Development came last to GC district. Or maybe it came first—the real fear and aversion developers now feel toward interviews, dinners with more than three people, and anything else that feels like it might not be entirely didiao—on the down low—means that I’ve had a hard time getting any of my facts exactly right. Maybe, people tell me, it’s that development came to GC district first. Maybe this is in fact the second wave. The traditional dirt houses that had sprung up around the wilder, southeast end of the railway station were too much an eyesore. Maybe they were the first structures to be razed and it was just that no one had noticed because there were no walls permanent enough to bear the inscription of impending destruction: 拆. People speculate about this the same way they speculate about the year that loufang or high-rise housing came to this city. Maybe in the 1980s, says a lifelong resident in his 40s. Maybe in the early 1990s, says one of the city’s first developers, who follows the statement up quickly with a disclaimer: But I left the profession in the late 90s, and the market reached its craziest point in the 2000s.
How can there be so much confusion over what seems to me to be simple facts? As always, I try to think of analogues in my American life. If you asked me when each part of my small Northern Californian hometown was developed, I wouldn’t be able to stop myself from telling you directly, in great and probably unnecessary detail. Even now when I picture driving down the main boulevards of the town, I can see the faces of each of the major families responsible for selling the bundles of farmland for housing tracts that sometimes bear their names. Thus the descendants of the original Smith clan (name, obviously, changed) would end up living not on the west side of town but in a house with high ceilings but a small yard in a densely packed 1990s development perversely called “SMITH FARMS.” My family didn’t live anywhere that new, but I spent more than a few childhood evenings cavorting with the children whose grandparents had literally made the town. By selling away their chickens, their sheep, their tired dairy cows, they’d created the possibility for the town to exist. With a simple scrawl of a pen, they’d willed the town—and the whole texture of my life, of all our lives—into being.
My informants back in the American academy tell me it’s ontology and questions like this that are all the rage among anthropologists now, but I can’t get excited about being before I figure out how you know that you are. I’ve resisted learning the complicated vocabulary words I would be leaning on if I were having these conversations in America—words like epistemic, etic, etc—and so my interlocutors here have to listen to me slog through an explanation of what I mean using only my limited high-school-level Mandarin vocabulary. This way I understand myself what I mean better, and so do they. “It’s like this,” they always begin, confident that the diagnoses and descriptions they deliver will be universally agreed upon by all the other Chinese people I encounter. Thankfully, they never are. What a boring dissertation I might have to write if everyone agreed with each other! In the muddle, in the depths of the chronic uncertainty, I feel like I’m on to something good though even I don’t know exactly what it is.
My hunch is that somehow it will all lead back to GC District. Originally, that was where I wanted to live, but my hosts, a series of well-meaning and well-educated academics, all discouraged me and so I ended up here, in EQ District. In retrospect, I should have lived in the nicer, government-worker filled JS District. JS District has gradually become the center of my social life, and the hour-long or hour-and-a-half-long commutes from here to there by public bus has taught me about the arteries of the city. Now when my interlocutors diagnose the city, I shake my head, I argue, I point out on a map where the urban humors have congealed and clogged, where the next fainting spell or attack of nerves is likely to come from. But the buses don’t pass through GC district, even though you’d think that would be the quickest route; instead, they loop all the way up through EQ district straight into JS district, theoretically following the flow the commuters but, in reality, determining it. One of my most important interlocutors loves to make me perform what she thinks is my best bit. Tell them, she demands, about the districts, and I oblige: EQ district is for train workers, ZY district for factory workers turned cab drivers, JS district for government workers, XD district for rich people who no longer work. There I always pause and admit that the only district left is GC district, which I do not really know anything about. Oh, people say offhandedly already chuckling at the precocious foreigner’s unexpected cleverness, That’s where the muslims live, or, Oh that’s the old city.
The problem is there aren’t even that many muslims left and the city isn’t really that old, if we’re being perfectly honest. As cheap rent in the village-in-a-cities (dushicunzhuang) became harder and harder to come by, a wave of demolition refugees retreated to GC district, the so-called “old city” where a 1980s reconstruction of 3,000 year old city walls is being replaced with a 2010s reconstruction of 3,000 year old city walls. The truth is, even just 70 years ago there was no such thing as a “city” filling that space, but the 1970s and 1980s apartment buildings seem so ancient that everyone’s already forgotten that, already assumed that GC district, with its old, dilapidated facilities and poor, cheap-rent-seeking population, must have been there—and this way—forever.
But now development has come to GC district. Exhausted, perhaps, by the resistance of the northern villages, stymied by the dense occupation of the west, and galled by the regulations plaguing any development in the rich, quiet east, developers have turned finally—perhaps for the second time—to GC district. I don’t know what will happen to the urban refugees this time. I don’t know anyone who lives in GC district. Until a foreign friend of mine announced that all the scheduled demolitions were making it difficult for him to find an apartment near his assigned school, I had completely wiped GC district from my memory. I have been focused on the west, the north, the east—the strange centers of mobility, power, and money, respectively. The strange truth is that it was GC district that convinced me to begin this love affair with Zhengzhou in the first place. During an early, solo visit to what was then just another northern Chinese city full of strangers, I too was duped by a mid-afternoon walk on the 1980s reconstruction of the 3,000 year old “city wall.” I cooed at and caressed the wiry black trees growing out of mounds of dirt, trees that I thought must be thousands if not hundreds of years old. I waved from the top of the wall at people milling about in a block of brick houses. The houses had windows but no windowpanes, and I stupidly and romantically thought that maybe, one day, I would live there. The people did not wave back. The reconstructed wall and the people it attracted meant that even on the third and fourth floor their pane-less windows exposed them to the attention of others, and they were probably practiced in the art of ignoring, repressing my existence as easily as all these east, west, and northern residents of the city repress the existence of all the residents of GC district.
Construction there is well underway. Other foreign friends tell me that from the windows of their high-rise office building they watched as the street vendors disappeared over one night, a whole block over the course of one week. They complain about the dust and the noise and general chaos of it, but strangely enough these things no longer bother me. Maybe it’s that I’ve been here too long, but the aesthetics of demolition—the mixed chunks of pink brick, white plaster, and shattered porcelain flesh all covered by a dust-containing sheer black material, like a cheap funeral shroud—appeal to me on some fundamental level. Development has brought true ruins to GC district, and I know that if I go there, beyond the new corpses of housing projects I’ll also find massive piles of earth—side effects of foundation construction that, ironically, look uncannily like the “original” 1980s reconstruction of the old city walls. I often wonder if I brought one of my northern or eastern district friends to GC district whether they’d know the difference between these “fake” old city walls and the “real” thing; I also wonder whether it really matters, whether I’ve in fact wasted my time training my epistemological senses to distinguish so finely between what is and isn’t true, to think it matters how and what one knows about what at the end of the day just is. There are no reports of protests or resistance coming from GC district. Why would there be? This is, after all, the old city. Though development may have come here last of all, it certainly isn’t producing anything the residents of GC district haven’t seen before. Development is happening—here, now, and regardless of what anyone might have once known and already forgotten about it.