The heart of Beijing isn’t the cold, highway-crossed neighborhood around Tiananmen Square, but the corridors of old, hutong-style houses just to the north. Two landmarks stand sentinel over this area — the Drum and Bell Towers, stately structures built in 1272 ACE. Now, in the name of easing access to these historic buildings, the Chinese government has decided to bulldoze swathes of the traditional living neighborhoods around them.
The Associated Foreign Press reports that the hutongs around the Drum and Bell Towers will be leveled to make way for a large plaza. “Destroy and evict” notices have been posted saying that the work will be completed by February 24. The notices claim that the demolition has the goal of “protecting the historic legacy” of the city and “restoring and repairing old and dilapidated buildings.” The irony probably doesn’t register.
Between 130 and 500 homes will be destroyed, state press reports said. The government will compensate owners to the tune of 40,000 to 100,000 RMB per square meter ($6,500 to $24,000) — but that price won’t cover the damage to both the community and Beijing’s urban culture.
Those central neighborhoods of hutongs are some of the only areas of Beijing that aren’t dominated by high-rise apartment complexes and office parks. They provide a welcome density, residential-commercial closeness, and lively street life that is hard to find elsewhere in one of the world’s sprawling megacities. The hutongs are also the aesthetic of choice for Beijing’s hip cafe and bar scene, which could be decimated by the demolition.
It is true that the hutong buildings can be less than sanitary, and some lack private bathroom facilities and other basic necessities of urban living. Some residents will likely be more than happy to give up their space up for the government’s price. But it’s also true that the hutongs can be refitted and repaired to a state of habitability and efficiency rather than destroyed. Renovated hutongs command high prices in the city’s real estate market, and architects like MAD’s Ma Yansong have been exploring ways to retrofit the old dwellings.
My own memories of the hutongs from my time spent living in Beijing are of rambling wanderings through countless alleyways, peeking through open doorways into warrens of homes and courtyards. I loved walking down the long, cobbled stretch of Nanluoguxiang late at night, the air softly lit with store lamps and lanterns strung from the trees, stopping in at whatever coffee shop, snack vendor, or cool bar struck my fancy. This was the quiet, calm side of Beijing, the city’s heart and lungs, the break from its constant frenetic din.
If the hutongs are truly on their way out — their destruction has been stalled before — then one thing is for sure: They will be missed terribly.