Wednesday, March 5, 2008

A City of and for Whom? (Feb 21)

And this is very evident in Beijing. Most embassy workers and expats live in such exclusive and private communities. It is a defacto way of life, and increasingly, the new wealthy Chinese elite choose it, so they don’t’ have to deal with the chaos and urbanity that still encompasses the majority of the population here. One of the places we went was called “Palm Springs” and encompassed an entire couple of blocks. Fully walled and gated, the complex had a massive internal courtyard, spa, pool, shopping, all delineated and further defined by the eight forty story towers defining its edges. At the front is a massive bronze lion with wings.

Another series of these new high end communities is called SOHO (Shopping, Office, Housing, ?). These massive complexes have popped up in a number of parts of the cities, and apparently many are only 50% occupied. There was a building across from where I was staying that was almost complete, but was never finished, and had been left standing for 8 years. It was not an uncommon sight, as all over the city, there was a new skyline, but many buildings seemed surprisingly empty. An uneasiness came across me as I was sitting in my room watching the neon lights glitter and bounce all over the building next door, yet there wasn’t a single light on inside.

This image vs. reality was none more apparent than in many of the shopping malls, which by the way are everywhere. All the flashy products, displays, and glitz of the major brands and companies were in full force. But they were dead. It was note uncommon to see more staff and salespeople than actual customers. It was depressing. Everyone trying to sell you something, actually pleading to try and get you to buy stuff. Where were all the customers? How was anyone making money in these places? Are they waiting for the Olympics? Is Beijing trying to produce a self fulfilling prophecy, by building it, marketing it, creating it, they will come?

The ironic reality is that they have already come, but maybe not the ones they are banking on. But, I struggle to believe and understand that most Chinese are able to participate in this new life and image being created. The entire city is being built on the backs of the migrant workers, who still have no stake to any claim of what is taking place, and their only real form of housing is temporarily placed on the construction site they are working on, if they are lucky. Where does the new Chinese individual find their place in this context? I struggle to believe that all the new high rise housing being built will be affordable and accessible to those who need it the most. How long will many of these new buildings stay high end if they occupancy doesn’t increase? In the future will these buidings become obsolete as the market tanks? And then all those who can’t afford housing will take over such buildings? It is happening in Sao Paolo.

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