Beijing's historic neighborhoods falling to Olympic modernization

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BEIJING -- Standing atop the Jingshan Park hill, just north of the Forbidden City, provides the most commanding view of Beijing, the nerve center of one of the greatest civilizations of the world for most of the past 900 years. This is a city that is saturated in history, haunted by the ghosts of warlords and khans, merchants and scholars, revolutionaries and poets.

Looking around from Jingshan hill, however, it is difficult to conjure up visions of these ghosts. What you do see radiating out in all directions from the nucleus of the Forbidden City are construction sites, monstrously large earth-moving machines, and predatory cranes rearing up their mechanical heads high into the sky.

As Beijing gears up to host the Summer Olympic Games next year, it is anxious to project itself as a modern world-class capital. However, wrong-footed conceptions of modernity combined with a weak legal system and corrupt collusion between real-estate developers and local officials has resulted in the wanton demolition of large swaths of the historical city. In the process, not only have up to half of the physical neighborhoods that once comprised the capital's center been destroyed, but so has much of the city's social fabric.

The primary object of Beijing's demolition spree has been the hutongs, the narrow tree-lined alleyways that used to make up the entire 62-square-kilometer area surrounding the Forbidden City. Hutongs have been both the arteries and the lifeblood of Beijing since Mongol times, in the 13th century. They represent a long-lasting organic connection between the present and multi-layered past of China's capital city.

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