Gentrification Doesn’t Work.
I had an appointment with an ex-student of mine, back from my years teaching at the university; he came back soon after his graduation in Milan.
In 20 minutes, I got out of the metro station, right in the old area of the Beijing. I scanned the Qr-code, and I got a bicycle. I ride for a bit avoiding people, vendor’s, random pile of stuff on the road. In a bit, I arrived. Accordingly to Gmaps - VPN-activated - I should be in the right place. He promised me the best Old Fashion in Beijing, and I cannot miss it.
I stopped, I closed the bicycle; the typical ring-melody started reminding you your credit had been taken from your WeChat Wallet. I turned around trying to see the place. I'm not far from some bars, with refurbished exposed bricks walls, but there was nothing there. On my side, the buildings were destroyed to the ground, and freshly demolished walls were still laying on the walk side.
He suddenly arrived. He waved at me from afar and shouted “Come here! The place was there next to you but yesterday had been demolished... I was there only two days ago, and now it’s gone! Come, let’s find another one.”
We got through a small alley, and we entered a Courtyard. Here, many art galleries and design offices put their roots. The ex-partner of Steven Holl set his office right here. I guess to get closer to the authentic Beijing - after my visit in the Linking Hybrid one year ago. I spied inside. All the lights are on. The office was at full regime on Saturdays. We moved, but not far. We stop at a Belgium beer bar. Here, the local owner had an extensive collection of punk music from the 90s. It was right between to the Schnitzel place, owned by Israeli good friends of guys from the Italian Association AGIC in Beijing. I turned and right in front there was the bar/social center where on Mondays it projects European black and white subtitled movies from the 50s.
We took a beer and started talking about the dilemma of the demolition and reconstruction. We talked about the recent news, the significant changes in the trendy, and populated by foreigners, district.
Here is the heart of the cultural life of the last 5 years. But now it’s in danger. New policies are deciding the fate of the cultural life. New rules set the minimum height for any opening at 1.60 cm from the ground.
The typical environment is narrow roads in between the typical Chinese ancient courtyards, long walls more or less reminiscence of the past. Apparently, the unique mix of cultures doesn’t belong anymore to this romantic environment.
Walking, you could see just renovated co-working spaces full-window openings, from top to bottom, live music, small clubs welcoming foreigners and trendy locals looking forward to hanging out with the expat community. It is a refreshing environment, a village like life.
Will all soon be gone?
Side by side these practices, the ancient houses are renovated randomly, with plastic-framed windows, metal roofs, spaces neglected by locals taking over in the 70s the “evil rich” traditional living between these walls for generations. The environment is neglected rapidly changing the vanishing image of the area. The passion of the expats in these areas is remarkable, turning the falling houses into bohemian cafés, bookshops, and cultural spots.
Ten years ago a transformation started, a revolution brought ahead by “aliens” to these areas, renovating the legacy of this country - in their own way - creating life, a place to be for foreigners and young locals, generating a new vibe for Beijing.
Appears now that even this “welcomed” gentrification, cannot do anything here. In China - the capital of the ephemeral life - gentrification doesn’t work.
My ex-student and I were continuing talking, making speculations about the real reasons for these actions. We discussed the implication of the legacy and the will of the government to preserve the feeling of the walled Hutong - with the small window and narrow passages - or maybe for fighting the invasion of the expats in the most typical zone of Beijing? We continued speculating on perverse and hidden intentions to wipe out all of this for possible real estate advantages.
Expats and locals don’t know what is going on…
The conversation continued talking about the city, China, and architecture; soon the conversation vanished in noises, smoke, and inebriation.