In the Epilogue to my Blue Ear Books title Live at the Forbidden City: Musical Encounters in China and Taiwan, I reflected ruefully that the China I’d described in the narrative, which had still retained much of its aesthetically rich pre‒twentieth century character, had been “disfigured almost beyond recognition … by relentless development and all its attendant traffic and environmental woes. In just seven years, entire neighborhoods of historic narrow lanes and timbered houses … have been eaten up by runaway construction.”
Several years later, when penning a new Afterword for the revised BEB edition, I added that in just that short interval “Gaudy skyscrapers [now] compete with each other to breach the shockingly polluted skies … Flying Pigeon bicycles have gone the way of the extinct passenger pigeons of yore, supplanted by a monstrous fleet of automobiles contending for every last centimeter of pavement.”
I therefore felt a pang of validation when, viewing the tremendously important new documentary on pioneering urban activist Jane Jacobs, Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, one of the interviewees described today’s China as “Robert Moses on steroids.” For those unaware of his outsized role in the reshaping of America’s urban infrastructure, Moses was the most forceful proponent of the brutal and ultimately misguided mid‒twentieth century “urban renewal” initiative that destroyed much of what gave U.S. urban centers their character, cohesion, and humanity, never to be restored. Far from curing societal ills by creating a Corbusian utopia of “towers in parks” – not to mention clearing the way for an automobile-centric vision of the future – in practice urban renewal disemboweled functional, organic communities and replaced them with sterile, supersized housing developments that proved to be incubators for alienation and crime. The failure of urban renewal, exemplified by the Dickensian horrors of the Cabrini Green (Chicago) and Pruitt-Igoe (St. Louis) “projects,” has been amply documented – enough so that the rest of the world should have taken a cautionary lesson from such wrongheaded, monomaniacal schemes. Yet China apparently failed to get the message.
Today’s China is a grotesque manifestation of the very worst excesses of urban renewal, where vast tracts of tightly knit communities and desperately needed agricultural lands are daily supplanted by endless phalanxes of aesthetically impoverished, nearly identical towers on an inhuman scale. Worse still, many of these soul-shriveling “ghost cities” were built not in response to real housing needs but out of sheer greed, as purely speculative investments to spur China’s insatiable economic expansion.
If ever China needed its own Jane Jacobs, now is that time; the question is, are the Chinese public and leadership ready to listen to such voices of prophetic reason in the midst of the current headlong rush to remake China in the image of an immense Cabrini Green? I fear that in this case, the cliché that ‘those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it’ has never been more apt.
Demolition of St. Louis’ failed Pruitt-Igoe complex,
just 20 years after it was built
*After Jane Jacobs’s classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities