When I lived in Beijing, the city’s hutongs — the alleyways and simple dwellings of the old neighborhoods, the ground-floor of the city’s history — were beginning to fall to urban redevelopment.
I was ambivalent. I loved riding my bike there for the slow pace, the quiet, the close-up view of street life, with only the occasional car or truck. The hutongs were quaint, historic, but they were also dirty and unsanitary. They reeked of urine, especially in the summer, and, as the weather got colder, that odor, combined with coal smoke and the smell of winter cabbage stored on roofs and ledges, was lethal.
A small hutong preservation movement sprang up, but it couldn’t answer the public health charges, or credibly claim that the houses had architectural merit or that the few trees, nearly naked and gasping for air, warranted environmental protection.
Nor could preservationists have resolved the problem of transportation. The hutongs, even if moderately re-engineered, couldn’t accommodate Beijing’s vehicle explosion. Beijing drivers needed space to race and red-lights to run. (A UN official, new to China, said that, before he arrived, he had pictured China as a Communist Germany, but, once he started driving there, he realized it was a Communist Italy.)
The preservationists saved a bit, but primarily as a tourist attraction, a museum piece that, whether intentionally or not, silently demonstrated the mixed heritage of Maoism and the wisdom of moving on.
My ambivalence in the battle of development vs. preservation extended even to certifiably vital institutions like Beijing’s national art museum. Its purpose and its contents were to be treasured. But the building itself was dingy and ill-lit, like an outhouse for Mona Lisa. The staff seemed to take their cue from their surroundings, leaning abstractly against the walls, on an extended cigarette break without the cigarettes.
Once, after seeing an otherwise compelling modern photography exhibition, my wife and I, desperate, grabbed a cab, with the single, urgent, unequivocal instruction — STARBUCKS!! Within minutes, we were greeted by warmth, cleanliness, comfort, and the unfailingly cheerful greeting — WEHKAM TO STAHBAK!! Here too, it seemed, the staff were taking their cue from their surroundings.
Urban redevelopment left even the most street-savvy Beijingers disoriented. Everyone had a story about the store, even the neighborhood, that had vanished. People, accustomed to orienting themselves by visual cues, regularly got lost after the shoe repair shop on the corner took a walk.
I had a favorite bicycle shop about two miles from our apartment. I needed a new seat and rode to where, just weeks before, I’d bought a new bike lock. Not only was the shop gone, so was the entire building. I thought I’d taken a wrong turn.
If the old bicycle shop and its building (neither one much to crow about) were replaced by something warm, clean, comfortable, and welcoming, what was the balance between loss and gain?
Maybe the answer is precisely that — balance. The Forbidden City, for example: massive, stunning, historically and politically instructive, but also, even by modern standards, adaptable. My singing group rehearsed in The Children’s Palace, on the Forbidden City’s north side. And, on its south side, just inside the main entrance and Mao’s giant portrait, a Starbucks — warm, clean, comfortable, with an always-cheerful WEHKAM!