&: Excavators in Tokyo

This half of East Tokyo is experiencing a building boom. Since I have lived in *******, I can think of ten new hotels that have gone up within a five minute walk of my building, and at least as many fresh high-rises. The grocery store that I go to every day has a new chain hotel right beside it, with a rear door opening onto an alley that runs up beside it, and there's another one across the street from that one, also built in the last six months, and there's a new high-rise going in on the same street. I wish I could tell you the reasons for this—maybe it is really as simple as: we're approaching peak tourism, it's right where most tourists arrive in the city (if they take a Keisei train in from Narita), within striking distance of major tourist sites, it's between two Yamanote Line stations, and real estate is hot again, with condo prices going back up to where they were in the early-1990s. But so, you've got those factors and also, since this part of Tokyo, north of Ueno, east of Uguisudani and west of Asakusa, has plenty of land waiting to be grabbed, plenty of older homes on larger lots, decrepit apartment blocks, there is land to grab. The construction sites mostly blend into the cityscape; they stay covered up until they're complete, sheathed in blue or grey wrapping to protect neighbors from dust and noise; but it's impossible to ignore the demolition sites.

This might be the oldest picture here. It's across from Jokan-ji 浄閑寺, a temple that's home to the remains of thousands of dead from the slums of Tokyo, women and girls from Yoshiwara, victims of the Great Kanto Earthquake. On this block, there was a corrugated tin building housing a liquor store, a labor union office, and an old apartment block. Part of the story with the East Tokyo is reclaiming places that nobody wanted to live before. This is a sad, haunted corner of the city, overlooking a cemetery and a rail yard. Minami-Senju across the way was reclaimed first, and then that eventually spilled over to Minowa. There's been talk recently of the gentrification of the neighborhood formerly known as Sanya 山谷, and now spreading across the districts of Nihonzutsumi 日本堤 and Kiyokawa 清川, and it's the same situation: close enough to transit links, home to rundown hotels and decrepit apartment blocks, formerly beyond the pale for Tokyo residents, but attractive to foreign tourists and bargain-hunting suburban refugees.

This entire block east of Taito Ward Office is being torn down, except a large temple complex (not visible in the picture). There are two new hotels and a new high-rise. Buildings are taken down and go up so fast that I often forget what's been replaced. I couldn't tell you what was here before—a bunch of grey concrete boxes, I bet.

These were grey concrete boxes, I'm sure of that much. This is further south than I normally range, east of Okachimachi 御徒町, near the Satake Shotengai 佐竹商店街, but I kept going by to watch the demolition in progress. When the sound-proof walls came down, everything was gone, except for some debris. It's interesting to see the walls of surrounding buildings exposed for the first time. Those windows previously looked out on the narrow space between another concrete block, and now it's just open space. The excavators are gone, now, but the lot is still empty.

This is right across the street from my building. It was a fairly unique single-family home, built, I'm guessing, sometime in 1980s, vaguely Spanish colonial style facade with red clay tiles, a balcony up top, three palm trees out front, and a concrete block addition. After the house came down, the lot only stayed empty for about a week before it was paved and a self-serve parking lot was set up.

Sad to see they took down the palm trees, too.

The demolition team was all Iranian guys, rare to see inside the city. From the start of the Bubble Era, like, 1985 or so, to the mid-1990s, something like a half million Iranians came over to work, mostly Azerbaijanis, and they did construction, mostly. The ones that didn't jump ship when the economy tanked stayed out in Saitama or Chiba, ended up marrying Japanese women. It's interesting how something as simple as an Iranian demolition team can stand out—Japanese construction workers tend to be among the least conformist people you run into in the city, but the Iranians break the minor taboos that they won't, like, lounging around on the job site, laying flat on their backs, smoking cigarettes. I talked to them while they were doing the final clearing-up work. They all live the way out in Gunma, way the fuck out there, with big houses, shopping once a month at Costco, getting by in their fluent broken Japanese...

With some of the "Chinese walls" posts on Chinese cityscapes, there's a sense of, like, what a sad state of affairs, since these fake old buildings and apartment towers are replacing lively, lived-in places, but this is a demolition site in a boring stretch near Ueno Station. These buildings must all be just old enough to miss the last major seismic code update. I don't know what's going to replace them, but I'd put money on another hotel, since there are already a dozen right there, ranging from nicer chain hotels to lower-tier business hotels converted for tourists. Look at those slabs of reinforced concrete! Most of these places were gentrified years ago and this is just churn, take down an apartment tower from the '80s, put up something fresh.

It'll be a while before work starts here. It's been dragging on for years already. That's how it is. Developers will wait decades slowly eating up enough property to build on. Roppongi Hills is the example most frequently cited: Mori Building had to accumulate 400 lots over nearly fifteen years (nearby Tokyo Midtown was made possible when Mitsui Fudosan snatched up land freed up by relocating government agencies).

This area of north of Ueno is full of motorcycle shops—it's even referred to as Ueno Bike Street 上野バイク街—like how Akihabara was known for appliances and electronics, Okachimachi for jewelry... There are still quite a few shops, some selling used bikes, some selling equipment, but there used to be a couple dozen more, replaced by office buildings and hotels. The north side of this lot was a tire shop, with a motorcycle apparel shop right beside it, and the south side was, I think, a technical school, which was housed in a contemporary-looking office tower with smoked glass windows. The north side was torn down years before, turned into a parking lot, and then, finally, the office tower came down. The demolition of the office tower involved knocking a massive hole in the side of it with the excavator seen in the picture. There must be something big planned for the location.


&: Chinese walls

(wandering around near Beixinqiao, tourist gaze, 老北京)

So much has been written about these Beijing neighborhoods. This is skimming the surface. I don't know the place well.

Where was this, even? Somewhere off of Andingmen Inner Street 安定门内大街, I'm guessing, but that general area, south of the Lama Temple, northwest of Beixinqiao Station. I remember visiting in June of last year, visiting the Lama Temple with *****, then going back in September to have breakfast with Nicky, watching the campaign to brick up all the businesses south of the temple. (Beijing trips run together, but I guess I've been there... about ten or eleven times in the past two years, including short stopovers. So, these dates are not confirmed). I remember reading some notes from people unhappy about the bricking up of shops on the streets around the Lama Temple. That must have been last summer. Visiting late last month, the entire area has been transformed—or, is in the very late stages of being transformed. Some of the shops around the Lama Temple entrance have hung on, but most are gone. Along the main roads, this is how things look: grey brick, torn up sidewalks, piles of building materials, green matting, construction fences. The sign above the corridor reads: "科学施工开拓创新 / 安全施工规范操作 / 坚守岗位尽职尽责," something like... "Pursue development and innovation scientifically / Hold to standardized operation to ensure safety / Maintain your post and do your duty."

If only I was nostalgic for the old Beijing, the new Beijing might disturb me more. I have nostalgia for and anger about other demolished towns but I have a hard time caring about Beijing.

Deeper inside, there are still pockets of something else... It's not the old, the authentic, maybe, since most of these buildings seem to be fairly recent. It seems like you have to intentionally take a wrong turn to arrive at these places, as if the plan is already in place to direct visitors over to the shopping streets cutting through the blocks of hutong.

I wish I knew the history of the place better. I know next to nothing.

This sign says: "阳光腾退 政策不变 一把尺子量到底." I don't know the policies behind these specific directives, but I'll stumble forward, poking at the larger ideas: "sunshine relocation" 阳光腾退 yángguāngténgtuì, makes sense, a slogan suggesting transparency in the relocation process (腾退 téngtuì, rather than 拆迁 chāiqiān, is usually used for situations where the owner is requesting the relocation of tenants, and the building might not be demolished but simply redeveloped?), 政策不变 zhèngcèbùbiàn seems basic enough ("the policy will not change"), and then 一把尺子量到底 yībǎchǐziliàngdàodǐ, which I think I've seen used other places, talking about demolition compensation, suggesting that there a standard method for calculating compensation will be carried out. The smaller posters say things like "早签约 早选房 / 早搬迁 早受益 " "The sooner you sign the contract, the sooner you can choose a home / The sooner you move out, the sooner you benefit," "一家不签约, 大家受损失" "Everyone suffers, if one household refuses to sign," "早日签约早得利 观望拖延一场空" "The sooner you sign the better / Attempting to delay is futile." Maybe the blank white sheets pasted up were meant to have announcements pasted up on them about relocations, or the ink has simply been washed by rain. I don't know. Now, there is nothing but graffiti in red paint, advising that cars shouldn't be parked on the block (the graffiti is blocked in the image above by a parked car).

And here is Jia Li, writing in Artforum to update us on the closure of galleries and less clearly defined art spaces as part of the "urban planning campaign" launched in 2017, which I think most people outside of Beijing still associate with the Daxing fire and the eviction of the "low-end population" 低端人口:
Last summer, residences along a road in Caochangdi—the arts district architected in part by Ai Weiwei—were branded with an ominous “拆” (to be demolished). X Gallery and de Sarthe Gallery’s Beijing branch had to shutter with only two weeks’ notice. But even these expulsions seem trivial when compared to the tens of thousands of members of the “low-end population” who have lost their homes, jobs, and educational opportunities due to this draconian urban purge. It’s no secret the government is kicking out migrant workers, vendors, and low-wage laborers through the violent means of timed relocation, utilities cancelation, forced eviction, arrest, and detention. Statistics from the Municipal Beijing Bureau of Statistics show that, at the end of 2017, over 22,000 residents moved out of the city, resulting in the first instance of negative population growth since 1997. According to a Xinhua News Agency report, the campaign to demolish the city’s “illegal structures” had cleared out 5,985 hectares of land that very year.
So, this building in Jiaodaokou will disappear soon, to be replaced by—I'm not sure. The campaign to declutter the city and evict residents is part of a larger campaign, launched in 2015, aimed at decentralizing Beijing's non-capital functions, as part of a plan to develop an integrated Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei metropolitan area, 京津冀城市群 Jīng-Jīn-Jì chéngshìqún. Clear Beijing. Take down these old ramshackle structures in the central city and send their residents to live in convenient new metropolitan hubs.

These entries are never particularly deep, and I've already said, Well, I don't know anything about the place and I don't really care. I never knew what was here before and I won't care. This corner of the new Beijing was made for me. I'm a visitor to the city. Let me cast my tourist gaze on 老北京. I'm only here because I exited the air-conditioned lobby of my hotel and wandered aimlessly northward, searching idly for a place to buy packable and representative Beijing gifts for friends in Tokyo. I feel at home with the tourists, who, like me, are taken in by the new Beijing. The city and this district have just enough authenticity for me to claim to have experienced Beijing realness. I dream about moving to the new Beijing, occupying a slick apartment in a new high-rise in a formerly gritty Jiaodaokou neighborhood, going over to Beiluoguxiang during the afternoon to sip coffee in some "hutong café" or calling a car with an app on my phone to take me over to the WeWork at Qianmen. Perhaps I could still sell a book about the transformation of the city, maybe put together a blog post where I collect images of security cameras or public toilets or painted over advertising graffiti.

I know somebody that still lives nearby in an authentic hutong hovel and let him take me around what's left of the old neighborhood, listen to his stories about stray cats, landlords, his glorious penury, and maybe he could take me to his favorite hutong bar and reminisce about the winter of 2011 when he and **** ******** met **** **** ******* at that place, the winter all the bottles of beer froze... I like the grey brick. I like the shops selling expensive gifts. And I go back into the air-conditioned lobby through the revolving doors. Maybe I'm giving myself too much credit that this is or could be the place for me, but someone like me that makes more money than I do.

It strikes me that authenticity isn't really the point here, almost thirty years after the invention of hutong tourism—I mean, almost like this is an attempt at reproducing the already pretty fake idea of the hutong presented in pre-Olympic hutong tours, renovation projects, etc. (hesitant to use the word "authentic," though, and hutong tourism is as authentic a culture as whatever, but you know what I mean), like a Xerox of a Xerox of a 老北京. I mean, maybe not even about 老北京, but an attempt to recapture Nanluoguxiang in 2008 rather than whatever the place actually looked like when it was true Beijing Realness, an attempt to do modernity and beauty with an authentic-ish backdrop, a more generic showcase project and not really a cultural tourism spot—or the point of the project is showcasing the cleanup, like, this is what we can achieve with a bulldozer and piles of grey bricks?

&: Japanese walls (walls east of Ueno Station / トタン建築 / first attempt)
&: Chinese walls (first attempt)
&: Chinese walls (Eileen Chang details, folk art, urban novels)