New York City has the Battery. London has its Square Mile. Sydney its Rocks.
Every major global city, no matter how big or cosmopolitan they may become, has within it the original settlements upon which they’re built. In essence, the heart of their city. Most hold onto these historic districts as a link to their past. In recent years, there has been a renaissance in their redevelopment, testament to the importance these areas play in the narrative of a city.
Until this month, Shanghai had Laoximen.
The neighborhood, literally translated as Old West Gate, is the closest thing Shanghai had to its historical past. Contrary to popular belief, Shanghai’s history began well over a millennia ago. Laoximen has been part and parcel of that history for the better part of 500 years. It was witness to the rise of Shanghai as a treaty port following the Opium Wars, civil strife between the Nationalists and Communists, and the breakneck development of the last decade. In many respects the two square kilometer bit in the middle of the world’s biggest city ran counter to a narrative of gleaming skyscrapers, sparsely outfitted modern apartments, and sleek luxury cars. It held out its rag-tag image, largely dating from modernization in 1912, to become a unique part of Shanghai’s changing fabric.
In the ever-present war for progress and territory in this city, however, authorities have decided to wave the white flag and cede Laoximen to developers.
As is the case in many parts of China, redevelopment usually starts with a whimper and ends with a bang. Authorities quietly begin hanging bright red banners as an ominous sign of things to come. Then, the bricking up starts. As residents move out to find new places to live, sometimes subsidized by the government and sometimes not, outsiders begin to notice what’s going on. Without fail, a few nail houses spring up – residents who refuse to leave without a fight. That’s when things get interesting.
The same holds true in Laoximen. On a recent trip there, I spoke with several residents who had lived in the neighborhood their entire lives. After 80-plus years, there was little to convince them to leave everything behind. These stalwarts, ornery and determined, might be the true preservationists the heart of Shanghai needs.
But, the march of time goes on. As Tina Kanagaratnam and Katya Knyazeva note, it’s not just the loss of Shanghai’s historic heart raising concern. Architecture in Laoximen, particularly the original shikumen housing style signature to Shanghai, is the last of its kind. When it’s gone, all we’ll be left with are half-assed Xintiandis.
Shanghai has so much going for it and is ahead of other global cities in many ways. When it comes to historic preservation, however, there is much more progress to be made. No matter how big or cosmopolitan a city may become, it can’t survive long without a heartbeat to keep it going.