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Heritage Trail project

The Gulou gets a reprieve

China Daily by Daniel Garst, Monday 18 October

Several years ago, many of the Dashilar’s historic hutong neighborhoods were torn down to make way for redevelopment. And, up until very recently, it seemed certain that this would soon begin to happen to the area around the Bell and Drum towers.

But, in a surprise move, Dongcheng district government has put the so-called “Beijing Cultural Time City” Gulou Redevelopment Project, which was scheduled to begin shortly, on ice indefinitely. By preserving an important part of what’s left of old Beijing, this decision will help the city maintain a distinct identity compared with other global metropolises.

While every other world city has gleaming high-rise towers and glitzy shopping malls, none of them has anything equivalent to Beijing’s old hutong neighborhoods. And those around the Bell and Drum towers are arguably the crown jewel of Beijing’s still extensive, but rapidly disappearing historic inner core.

Numerous non-residential historical buildings that are worthy of preservation also stand in close vicinity to the Bell and Drum towers. These include palaces dating back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and the so-called Ten Temples, which make this place an important cultural and spiritual center.

To be sure, parts of this area, notably the Nanluoguxiang, are now overly commercialized. This change prompted the up-and-coming Chinese fashion designer, Liu Lu, to move her first clothing boutique from the Nanluoguxiang several years ago. In a recent interview, she told me that the street had become “too touristy”, adding “it used to be beautiful, but now it’s an Oriental Times Square”.

That said, the main artery running east from the Bell and Drum towers, the Gulou Dajie, retains a funky charm, thanks to its still numerous rock ‘n’ roll guitar shops and small independent clothing stores.

And even the Nanluoguxiang’s current overly touristy incarnation is much better than what was planned for the Bell and Drum towers in the “Beijing Cultural Time City” Project. Its backers intended to remake the Bell and Drum towers area along the lines of the Qianmen Mall and Dashilar redevelopment, arguing that the latter’s makeover had been a great success.

When I heard about that, I thought, “Have these folks actually visited the new Qianmen Mall?” Yes, it’s bustling in the sense of having heavy pedestrian traffic. But whenever I’ve visited this place, very few of these pedestrians appear to be buying things at the expensive upscale foreign chain stores housed in the tasteless faux Qing-style buildings lining the mall.

While the Drum and Bell towers’ old neighborhoods are certainly worth saving, ardent preservationists also recognize that they have serious problems. Many courtyard dwellings are run down and overcrowded – they do not meet even minimally acceptable standards for decent housing. And the area has too much traffic, a problem that “Beijing Cultural Time City”, with its plans for a huge underground parking garage, would have made even worse.

But these issues need not entail whole-scale “redevelopment” of this part of Beijing. As Zhang Pei, who has led preservationist efforts in the Gulou area has argued, if you have a tattered Ming chair, you should restore it, rather than discard it as rubbish. And residents wishing to relocate – many have strongly expressed a keen desire to do that – should be given the chance to do so.

Finally, commercial traffic, especially the rickshaw rides, should be limited in the residential hutong around the Drum and Bell towers.

People living there deserve more privacy and now that the area has received a reprieve, I will keep my camera in my bag the next time I’m strolling about there. And I will also applaud the local authorities who, for now at least, have done the right thing in saving a valuable part of old Beijing.

Read the original article.

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