We visited Nantou on the last leg of our 2016 week-long field trip to Shenzhen on a hot, humid day. In contrast to the pulsating lanes of Baishouzhou and its unapologetic messiness, where we had spent relatively more time, Nantou appeared quaint and well suited to touristic exploration. After all, the settlement had once been a walled city of considerable political importance, and the remnants of that history were strewn across the village in the form of arched gateways, temples and sacred niches. My most vivid memory is that of an active main street full of the myriad tastes of China punctuated by a select number of restored (or being restored) buildings. This, in stark contrast to Hubei, a true blue urban village dating back to the 15th century that faces redevelopment.
This year, Nantou was the venue of the UABB, the bi-city biennale of Urbanism/Architecture that brings together artwork related to the urban experiences of Hong Kong and Shenzhen. Walking towards the South Gate of Nantou, we recognized familiar landmarks – the ancestor hall, the ornate gate itself, the garden and its sculptures. And further in, the smaller gate that enters the settlement itself.
Once we stepped inside, we realized how transformed the space was from what it used to be. The street before us, full of vendors and teeming with life, was now a subdued cleaned-up version of itself. New open spaces had been carved out and designed with great taste, but ‘no climbing’, ‘no touching’ signs all over the street furniture in these made us wonder what the village residents were thinking about the redesign interventions. At the very least, these spaces were being used in many ways and by different kinds of people. Newspapers were being read here, mothers and children were catching the winter sun and old women were resting as well. Further in, we found another lovely large open space – a new basketball court, temporarily in disuse. Presumably it will be resurrected and used as it should once the UABB is over.
Shaun Teo, whose PhD research is looking at the UABB’s transformative impacts, pointed out many more interventions in a very interesting tour he conducted that afternoon. He showed us some of the redesigned shops in the village, which looked beautiful but to my eyes were a clear push towards gentrification. Shaun showed us two interventions that emerged from a competition: 1- An attempt at entrepreneurship by a migrant renter who was running a cafe at the UABB in partnership with one of the organizers, and 2- A young urban designer’s redesign of a ground floor shop into the Nantou Living Room, his living space that doubles up into a space for village residents to meet and interact. Already, fresh interventions are spinning off of these. The entrepreneur is gathering capital to set up shop on a more permanent basis and the urban designer is taking baby steps forward with the landscaping of a “secret garden” tucked away behind his alley.
What does an event like the UABB signify to the residents of a neighborhood like Nantou? It is obvious that many have been displaced to make the event possible. Vendors, for sure, have been asked to leave and even some factories in order to get clear floor space for the exhibition halls. Most likely, the UABB has sped up the process of gentrification and the pricing out of current renters, in a location where rents are already quite high. This might mean higher densities and I’m unsure how Shenzhen authorities will balance the heritage value of Nantou will the unfolding densification processes.
On the positive side, the redesigned public spaces and wall art have added value too. From what I heard, the design of the venue was not exactly a consultative process, nor have the venues of previous editions of the UABB retained their look and feel after the event. Perhaps Nantou will reclaim its spaces back and make of them what they want to. Given that Shenzhen is currently working on the redevelopment of urban villages, a gentrified Nantou with a smattering of resident-friendly spaces and interventions is perhaps a best case scenario!
Sarojini Nagar or SN market is one of those places that evokes tremendous nostalgia in people who have lived in Delhi and especially those who went to college in this city. It’s where the middle class people in central and south Delhi gravitate for the best deals and widest variety in clothes, footwear and accessories. It’s where I now shop for veggies and fruits, usually once a fortnight or so.
I moved to Gurgaon end of 2003 and forgot the pleasures of Sarojini Nagar for a few years, especially after I was robbed of my wallet on a particularly busy Sunday in 2004 trying to find woollies for Udai, who was then an infant. I started frequenting SN market again about 15 months ago, when I needed to visit the neighboring Chanakyapuri area regularly for client meetings.
What I love most about SN is the last two lanes of the market, where all the hotch potch, chaotic shopping happens. You get the best deals, see the most interesting people and its fine to be entertained and walk through without spending a single rupee! The color, the confusion and the energy here beats the malls hollow.
In my experience, there are two distinct categories of urban experience and each has its own fan following. There is the planned development, grid sort of city that creates an ordered experience. And then there is the topsy turvy random chaos. I truly enjoy the latter. Informality turns me on and I can write ad infinitum about the benefits it brings. Its inherent mixed-use, mixed-income nature brings residents (and shoppers) choices, reduces cost of living, promoted a more interactive lifestyle. Planned areas in the Indian city are usually a disaster, where informality (and all the good stuff that goes with it) gets wiped out but short-sighted planning means that residents are denied the benefits of planned infrastructure as well!
Yes, I am romanticizing the informal, kitschy Indian development pattern and yes, it has its drawbacks (stubbornly, I will not discuss those here). Standing there in Sarojini Nagar last week and trying to shakily wield the camera of my new iphone, I was struck by how good the informality feels. What a pity it would be to lose this all, as we inevitably will if we go down the planned development path in the same manner as we have been the past several decades? Take a look!