9/24/19

&: Excavators in Tokyo



This half of East Tokyo is experiencing a building boom. Since I have lived in Shitaya, 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.