Sunday, September 09, 2007

'urban villages'

That's what the Chinese call haphazard and convoluted old urban neighborhoods that have historically functioned as places where migrants can get a foothold in the city.

I don't yet know the nature of land holdings in these communities, but I have visited several in Guangzhou. They are built quite like squatter communities--with lanes only wide enough for a bicycle cart and buildings with balconies that cantilever so far out over the alleys that two neighbors could have an affair without ever leaving their respective homes. Like squatter communities all over the world (and like Italian renaissance hill towns), the alleys sometimes make abrupt twists, jutting around this or that projecting building. It's possible to enter these communities and never figure out how to get out. They are full of surprising stores and restaurants and computer centers and tea shops and temples and groceries and beauty salons. Which is to say, they are full of life.

Guangzhou's 138 urban villages are almost all threatened by nearby luxury developments. Liede, a community hard by the Pearl River (and pictured in the photos above during the festival held when the River rises and washes over the neighborhood's embankments and into its streets and houses), has almost been emptied, and is slated to be destroyed by October 15th. Xiancun, not far away, is sandwiched between three luxury developments and is next for the wrecking ball. Shipai, which abuts the fancy Tianhe Commuter Shopping District, is still vibrant and fully functional, but the existence of this land so near to the new central business district must have some developers panting.

I don't think the Guangzhou authorities quite understand what will be lost if these communities go.

I'll write more on these fascinating communities as I learn more.