The city of Shanghai is home to an interwoven network of lanes, called lilongs, which are packed with low-rise residences, vegetable markets and noodle shops.
A Shanghai district falls to the wrecking ball
But these neighborhoods that families have called home for generations are falling victim to the breakneck pace of modernization.
So it is with the disappearing neighborhood of Laoximen.
Literally translating to “old west gate,” Laoximen was the location of the western gate of Shanghai’s old walled city.
Now, residents are leaving their homes in droves, as crews work from west to east knocking down a neighborhood that has existed for 500 years.
Chinese housing policies have left many lilong houses in a state of neglect and disrepair. That means knocking them down and starting from scratch is much cheaper than restoring homes with no indoor plumbing, heating or insulation.
“From the point of view of the government, [demolition and then development] is the fastest way to regenerate this kind of area, and the best way economically,” says Ding Feng, chief planner at the Shanghai Tongji Urban Planning and Design Institute.
Many of Laoximen’s pensioners are quite happy to be given a cash handout to leave their run-down dwellings, most of which date from the 1920s and ’30s, says Patrick Cranley of walking tour company Historic Shanghai.
Others, with children and grandchildren living in downtown Shanghai, bemoan the fact that the money they receive won’t enable them to live in high-priced housing nearby. Most will likely move to newer developments on the city’s outskirts.
“When these guys are moved out of a lane, into a new apartment building, they are lucky if they know the people across the hall. There’s not the same immediate access to leisure spaces, the shops are more inconvenient. That neighbourhood feeling is something that is hard to preserve,” Cranley says.
Tina Kanagaratnam, also of Historic Shanghai, says that although it’s far from perfect, Shanghai is still leading the way in China in terms of maintaining some semblance of its multifaceted history. “It still breaks your heart every time you see something like Laoximen, because of its buildings, its culture. You know this whole way of life is not going to continue. But at the same time, every time we go somewhere else in China and come back, we think, ‘Thank God we live in Shanghai,’ because there is so much more [preservation work],” she says.
Ding says that in the city’s colonial former French Concession, much more effective preservation work has been done by architects and urban planners, in hand with the local community and governemnt. But Laoximen’s district government has been less proactive.
Although Laoximen will likely be gone within the next few months, there is hope that as the central government and growing middle-class population shift away from development at all costs, historic preservation will become more of a priority.
“We always say that historic preservation is a luxury,” says Historic Shanghai’s Patrick Cranley. One of our arguments is that the wealthy in Shanghai should turn their attention to cultural endeavors. After you’ve got your fifth Ferrari and your fourth condo, you can use your economic leverage to make the city you love better.”
Laoximen, however, will have to remain a memory.