Posted November 13th 2012 at 7:23 am by
in Planning 101

Letter from China: Destruction in Two Keys

Post author Zach Hyman is studying grassroots innovation across China on a U.S. Fulbright Grant.

Letter from China: Destruction in Two Keys

Letter from China: Destruction in Two Keys

A house marked for demolition.

During the initial month of my research on Chinese grassroots creativity and mobility, I traveled through Sichuan province in western China and visited several cities of various sizes. Coincidentally, two of these cities were undergoing planned, municipal-government led demolitions. Just as there were differences in the populations and geographies of these two places, so too were there differences in their respective approaches to the demolition process. Out of respect for the sensitivity of this subject, I will call these two cities “A” and “B”.

City A’s population is in the millions. Located on a river, it is a key regional transport hub with many goods flowing through its massive wholesale market located near the heart of downtown. Sprawling over many acres, the market complex receives shipments from provinces across China – carrots from next-door Yunnan province, potatoes from Gansu several provinces away, and radishes from Hebei on the opposite side of the country. The market is estimated to supply the city with between 60% and 70% of its fruit, vegetables, dried goods, and meats. It is also supplies headaches for city planners, who are at a loss as to how to manage the traffic (composed mostly of large trucks) that snarls roads in the neighborhood and wreaks havoc on local residents’ commutes. This, combined with the skyrocketing property values of this rapidly growing city, has landed the market on the “to-be-demolished” list.

Letter from China: Destruction in Two Keys

Pushing peppers around the market scheduled to be demolished. Photo by Zach Hyman.

City B, small by Chinese standards, is located in the Sichuan mountain range. Though its population is less than 100,000 people, it also serves as a transportation hub. City B’s rail link connects the surrounding agricultural region to the rest of the province (including City A). As City B’s population has swelled with recent rural migrants, being connected to the rest of China by train – a safer and more reliable option than road transportation in this mudslide-prone region – has proved a major asset. With its small rail station already running at peak capacity, the municipal government has long been planning on expanding the railway station – even though doing so will mean having to demolish the densely populated historic neighborhood surrounding the train station.

Although each demolition has its own consequences, there are parallels as well – neither markets nor neighborhoods are easily “moved”  (if it is even possible to “move” a place). All land is state-owned in China, and the government reserves the right to develop it as it wishes. In City A, while the location for the new market is supposedly about 40 kilometers (25 miles) outside of the city, vendors all seem to have differing opinions about when (or even whether) the move will happen. “The market will move in five years, but it won’t be our section – only the fruits and vegetables part,” says a wholesaler of beans, dried peppers, and dried mushrooms. “They will definitely be moving the entire market in about two or three years from now,” asserts a fruit wholesaler. Those I spoke with at the market agree on some things, however: all plan on moving with the market, and none know what will be built on the old market site. Speculation ranges from a long-distance bus station to condos.

For the many in surrounding communities dependent upon the market, though, the future is not as certain. “I don’t know how I will get to the new market,” says the vegetable merchant who relies on a three-wheeled vehicle to both transport him to and from the market and also display his fruits and vegetables for sale. “This vehicle is powered by a motorcycle engine – it’ll take me too long and use too much gas to drive it all the way from my home to the new market space. I’m trying hard now to save so I can buy a small van in a few years.” For others, reluctant resignation: “I don’t think I can drive to such a far away place. I’m getting too old for this,” says a cart-based vendor who sells barbequed meats and vegetables that he sources from the market. “If I can’t buy wholesale, my profit will be too small. I think I’ll try borrowing money and starting a small restaurant – selling out of a cart just won’t work anymore.”

While rumors seem to be the main way the information about City A’s potential market relocation was disseminated, the process is, in some ways, more clear-cut in City B. “A municipal employee came up to our shop and told us the neighborhood was scheduled for demolition,” said one restaurant owner. “They assured us that the government would arrange for everything.” As to specific dates for the move, however, the answers sound similar to City A. “They didn’t tell us when [the demolition will occur], only that we should prepare to move and that [the government] will arrange everything for us,” said the owner of a hair salon.

Letter from China: Destruction in Two Keys

“180” – yet another demolition number. Photo by Zach Hyman.

After the announcement, municipal employees spray-painted a number onto the side of each building slotted for demolition, which represents the sequence in which the building will be demolished in relation to the other buildings in the neighborhood. Walking up the street, one can trace the sequence of spray-painted numerals up one side and down the other, around corners and down alleyways. Although I quickly felt guilty for trivializing it so, following the spray-painted numbers felt like a game – part walking tour, part “I Spy”. As I photographed a worn wooden door sprayed with the number “101”, a resident approached to watch me. After several moments, she proclaimed, “That is an ugly door, and an ugly house. It will be better once it has been demolished!” I asked her when she thinks that will be. “Ah, [the government] is still looking for money to build [the new train station], so who knows? Maybe next month, maybe next year!”

There were many more nuanced opinions than I expected to find before setting out to speak with residents, though in the end people’s feelings about the demolition could be generally summed up as progress versus displacement, undercut with resignation and uncertainty about the final demolition, whenever that may be.

Post and photos by Zach Hyman.

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