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Unsettling Settlement: Walking through a Low-Income Neighborhood in Shanghai Nihal Perera

May 2009, Shanghai, I had one of my most amazing walks in a lowincome neighborhood. I walked several times: The first time I found the settlement, or discovered it for the middle-class. From the second time on, it began to unsettle me. Next time I visit the people may be resettled somewhere else. I am generally very inquisitive about the places, usually ordinary places, particularly those of the poorer and the unprivileged. I did not know of this neighborhood; my middle class friends hardly take me to or tell me about such places. This Other neighborhood was very close to where I stayed, but I had no clue about it like most low-income neighborhoods whether in the USA or in Asia. Do my friends and colleagues not know about it? Or do they think it is unimportant for me? Or is it about the pride? Once I was planning a brief visit to Sri Lanka with my students and asked a leading planning educator whether he could arrange someone to take my students to see planning highlights in Colombo and a low-income neighborhood. He immediately asked me whether why I want the American students to see the slums as it will provide the wrong idea of Sri Lanka. Is such selective showing of places that prevented my colleagues from showing this place to me? The purpose of visiting that area was to see a new development, a commercial cum office park built on a whole large block west of CaoBao Road (pronounced: Thao Bao) and south of Guilin Road, to the south of the mall on the southwest of the Caobao-Guilin intersection. It is built in new styles of architecture, modernist but the Shanghai versions of it highlighted by color, the shapes, the skyline, and illumination. The area is well paved, shaded with trees, and supported with parking areas and provides a sense of newness and affluence in regard to building, activities, and culture. There is a series of new Chinese restaurants across the street –behind the mall— but the two coffee shops in the office park are the definite signifiers of the new culture. It is a part of emerging modern Shanghai, in this case, not so high-end, but located a bit further from the city center. It is definitely familiar and a comfortable place for a westernized middle-class person like me.


As I was looking for an interesting route to walk back, I saw a slightly lower-scale shopping center across the street, to the east side of CaoBao. While it seemed to be a continuation of the gentrified area, and a bit more dense shopping area, the intensity of activity dropped further. I wondered how these restaurants and shops survive. These well-built, empty and lowintensity areas –in regard to activities-- are a part of the future of Shanghai that is being shaped by the state which pumps in a large proportion of China’s GDP. Suddenly I was in a busy older neighborhood which does not seem to receive much resources or attention. It was so contrasting; it was like falling from the sky to the Earth. A mother asks me to make a photo of her 4 year-old beautiful daughter. She was a bit shy. She was happy to see her picture on my camera, whatever that means. As a slow motorcycle was passing, I had to give room. … I love when this happens. The learning environment in Western teaching institutions is largely contained and controlled, and the classroom education is violence (not always negative). Most of education is training, a very mechanical process through which students are transformed into something we know –predetermined subjects—such as architects and planners through a package of courses. The teachers know the objectives of each course and, as part of the contract, the instructor is supposed to inform the students what they are expected to learn before s/he even begins the class. As the disclaimer signed before a surgery, by signing up for the class and listening to the teacher on the first day, the students give their consent to the transformation. It is therefore a peaceful process except for occasional student complaints overlooked under the contract; “they signed up for it,” “they are too lazy,” and the likes. As the instructor teaches the students something they supposedly did not know, they are expected to stay focused and not learn something else. Correct understanding is valued over interpretation, or daydreaming. From a learning standpoint, I like when I can take students or I myself can be in an unexpected place or context. Real learning happens when we come into contact with the unknown and the instructors can learn along with the students, guiding their process of constructing knowledge. The settlement is narrow and long and is organized around a whole block-long street with many short alleys leading off of it. The street is much narrower than those in the area, sufficient for two slow-going motor cycles and a pedestrian to cross at the same time. It is paved but very little remains and


has a lot of pot holes. The alleys are paved with cement (possibly with bricks under them) and provide pedestrian access to dwellings. It is well organized in terms of transitioning from public to private spaces in several stages. As in any other low-income areas, the people try to maximize the resources. They use the alley for the storing of materials important for their businesses, for recycling purposes, and personal items. They have transformed the space as they modernize by buying a cycle or a motor cycle. They also use this space to park cycles and motor cycles. Much of this is what the middle classes say encroachments which they are also very good at as represented in parking cars on the street. I have been in many informal settlements both self-built and self-transformed mainly by poorer citizens, i.e., those that the planners and authorities call shanties and slums. This is one time when I was all by myself and had all the time and space to reflect and get lost in my own mental world. It was fun to talk with children. It was the time for all previous experiences to show up both to help me as well as to interrogate me. It was also the time for my academic knowledge and purpose of life –the mind and the heart-- to interact. The memories and previous knowledge helped me make sense of what I was seeing, through comparison and reflection. As the thoughts went decades back across my various experiences, I began to wonder and question about my own concern and interest for these largely leftover people and places by the middle classes and the contemporary society. My intellect met the conscience making me unsettled. Before I came there, this settlement did not exist for me and it may not exist the next time I visit there. As we all look for and see what we know, I did not know of its existence despite it is located very close to where I have stayed a couple of times before. I usually look for the poor areas of any town I visit. In almost every city that I’ve been in, my middle-class colleagues do not know where the poor live; even they might constitute half the city’s population and provide most of their services. If they know a poor settlement, that is usually as a dangerous place. So I was elated when I discovered this neighborhood. Why? Am I showing some deviant behavior? I found the neighborhood while walking in the gentrified area, enjoying architecture, modernization, and a cup of latte from a corporate coffee shop. This settlement is right adjacent to it. The whole area of many blocks has been subject to renewal and is characterized by broad roads lined with trees; most establishments that are not commercial are located a bit away from streets and have gates. The areas that are spared are


those that were built quite recently. Just before the current wave of gentrification, the older neighborhoods are the target. Based on the pace of redevelopment, I may not see the settlement when I visit the area again. It is quite strange to see this settlement as I had just completed looking at a very new development, the kind of development that might destroy this one. Well, I found it and the next couple of times I walked back from Caobao-Guilin intersection, I took this route. It is definitely a low-income neighborhood. I interpolate this by the quality of the environment. The environment is put to heavy and efficient use, demonstrating that what is going on in the neighborhood is far beyond the capacity anticipated when the neighborhood was built. It seemed to have developed from housing –a residential area-- to a community with all sorts of economic, cultural, and other functions including small-scale commercial activities. There are mini-restaurants where much of their work, such as cutting vegetables and cooking, is done on the road front or the alleys. Among many others, there seems to be a substantial recycling industry--they pile up wood they collected in the alleyways. There are also newer functions such as riding and parking motor bicycles. The biggest pressure on room (space) seems to be on semi-private areas. It is possible that private areas are already “overused.” I have not seen much of private areas other than the ones directly visible to the street. These include several kitchens, dining areas, and (not so private) sleeping areas. Assuming at least a bit more preference for a bit more privacy, the carrying out of these functions, the ones I have seen, adjacent to the street indicate the lack of space within dwellings. However, it is safe to assume that larger purposes cannot be and have not been accommodated in the private areas of individual dwellings and it is the semi-private areas that are used. The services, such as water supply, aren’t sufficient as evident in people washing almost on the street fronts, and the buildings look older than anything that exists around. The story is, most probably, the same with sanitary facilities. The street can benefit by some paving and the buildings can benefit by repair work as well. Seemingly, much maintenance has not taken place at least during the last five to seven years, perhaps due to the lack of resources allocated by the responsible agencies. In many ways the settlement has grown to its upper limits and the environment needs upgrading to accommodate social growth. Is this how the inhabitants see their neighborhood?


Maybe the neighborhood is not receiving much attention from the city government. Maybe it is good; the ones that received the attention maybe already gentrified. As the area seems to be redeveloped, is there a different reason why this tiny neighborhood is surviving? Is it really old? The buildings are, maybe due to the lack of maintenance. Some people seem to be new arrivals. Maybe the neighborhood is restructured by some people (more affluent ones) moving out and new migrants moving in? Maybe it is a new neighborhood. Are the people surviving, coping with harsh conditions imposed by the state and the market? Or, is this a higher stage of life? Is this a launching pad to get into the city and build a new city life? Maybe the buildings are old but are constantly being reorganized and dressed up by their new users. A girl walks in front of me. She is well dressed and her hair is bleached. She looks pretty, stylish, and content with her appearance. There are several hair salons with a lot of blond models on posters and they seem to serve the population within the neighborhood. It seems like they have their own styles and sufficient people do so creating a market large enough for these salons to exist. Who are these people? What am I doing here? Why am I concerned? I have a huge desire to know them, but can I know them? As whom? Can I ever know them? As anyone else, I was using my own intellectual tools embedded in my prior knowledge, for example, classifications, categorizations, stereotypes, employed to know people from outside. They all look Chinese, whatever this means. No one was of my complexion –usually, wrongly stereotyped as Indian (of India). I want to avoid such lazy and insulting stereotypes for me as well as for them, but how? “Chinese” explains very little of this settlement. The Chinese image for the world is Pudong and Beijing and almost all the Chinese I know are middle class people. These people are very different. The people in this neighborhood are the Others: For city people they are migrants. For the rich they are poor. They are the Other. I do not want to objectify them; I want to know them. Do you have to objectify them to know? Well ... it will be difficult to develop a “knowledge” acceptable to the academy without interpreting and creating a thick description. I have read about migrant settlements, visited urban villages such as Tianhe (Guangzhou) with my friend Tang Wing Shing and … with Zhou Yeqin both of whom study these places and communities and have visited other places such as longtangs in Shangahi with


other friends who share my interests. So, this was not a strange place. Yet the gap between me and the people here was huge. How could I verify any of what I said? Well, the language seems to be very significant. Yet people talk with me without using much formal language. No! This is not enough. This reminds me of the experts who wear expensive suits and talk with and about these people with a lot of authority. Many of them also know the language. They may know the formal language but do they know the everyday language? Well … I have given up being an expert a long time ago. I dress and behave in a way that brings me a bit closer to the people in front of me, I mean their body and other languages. Regardless, I am an outsider. Decades ago, when I first visited what middle-class people call a “slum,” I was supposed to be afraid. In Sri Lanka I studied these settlements where thieves, pick pocketeers, murderers, and other criminals live. They brew illicit alcohol and smoke opium. This is very much like how the homeless are characterized in the USA as mentally ill and drug addicts. We did not do it; it is their fault. We did not steal anything from them, we did not deprive them of anything, we live off our hard earned cash, but they resorted to illicit ways and sub-standard living. They are unfortunate at best. Yet nobody or no government has been able to clean these up. Why? It is like the illegal immigrant issue in many countries. If they are so bad, why not ship them back? My teachers studied issues concerning slums as they were called in college. I did too, and now I teach my students. It seems like this is a job. Something’s really wrong. A generation later, we still talk about them. As Robert Neuwirth says, is the formal city getting defeated by the shadow city? Are we heading towards some dark age? Can’t be. Our leaders and the businessmen seem to be more optimistic. Telephone companies are making more money in informal settlements. Is it important to keep these people poor for us to maintain our middle class lifestyles? Does the world have more poor people today after the carrying out of development policies and spending a lot of development aid for over six decades? It might be okay to get to know them. I have visited enough such places in Sri Lanka, India, the USA, China, and other places to know how nice those people are. They don’t look miserable, nor are they hateful. Many of them talked with me, let me touch their kids and pets, some wanted me to take their


pictures. They have their own way of relating to me and others. But how am I capable of knowing them? This makes me think of CapAsia projects in tsunami-affected areas. In post-tsunami settlements of southern Sri Lanka, several students were able to go beyond objectifying the people and develop a clear relationship that they began to overcome their own stereotypes and discuss with us a bit freely. People asked questions from us and we asked questions from them. Some anthropologists have been able to know the people. Yet many of them have become advocates of them and sometimes married someone in the community. Is this necessary? My students also say that they want to stay with the community or want to return after graduation. I am too old to know the temporariness of this thought for most of them. Maybe I am too old? Maybe the phenomenon of the middle classes trying to defeat the slums, and people’s environments at large, has continued for too long. Maybe that is what is old. Maybe we need to accept, as Robert Neuwirtth suggests, the shadow cities are expanding and will be the future cities. Maybe we need a new way to learn, understand, and engage cities and built environments. We need a new way to work with these industrious people and tap into their energy, without marginalizing them.

Unsettling Settlement: Walking Through a Low-Income Neighborhood in Shangahi  

Nihal Perera, Professor of Urban Planning and founder of the CapAsia field study program, reflects on a recent walk he took in Shanghai, ask...

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