Beijing’s Hutong neighborhoods are webs of densely-packed, traditional Chinese row houses that are growing rarer and rarer as the city’s development continues apace. Depending on location and time of day, they provide a reprieve from the bustle of Beijing’s modern commercial and residential districts, whose gargantuan buildings spread as wide and deep as they do tall, and whose three-median streets prove nearly impassable but by raised walkway. Instead the Hutongs feature minuscule convenience stores, mom and pop pulled-noodle restaurants, and cramped multifamily apartments. The facades and roofs of the Hutongs comprise unerringly of gray mud-brick and gray clay shingle, impressing an image more akin to Europe than the US by way of every building’s congruity to the next.
This alternative aesthetic gives one the sense that locals of an alternative bent would be clamoring to move to these old-styled neighborhoods. While their ascetic quality alienates predominantly materialistic urbanites, their coarse and organic aesthetic is likely to attract artists and bohemians looking to eschew mainstream trends. To some degree, such gentrification is already happening. And sadly I am not the first to make the Brooklyn link. But nevertheless it seems the process has barely begun. What I saw in my several days wandering these neighborhoods were regular citizens, often older, utterly lacking in the material signals of newfound riches. Instead, current residents appear to consist of migrant workers and families receiving low-income housing, a program which has tended to push the poor into older, crowded, and dilapidated housing conditions.
It will be interesting to see how the Hutongs evolve in the coming years. Should they prove trendy, their limited supply may bode well for current residents, who will be in a better selling position so long as they can retain their property rights in the face of ever-increasing pressure from land-hungry developers. Conservation efforts have begun to protect what’s left of the city’s Hutongs. Proving to government officials that the historic neighborhoods can be a vital and lively space for locals as well as foreign visitors should only help these efforts, while measures to protect the rights of current residents should be actively pursued.