In Beijing, a Brand-New Old Quarter

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This is a city conspicuously unfriendly to pedestrians. Six-lane ring highways cut through old neighborhoods, making places that are rather close as the crow flies very far apart if you walk, since you’ve often got to navigate long cloverleaf intersections and widely spaced overpasses simply to cross the street.

And that’s one of the things, in a city far more oriented toward the car than shoe leather, that makes the recent opening of a big pedestrian-only network of streets in the historic heart of Beijing so noteworthy. It’s in the area called Dashalar, which, during the Manchu-ruled Qing Dynasty, was the ethnic Chinese part of this city, the warren of streets and avenues that lay just outside the imposing city wall.

Now, the only parts left of the wall — torn down at the order of Mao Zedong despite the entreaties of China’s leading architectural historian to preserve it — are two immense gates. The more famous of them is known as the Qianmen, for Front Gate, and beyond it, running in an arrow-straight line due south, is Dashalar’s main street, Qianmen Dajie, or Front Gate Big Street, where cars are now banned.

Over the last decade or so, most of the old Dashalar neighborhood has been razed. Tens of thousands of residents, whose single-story courtyard homes were often models of dilapidation and obsolescence, were required, with payment of various amounts of compensation, to move out. This process is vividly recounted in a book published a year ago, “The Last of Old Beijing” by Michael Meyer.

But while most of the old residential areas of Beijing that have been demolished were transformed into zones of high-rise hotels, shopping centers and office buildings, Dashalar has been converted, perhaps ironically, back into what it once was — or, more accurately, into an idealized, postcard version of what it once was, a shopping street lined by three-story traditional Chinese buildings, with balconies above the first floor, latticed balustrades, red columns, bright gold-leaf Chinese signs against backgrounds of black wood.

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