Villages in the City, Handshakes in Shenzhen

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Shenzhen has a short history.  The skyscrapers, the parks, the expressways, and the metro that define this modern, linear city sprang up in the last 30 years.  The map I bought at a local bookstore shows the transformation of the city from a small fishing village with a few official, but isolated roads in 1977, a larger node of development with a designated capital in 1984, and that same area of development multiplied by about ten times in a linear configuration in 1995.  The building and population explosions that Shenzhen witnessed at this time were due to a burgeoning manufacturing economy.  Factories sprang up on this relatively inexpensive land just outside (and to the north) of Hong Kong.   Present day satellite images and maps reveal that most of the voids of the 1995 maps have been infilled.  And now, the city finds itself involved in service and electronics trade rather than manufacturing.

I’m located in a very posh pocket of Shenzhen.  When the manufacturing plants and factories dried up, many were converted for other uses.  This area of former worker housing, is now upscale apartments, an international youth hostel, and an arts district.  Galleries, furniture shops, and high-end cafes dot the area.  It is clear that designers have been here.  In fact, the architectural office of internationally recognized Urbanus is right around the corner, and I have an appointment to speak with them about their work and the future of Shenzhen later next week.

I spent the first couple of days here at two extremes.  One, was at the electronic market, a central business district area of Shenzhen, and the second was exploring the city’s “Village in the City” phenomena.

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Shenzhen’s electronic mall and surrounding area at rush hour is the busiest, most crowded part of China I’ve seen so far (and it doesn’t raise a finger to India).  It was a little like witnessing a Chinese version of Times Square on the outside.  Inside, is completely different.  China’s indoor, compartmentalized, windowless, cramped booths and cubicles, and the sprawling underground malls deserve another post.  This is definitely public space and I need more time to digest it.  Yesterday’s trip inside the bowels of this shopping labyrinth left me running for natural light and air after I bought another pair of refurbished and rebranded headphones from a man with six fingers on one hand.

The villages in the city are fascinating.  They are harbingers of public space.  I set out for the first site rather blindly, with last years NY Times articles and advice from (Shenzhen researcher, classmate, and friend) Natalia Echeverri in the back of my mind.  I was looking for these dense and compact mid-rise towers in the midst of newer, taller skyscrapers , the products of unregulated development and property rights laws during the city’s huge transformation.  These areas used to be the small low-rise villages.  When the city grew, the villages turned into 8-12 story towers, but they retained the footprints and configurations of the original settlements.  These modest concrete (often run-down) buildings exist, literally, side-by-side with new 30 story towers of glass and steel.

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I found the “handshake buildings” of these ‘villages.’  (So named because one can literally shake hands with a neighbor due to the close proximity of adjacent buildings.) The gap is unimaginable (And for the second time I am asking myself, do these people like natural light an air?!).  This ‘space’ has to be more extreme than any public housing tenement in the history New York City.  The spaces between buildings function as shafts for plumbing and electricity, existing at no more than a foot wide at the upper levels of the buildings.  On the ground, there is a larger setback.  Food carts and people are passing through.  There is a pattern of card games and gambling going in the the homes and cafe dives below.  (These are def. not the sheshe retrofits of my neighborhood.)  Lunch here costs less than 40 cents.

This city is really about conversion and adaptation.  It is a model that has been influencing other Chinese cities all around this Pearl River Delta region.  I’m curious to know if the lessons here can be applied elsewhere.  Can the west learn something from the east?  I’ll be looking at more of these pockets of unregulated development in the next few days.  Then, I’m interrupting Shenzhen with a few nights in Hong Kong, the city that has been calling ever since I arrived.  My next appointments here are later next week.

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Is this really the most public example of Chinese collective space?  (Hutong bathroom, Beijing)

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