Dashilar’s Careful Gentrification

by Ma Kaidi
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– Dazhalan, also known as Dashilan, located outside the Qianmen, is one of the most famous commercial streets in Beijing, and a significant component of the city’s central symmetrical axis. Having grown organically over 600 years, it incorporates many streets, residential areas, businesses and slums. However, as time has passed, this area has gone into decline.  Therefore, some renovation and reconstruction projects have been started to maintain the many streets and alleyways. Dashila(b) – a collaboration between Beijing Dashilar Investment Limited and Approach Architecture Studio has taken up responsibility to plan the area and apply professional consultancy on behalf of the government. Promoting the development of the district and enriching the community activities, they hope, can reproduce, or encourage, the flourishing of the Dashilar district.

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Dashilar area was the commercial center of Beijing from Ming dynasty until 1949. There are a plenty of old brands still in evidence, some of which have lasted for hundreds of years – from the Chinese handmade period, through the capitalist era till the current socialist commodity economy. Dashibar is regarded as a living textbook of Chinese commercial culture. Moreover, several stores like H&M, ZARA and Haagen-Dazs that sit alongside the conventional Chinese stores attempt to share the same architectural style and the authentic atmosphere of old Beijing, admittedly some more successfully than others. Dashila(b) have spent approximately 10 years studying the history and culture of this place in order to better keep the original architectural elements and the community “feel” of hutong life. Combining a creative, modern culture with the bustling hutong atmosphere will, they hope, revitalize in this irrepressible place, while ensuring that there is continuity with the past.

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In sum, Dashilar is a commercial district which maintains the traditional texture of old Beijing, while accommodating to modern standards. Dashila(b) has been engaged in this reconstruction project to re-develop the area; to improve the local environment and to raise the quality of life for local people , especially their economic potential. However, on the ground, the construction seems a little superficial. They have constructed frontages – facades – rather than improving the living condition which is of greater concern for residents. Meanwhile, in spite of the fact that some elderly people really hate to leave their home and therefore have a genuine reason to stay, most of the young residents seem to be keen on staying in this area simply in order to gain a hefty compensation payment from the government.

The essential problem – the quality of the lived experience – has not been radically tackled. Inadequate facilities, outside communal toilets, no insulation, shoddy construction, unsafe extensions and other problems affect the lives of real people in this area. The project, and most people who live there, suffer from the amount of time and effort taken up with negotiating about the demolition that is being proposed for commercial enterprises and arguing for compensation rather than talking about what is best for themselves and the area itself.

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It is true that commercial value is important but how this area can retain its intrinsic, lingering charm is a vital question. This is an issue, not only for the people who live there, but for the visitors as well. In due course, this project may need to explore better methods to resolve these issues. If so, we anticipate that the future for Dashilar can regain the most charming, old and traditional aspects while moving forward to decent, modern 21st century living standards.