The Olympics and Preservation IV: Demolished Neighborhoods

To wrap up my post-Olympic series, I’m going to share a few images and descriptions of historical places demolished to make way for Olympic venues.

Techwood Homes, Atlanta

Techwood Homes, completed in 1936, was the United States’ first public housing project.  Built on the site of a shanty town the project was meant to provide clean and safe housing for low-income families employed downtown or at the nearby warehouse district who had been living in the 14 block slum called Techwood Flats.

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Techwood Flats in 1920 via the Digital Library of Georgia/Wikimedia

FDR dedicated the new housing in 1934 before the project was completed.  The units provided electricity and running water to every resident.  The complex also included lush landscaping, parks, stores, and other amenities.  Unfortunately, the project displaced 1,611 residents of Techwood Flats. And though 26% of Techwood Flats inhabitants were African American, Techwood Homes was a segregated facility. Only white families were permited to rent the units.

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Residents of Techwood Homes in the late 1930s via the Library of Congress/Wikimedia

Techwood Homes was integrated in 1968. Within six year, fifty percent of the facility was occupied by African Americans prompting plans to relocate its inhabitants to  the outskirts of the city.  Fortunately, that plan was scrapped.  Less fortunately, the complex became a hive of crime with gang and drug related activity by the 1980s and continued to be crime ridden into the 90s.

Despite being listed in that National Register of  Places, the majority of the Techwood complex was demolished in preparation for the 1996 Olympics. According to the Georgia Encyclopedia, officials and city leaders feared international reaction to the high crime and poverty.  Only the most architecturally significant buildings were retained, mitigating the loss of historic fabric. It was replaced by mixed-income luxury apartments that few Techwood residents could afford.

One of the few surviving Techwood Homes buildings via WABE

Although the crime rates and poverty were untenable, it is unfortunate that so many people were displaced by this decision. It is also unfortunate that a more preservation friendly solution (renovation, adaptive reuse, etc)  was not found.    The demolition of the Techwood Homes complex represents a missed opportunity and is a great loss to the history and character of the city of Atlanta, even if that history was mired in negative race and social issues.

Hutongs, Beijing

Beijing was once characterized by hutongs – narrow alley ways densely populated by courtyard houses with tile roofs that wind away from main boulevards and squares. Many of these labyrinthine hutongs dated from the 13th century when the Mongol founders of the Yuen Dynasty created the city’s grid.   This once ubiquitous feature was dwindling even before the city hosted the Summer Olympics in 2008 due to the rapid development and modernization of the city.   It is estimated that of the 3,600 hutongs standing in 1980, only 2,000 remained in the lead up to the games.  Many of these remaining structures were destroyed to make way for Olympic venues and the infrastructure to support them.

Aerial view of a Beijing hutong via Xian Tour

As development ramped up in anticipation of the games, the reaction of Beijing’s residents and officials was mixed. Some insisted that the hutongs and their homes were in good condition and that the traditional community of courtyard life, with neighbours who take care of each other, was preferable  to high-rise apartments (this is no less true in 2012 – hutong residents threatened by continued development remain loyal to their way of life). Others believed the hutongs were overcrowded and lacked modern services, like basic water and sewage, necessary for  people to live safely (still a concern today in remaining hutongs).

Beijing hutong via Shiho Fukada for The New York Times

Both sides have valid points. Community and tradition are vital to the culture of a city, but clean and healthy living environments are essential for the safety of modern urbanites.  A balance must be struck. Unfortunately, the cost of modernizing hutongs to meet modern expectations is costly.  However, it is by no means impossible. It is impossible, on the other hand to replace the hutongs once they have been demolished and no matter on which side of the argument one falls,  these hutongs are culturally irreplaceable.

Hutong Life via Beijing Xingang Tours

In 2012, UNESCO estimated that more than 88% of the old city’s hutongs  no longer exist – most were demolished in the last 30 years.

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