A few years ago, I moved to an office in Beijing’s Central Business District, Guomao. From my window, 22 stories up, I look down on Guomao Bridge, one of the city’s many over-sized diamond interchanges. Office buildings and space-age architecture surround the bridge while bumper to bumper traffic fill the space in between.
Sited near the eastern part of Beijing’s third ring road, Guomao is a neighborhood of mega blocks, high-rise office buildings, and 30-40 story condominiums. It’s a manufactured landscape with few clues as to what was there just a few decades ago. And from my new vantage point, it’s difficult to see where there is room for people to walk around (or at the very least enjoy walking around).
At street level, few roads are built to human scale and several have been widened over the years as stop-gap measures to deal with the increased traffic. Most recently the city expanded, Chang’an Avenue, the main thoroughfare that passes Guomao to ten lanes. Meanwhile, most of the new buildings host their shops and restaurants inside basement level malls.
But look closely and there are still plenty of signs of an older and vibrant Beijing. Scattered in between the new, are a few low-rise apartment buildings, built for workers in the 1960s when Guomao was still a factory park surrounded by farm land. The factories are long gone and so are the villages they replaced. But many of the former factory workers and their families still live next door to the glitzy office towers.
On my 15 minute commute to work, I make a point to walk through some of the smaller streets that remain. Independent grocery stores sit next to food stalls, and I pass local Beijing's on their way to work. At night the streets are full of life with people eating outside and children play on the sidewalk.
Even if these low-rise apartments and the life that surrounds them are part of a more recent history, they still provide a link to the past and tell part of the story of Beijing’s development. From concrete reinforcements that were added to buildings facades after the 1976 earthquake to old decrepit leftover factory gates across from 5 star hotels, Guomao in fact has plenty of history left.
The old streets help bring some grit to this otherwise sterile office park. Without them, the towers of Guomao could be anywhere.
These streets are a layer in the city, in the same way that the towers form a new layer, and it is this complexity and diversity that allow people of different worlds and with different stories to come together. They are streets that help make Guomao so uniquely Beijing.
With Beijing’s breakneck development, it’s likely a question of time before the old workers’ quarters in Guomao will give way to other skyscrapers and high-end apartment buildings. Most are already gone and there is nothing specific about the architecture or history that might protect them. But together they form part of the urban fabric of Beijing and their disappearance would take with them the little history that remains in this landscape.
A version of this story appeared in the 25.3 issue of Atlantis Magazine