Creative destruction, or destructive creations? Part 2, in with the new?
[Continued from yesterday's Part 1.]
In yesterday post, using as our text a New York Times article on the proposed comprehensive slum redevelopment of Kashgar, Xinjiang:
Kashgar, though, is not a typical Chinese city. Chinese security officials consider it a breeding ground for a small but resilient movement of Uighur separatists who Beijing claims have ties to international jihadis. So redevelopment of this ancient center of Islamic culture comes with a tinge of forced conformity.
As far as I can tell from my fractured central Asian history, the Uighurs belong to China for the same reason the Scots belong to England; isolated by geography (Scotland the Norwegian Sea, Xinjiang by the Tien Shan mountains) and dominated by a more fertile, and more populous, contiguous neighbor through whom they have to pass; plus they were a strategic way station on China’s Silk Road.
China supports an international plan to designate major Silk Road landmarks as United Nations World Heritage sites — a powerful draw for tourists, and a powerful incentive for governments to preserve historical areas.
What reasons do the Chinese give? Are they credible?
Chinese officials have offered somewhat befuddling explanations for their plans. Mr. Xu calls Kashgar “a prime example of rich cultural history and at the same time a major tourism city in China.” Yet the demolition plan would reduce to rubble Kashgar’s principal tourist attraction, a magnet for many of the million-plus people who visit each year.
Not much of tourist interest here: Kashgar, April, 2009
But Kashgar is missing from China’s list of proposed sites.
The dog that didn’t bark in the night?
“The Chinese government did nothing about Kashgar’s historic importance.”
One foreign official who refused to be identified for fear of damaging relations with Beijing said the Old City project had unusually strong backing high in the government.
I’ve never yet encountered architects and historic preservationists high in government. The evidence is piling up.
Dust to dust? Redevelopment in Kashgar
The project, said to cost $440 million, began abruptly this year, soon after China’s central government said it would spend $584 billion on public works to combat the global financial crisis.
It would complete a piecemeal dismantling of old Kashgar that began decades ago. The city wall, a 25-foot-thick earthen berm nearly 35 feet high, has largely been torn down.
Mud but historic: Kashgar’s city wall
In the 1980s, the city paved the surrounding moat to create a ring highway. Then it opened a main street through the old town center.
As I wrote in cities’ cryptobiotica, I’m deeply suspicious of clear-cutting cities and slums in the name of traffic efficiency:
Those who uprooted whole communities, clear-cutting the neighborhood and redepositing it elsewhere in the city, overlooked the intangible, wetware community. They saw the slum’s exterior manifestations – the dirt, the overcrowding, the ill health, the poverty – and that blinded them to its assets – the tightly knit community, the aggregated and distributed knowledge. So Robert Moses could cut a swath through New York with his Cross-Bronx Expressway, oblivious that when he did so, he killed that chunk of Harlem for forty years.
Open-heart surgery on a neighborhood
Despite or because of China’s actions, Kashgar retains much of its uniqueness:
Still, much of the Old City remains as it was and has always been. From atop 40 vest-pocket mosques, muezzins still cast calls to prayer down the narrow lanes: no loudspeakers here.
A city and its mosques: Kashgar
Hundreds of artisans still hammer copper pots, carve wood, hone scimitars and hawk everything from fresh-baked flatbread to dried toads to Islamic prayer hats.
Shop in Kashgar Old Town
And tens of thousands of Uighurs still live here behind hand-carved poplar doors, many in tumbledown rentals, others in two-story homes that vault over the alleys and open on courtyards filled with roses and cloth banners.
The city says the Uighur residents have been consulted at every step of planning. Residents mostly say they are summoned to meetings at which eviction timetables and compensation sums are announced.
Shades of Kelo v. New London, isn’t it?
“The house belongs to us,” said Hajji’s wife, who refused to give her name. “In this kind of house, many, many generations can live, one by one. But if we move to an apartment, every 50 or 70 years, that apartment is torn down again.”
If you’re thinking in terms of 50-70 year housing, you’ll be better served in a proper structure.
“This is the biggest problem in our lives. How can our children inherit an apartment?”
Building inspectors have deemed most of the oldest homes unsafe, including all mud-and-straw structures, the earliest form of construction. They will be leveled and, in many cases, rebuilt in an earthquake-resistant Uighur style, the city promises.
High-rise housing in Kashgar
But three of the Old City’s seven sectors are judged unfit for Uighur architecture and will be rebuilt with decidedly generic apartment buildings. Two thousand other homes will be razed to build public plazas and schools. Poor residents, who live in the smallest homes, already are being permanently moved to boxy, concrete public housing on Kashgar’s outskirts.
Shades of the slums inside, in Paris and around the world.
What will remain of old Kashgar is unclear. Mr. Xu said that “important buildings and areas of the Old City have already been included in the country’s special preservation list” and would not be disturbed.
No archaeologists monitor the razings, he said, because the government already knows everything about old Kashgar.
Nice to be omniscient.
Trust me, I have your best interests at heart
Some residents say they also prefer a more modern environment.
The thousand-year-old design that gives the Old City its charm often precludes basics like garbage pickup, sewers and fire hydrants.
Charming if only visiting: donkey cart and alley rubble
Rusticity is attractive when you can go home to your gleaming downtown hotel, your ceramic bathroom, and your piping hot shower.
In Mr. Xu’s view, demolition will give the Uighurs a better life and spare them from disaster in one fell swoop.
All that said, there is a certain aura of forcible eviction about the demolition, an urgency that fear of earthquakes does not completely explain. The city is offering cash bonuses to residents who move out early — about $30 for those who vacate within 20 days; $15 if they move in a month.
By itself, that’s not so terrible, even if it smacks of the self-fulfilling blight creation of which the developer of Brooklyn’s Atlantic Yards property has been accused.
Homes are razed as soon as they become empty, giving some alleys a gap-tooth look.
We’ve seen before that Chinese developers have what we would consider a cavalier attitude to property rights, changing facts on the ground to erode the political and topographic support for the status quo.
From sixteenth to twenty-first century: Kashgar at twilight
On Kashgar television, a nightly 15-minute infomercial hawks the project like ginsu knives, mixing dire statistics on seismic activity with scenes of happy Uighurs dancing in front of their new concrete apartments.
“Never has such a great event, such a major event happened to Kashgar,” the announcer intones. He boasts that the new buildings “will be difficult to match in the world” and that citizens will “completely experience the care and warmth of the party” toward the Uighur ethnic minority.
Spare me the care and warmth of the Communist Party, as evidenced by Russia’s public housing, which in my view contributed to Communism’s collapse.
The infomercial also notes that Communist Party officials from Kashgar to Beijing are so edgy over the prospect of an earthquake “that it is disturbing their rest.”
What does the government have in mind for the Uighurs?
Yes, slums can be breeding grounds for terrorism, but they are also breeding grounds for democracy, even in Zimbabwe, and even in China. China has a history of authoritarian government trampling property and human rights in the name of development.
We all remember the lone figure and the tank, but we forget this: Tienanmen Square’s aftermath
When, in 1523, Alfonso X of Spain demolished a chunk of Islam’s largest mosque, the Mezquita in Cordoba, to build within it the Villaviciosa and Royal Chapels his emperor, Carlos V, upon seeing the result, is said to have remarked, “You have destroyed something unique in the world and built something that can be found anywhere.”
“Something unique in the world”
If it were up to me, earthquake risk notwithstanding, I’d say:
Let ancient Kashgar live.
Keep your old way of life