From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Just in time for the Summer Olympics in Beijing, the Old City's narrow lanes and shops are being bulldozed and their residents displaced to make way for Wal-Marts, shopping centers and high-rise apartments. Part memoir, part history, part travelogue and part call to action, journalist Meyer's elegant first book yearns for old Beijing and mourns the loss of an older way of life. Having lived for two years in one of Beijing's oldest hutongs
—mazes of lanes and courtyards bordered by single-story houses—Meyer chronicles the threat urban planning poses not only to the ancient history buried within these neighborhoods but also to the people of the hutong
. The hutong
, he says, builds community in a way that glistening glass and steel buildings cannot. His 81-year-old neighbor, whom he calls the Widow, had always been safe because neighbors watched out for her, as she watched out for others: the book opens with a delightful scene in which the Widow, a salty character who calls Meyer Little Plumblossom, brings him unsolicited dumplings for his breakfast. The ironies of the reconstruction of Beijing are clear in the building of Safe and Sound Boulevard, which, Meyer tells us, is neither safe nor sound.Meyer's powerful book is to Beijing what Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities
was to New York City. 25 b&w photos. (June)
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One of the wonders and terrors of freewheeling capitalism is its dynamism. Old ideas, technologies, and physical structures are swept aside without sentimentality or regard for the human costs. This is especially evident in the rapidly emerging economies of India and China, where the old struggles to coexist with the new. Meyer first went to China as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1995, and he continues to reside in one of the few remaining old neighborhoods in Beijing, one that is clearly doomed, as high-rises, shopping malls, and widened avenues move ever closer. Meyer describes his adopted home ground with a mixture of affection and hard realism. Living conditions are harsh, homes are crowded, the wood in many structures is rotting, and outhouses rather than indoor plumbing are the norm. Yet residents, including Meyer, have a strong and stubborn attachment to their community; he provides touching examples of how many strive to stay put. A wistful, charming paean to a community and way of life that is soon to be swept away in the name of progress. --Jay Freeman