As Beijing rapidly modernizes, the hutongs — the traditional neighborhood unit of the city dating back to the 1300s — have been disappearing. Hutongs are comprised of narrow grey-bricked alleyways, slanted tile roofs, and square courtyards and were once found throughout the city. About 7000-8000 hutongs originally existed in Beijing, however 90% of them have been destroyed to make way for residential high rises, sky scrapers, and other modern urban amenities. In the early 2000s, the municipal government developed plans to preserve the hutongs in inner-city areas, immediately adjacent to the Forbidden City. Since then, however, the hutongs have continued to disappear, inching closer to becoming extinct places.
One of the more famous hutongs in Beijing is Nanluoguxiang, which also happens to be just a few steps from my apartment for the summer. Since arriving in town, I have explored some of the alleyways and courtyards of Nanluoguxiang in the evenings, which is always crowded with visitors. The main alleyway was recently refurbished into a thriving commercial strip that features a mix of mom-and-pop shops, bars, cafes, food stalls, as well as some posh retail.
Walking through the quieter alleyways, however, has hinted to a less glamorous past and suggests a rich heritage and history worthy of preservation. From talking to some of my colleagues at the office, I have learned that many of the hutongs have been demolished in order to ameliorate living conditions. In addition to the loss of historical structures, another consequence has been the displacement of people from their homes, neighborhoods, and social networks.
Is history repeating itself?
After learning a little bit about this issue, I could not resist comparing China’s redevelopment program to urban renewal in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. According to Zhang and Fang (2004), both the Chinese and U.S. programs had lofty intentions to provide housing to low-income people which were later dismissed by governments motivated by economic growth. Is history repeating itself? If so, what can China learn from the United States about what not to do?
Zhang, Y. and Fang, K. (2004). Is history repeating itself? From urban renewal in the United States to inner-city redevelopment in China. Journal of Planning Education and Research, 23, 286-298.