Forcible Removal

We used to live on Second Street. No more. More than a hundred families, including mine, were forcibly removed from the block bordered by Centre Street and Eastern Street between First and Second. The URA tore down our homes to make way for one of its development projects.

The URA says its mission is to, "Create quality and vibrant urban living in Hong Kong - a better home in a world-class city." But a better home for whom?

On Second Street the URA destroyed all the funky four and six story buildings to make way for a 600-unit apartment building, an old folks’ home and an open space in the middle of the block.

This is the Hong Kong version of urban revitalization: push out the people, tear down their buildings and give one of the oligopoly developers a chance to rake in safe money on a government contract to put up yet another too big, god-awful box of flats.

The URA destroyed my neighborhood.

It's sad. There was no call to kill this community. The neighborhood was gentrifying on its own. Artists had moved in across the street and refurbished a shop into a combination gallery and studio. A photographer had just bought in the building next to mine and renovated his flat. Another professional moved in down the street and did one of the most beautiful renovations I have ever seen anywhere.

Last year a family rented a shop across the street. The husband started fixing cars. His wife set up a little florist's stand on the side of the shop. Her son helped her with the plants and flowers. It was a beautiful oasis of green in the middle of the block.

My neighborhood was mixed race: mostly Chinese but also Indians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Filipinos, various kinds of Westerners -- it was vibrant, exactly the kind of mixing up of peoples and cultures "Asia's World City" purports to be striving for.

My neighborhood was also economically mixed, mostly poor people but with a heavy sprinkling of middle class folks and a very few doing even better. Some of my neighbors were older retired people who had lived on the street for 30 or 40 years. I feel sorry for them. The URA picked them up and parked them in dreadful public housing clear across Hong Kong, out toward Chai Wan and other places far away from their homes.

The URA never asked any of us what we thought or what we wanted. The URA never looked at the quiet renewal already taking place. The URA never sent in a survey team or a cultural anthropologist to get any real information from the the people who lived on Second Street before deciding on the neighborhood's destruction. The URA never suggested giving people on the block grants or loans to refurbish the old buildings (a much cheaper option with taxpayer money than building something new and a process that was beginning to happen on its own anyway, without any government involvement).

What the URA did do was use its statutory power and a fair amount of Hong Kong taxpayer money to force us all out, forever. None of us was ever consulted about anything. None of us was allowed to stay. None of us will ever be invited back.

The block's civil fabric, all the daily transactions, all the relationships among neighbors and traders that made our community strong, all of that quiet binding of ties, will have to start again from zero. Except the people won't be us. They'll all be new people, mostly young couples looking to buy their first flats and leverage up before selling out and moving on.

Everything peculiar and charming about my Second Street block is gone.

The week I handed over the keys to my flat, the Independent Commission Against Corruption arrested 29 URA officials for fraud. The arrested officials were all abusing the system they administered in order to line their own pockets. But it's not just the identified criminals who cause trouble. Just about everything the URA does smells bad. What the URA did to Second Street was a crime against the people who lived there.

Make no mistake, the URA is perpetrating a kind of below-the-radar social engineering with its seemingly innocuous redevelopment projects, which amount to nothing less than a massive campaign to move artists, retirees, the poor and working people out of older, lower density housing that happens to be in what have now become high-value areas and replace them all with crops of fresh-faced yuppies in high-rise buildings.

The destruction of Hong Kong neighborhoods needs to stop. Control of the 225 projects on the URA's books needs to be taken away from the agency and given to a review panel before the URA does any more damage.

Better yet, let's just eliminate it all and start fresh, this time with a focus on renovating existing housing stock and a commitment to helping people save and improve their neighborhoods by their own actions.