application of Jane Jacobs’ pro-preservation stance aside, remain discredited in North America. Organic redevelopment, achieved by giving residents the basic infrastructure and tools to improve the existing housing stock, can work just as well as slum clearance, and does so at a fraction of the cost to governments — and with less political friction.
In Beijing, examples are no more than a stone’s throw away from Gulou. Marked for preservation, the nearby hutongs surrounding Lake Houhai were upgraded with modern utilities, and provide a pleasant, pedestrian-friendly, and well-shaded counterpoint to the modern Beijing of arterial roads and modernist midrise towers that has mushroomed beyond the old city. In the meantime, the alleys and lanes leading off Dianmanwai Dajie, the main street leading south from Gulou, have begun gently gentrifying, demonstrating the potential of independent, incremental, and organic improvements to the neighborhood — improvements that leave its historic fabric intact.
Attempts at more aggressive redevelopment, like South Africa’s efforts to replace informal settlements around Cape Town, often stem from governments’ embarrassment over conspicuous poverty. That’s a more understandable motivation in the case of hastily thrown-up favelas and shantytowns than Gulou, though, where there’s value in the housing stock itself. Tourists already flock to experience the neighborhood’s authentic history, and as much as the government pledges to “restore” the area to Ming-era glory days, there’s little evidence the hutongs surrounding the old drum tower don’t compose that era’s original housing stock. Indeed, before it was slated for redevelopment, the existing neighborhood had been deemed a “Historical and Cultural Protected Area” in 2002.
As a result, it seems likely that the government is aware that its “restoration” will be a pastiche — a cleaner, more colorful, but ultimately empty backdrop for the two old towers that will merely more efficiently soak up shoppers’ and visitors’ yuan. Opponents point to the precedent set by Qianmen, south of Tiananmen Square, where a similar redevelopment project eradicated a lively neighborhood and replaced it with what many consider a soulless studio-set version of a 17th century Beijing street.
After the Qianmen fiasco, none other than Prince Charles (who, in the course of his interminable wait for the throne, has made historic preservation and traditional architecture his chief extracurricular activity) personally took up the cause of the nearby hutongs of Dashilan. Although the prince’s meddling might elicit groans from observers who think the balance between preservation and modernization in China ought to be an issue for the Chinese alone, Gulou should be so fortunate. The lack of transparency — and even coercion — used by the Chinese government in such situations demonstrates the true difference between Robert Moses’ political bullying and the machinations of a totalitarian state. Attempts at informed local dialogue over urban renewal in Beijing appear to have been slaughtered in their cradle.
In the context of China’s macro-political structure, minority dissent over urban redevelopment schemes seem non-threatening enough that China Daily, the government’s newspaper, sometimes even gives it lip service. But the case of Gulou demonstrates that attempts to broker any meaningful conversation may touch government nerves. Requests for information from the development agency — which carries the simultaneously ominous and ironic name Beijing Oriental Culture Assets Operation Corporation — have been flatly denied. Earlier this year, when the Beijing Cultural Heritage Preservation Center scheduled meetings with local government officials, they later forced to cancel, for unclear reasons. And when the Times intervened, raising concerns about local residents being forcibly relocated, the response from the government’s planner was cold. “Cities are always changing and developing,” he said.
That much may be true, but positive change was coming to Gulou with or without the government’s help. Now, it’s coming without regard for locals’ input, legal NGOs’ concerns — let alone their mere appeals for information — or a spare thought for the long term value of Beijing’s living history.
Tags: Beijing, China, Hutongs, Preservation, Redevelopment, Tourism, Urban Renewal