Unslumming

I am reading Michael Meyer’s The Last Days of Old Beijing which is an excellent journal about the death and life of a traditional Beijing hutong, which is a narrow lane of courtyard houses. I was reading about how the planners and developers considered these areas slums even though they functioned extremely well and served more as incubators of improvement and socialization than harbingers of decay. Yet a crime and statistics that “proved” the area was overcrowded were enough to mark it for demolition.
As Meyer described it, I thought immediately of Jane Jacobs Death and Life of Great American Cities and the story of Boston’s North End, which was statistically a slum but visibly NOT. I only had to turn the page and Meyer told of Herbert Gans’ 1959 article on Boston’s North End and Jacobs’ coverage of the same subject and her wonderful term for what was happening in these traditional “stable, low-rent areas:” Unslumming.
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Wow. There it is. For the last quarter century we have had only the term “gentrification” but the problem with that term is that it describes something that can happen with old buildings – like much of the near north side of Chicago or Wicker Park – OR with new buildings, like those unprotected areas near Old Town and Wicker Park where the values rise so fast and high that the developers are putting up $2 million Lollapallazzos on spec. Like this one on Burling. Which is probably $5 million.
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But “unslumming” DOESN’T happen with new buildings. It only happens with old buildings. I had forgotten Jacobs’ term, but it exactly describes what happened in North Kenwood and Oakland in the early 1990s, which I chronicled in Future Anterior four years ago ( http://www.arch.columbia.edu/futureanterior/past_issues/vol_2_2_2005.htm).
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In Meyers’ Dazhalan hutong in Beijing, as in the 1950s North End and 1990s North Kenwood, people with middle-class aspirations were unslumming their neighborhoods by rebuilding them bit by bit and little by little and with the existing buildings. But – as Meyers’ quotes Jacobs – such neighborhoods are doomed because no one is making a fortune on them. No fortunes, no big plans, no developers, just tons and tons of incremental improvements in safety, in socialization, in economic strength, in morality and education. A brilliant story of reclaimed humanity and human progress, but one with no place in our limited, clumsy economy.
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It’s funny. In politics this Spring, the LOSERS are whining about socialism but when it comes to real estate development, it works the same under socialism and capitalism. I noticed it when I first went to China in 2003: In communist China huge skyscrapers were built not because they were needed but because their were pension funds that needed to invest in real estate, whereas in capitalist USA huge skyscrapers were built not because they were needed but because their were pension funds that needed to invest in real estate.
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Neither country makes room for the aspiring middle class that wants to do what Jacobs counseled: Save the people and fix the buildings. But in socialist China, that approach doesn’t show enough progress fast enough for government officials and it doesn’t show enough profit for wealthy developers. In capitalist USA, that approach doesn’t show enough progress fast enough for government officials and it doesn’t show enough profit for wealthy developers. So you see the difference, right? Right?
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Preservation as we know it today derives from a postwar effort to rebuild with what was already there. It was opposed to centralized planning in the form of urban renewal and it was opposed to catastrophic development in the form of big projects. Preservation actually points the way toward a third economics, a democratic economics that frees us from the clumsy hands of the cadres and the equally clumsy hands of the hedge fund managers, from the destructive tendencies of two outdated approaches to city building.

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2 Responses to “Unslumming”

  1. aandh Says:

    Very nice post, Doc. What nice thing to discover this morning – your blog. Thanks to your post on Facebook, I will now become a regular reader.

    And you might enjoy taking a look at our blog as well, http://www.heckeranddecker.wordpress.com, where I have written about Beijing and the hutong more than once. I have been at it awhile, though not as long as you, so you will have to drill down a ways – last June there was a flurry when I took a run at Holl’s foolish Linked Hybrid.

    Amy and I are green with envy about your upcoming trip. Sounds just great. Jerry sent us a copy of the latest report – what wonderful work!

    Hope all is well – best to you and all in Chicago.

    Howard

    • vmichael Says:

      Hey thanks! You know Jerry – thanks to him I am in China at least once a year. Hope to catch up with you in DC or elsewhere soon.

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