SHANGHAI, China — No, I did not come here for the APEC conference that President George W. Bush is attending. Shanghai is really just a way station on my way back home from two weeks of touring Southeast Asia. But I wanted to spend enough time here to get some sense of this city's vaunted transformation over the past decade.
The last time I visited Shanghai in 1989, the city was a humongous dump. The McGhee Tyson of that time compared favorably to its airport. Dilapidated buildings lined the pot-holed streets throughout the city—streets whose navigation in the few cars to be seen was rendered all the more difficult by the sea of bicycles that traversed them. While a few cranes dotted the skyline, the only new building I encountered was the Hilton Hotel that had recently been opened to accommodate the growth in Western tourism.
The word transformation doesn't begin to capture the mind-boggling enormity of what's ensued. Not only has Shanghai's traditional center on the west bank of the Huangpu River taken on the trappings of one of the world's great cities, but also an entire new city of equal or greater proportions has sprung up on what was mostly farmland in the Pudong area east of the river.
In her recent book, New Shanghai, Pamela Yatsko confirms my impression that this has to constitute the biggest building boom the world has ever seen. According to Yatsko, who has been Shanghai correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review, the boom started with a commitment by Deng Xiaoping in 1992 to make Shanghai the nation's showcase commercial and financial center. This commitment has been sustained and then some by Deng's successors, Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji, both of whom are former mayors of Shanghai.
All manner of incentives were offered to developers from all over the world to start building the hundreds of millions of square feet of office space that have sprung up, along with scores of posh hotels, tiered shopping centers and new residential complexes. One of them was Atlanta-based Portman Properties. Its mixed-use Shanghai Center on landmark Nanjing Road is billed as a city within a city and consists of three connected towers that combine office and residential elements with the Portman Ritz-Carlton Hotel, at which President Bush is staying.
While I am no student of architecture, I am mightily impressed by the remarkable diversity of building styles, shapes, colors and materials as well as the wide streets and green space that provide separation in Pudong especially. No communist cookie-cutter operation this one.
Indeed, it is ironic that one of the world's last communist regimes has spawned one of the world's most materialistic societies. By most reports, affluence is the primary goal of Shanghai's younger, well-educated generation of entrepreneurs and professionals. And they now mix well with the foreigners who've flocked in to man all of the multi-national businesses of every ilk that have based their Chinese presence here. Amid their quest to get ahead, one also senses a strong sense of civic pride among the Shanghainese in accomplishments that extend beyond the commercial realm. The centerpiece of Shanghai's renaissance, aesthetically at least, has to be the cultural complex that now surrounds People's Park in the city's epicenter. The Shanghai Museum, the performing arts center, and an urban planning exhibition center are each stunning in their own right. Collectively they are awesome.
What has all of this got to do with Knoxville, which is what my columns are supposed to be about? Well, after becoming awed by Shanghai, I got to thinking how awful Knoxville looks in comparison. Not that a relatively small city in Tennessee could ever be expected to make strides on the same scale as the largest city in the most populous country in the world. But while Shanghai has been leaping forward, Knoxville has been sitting on its duff.
Except for a convention center that's rising in not-so-splendid isolation, not a single new building of any new consequence has gone up anywhere in the downtown area over the past decade. Renovations of a few older ones haven't, to date, stemmed a decade of decline in the number of downtown office workers and residents and the near disappearance of commercial activity.
The city made a fleeting attempt to reverse these downtrends in 1998 when its Public Building Authority solicited proposals for downtown redevelopment. Small world that it is, among the firms that responded was Portman Properties, in considerable part because the firm's president, A.J. Robinson, is a Knoxville native. By that time, however, Worsham Watkins already had an inside track toward getting the selection. Yet WW's proposal for a hotel/office complex with elevated, enclosed connections to retail and residential elements just happened to have quite a bit in common with Portman's Shanghai Center. Nothing came of it, of course, nor any of the other elements of what came to be known as the Renaissance Knoxville plan.
When it was first unveiled, Mayor Victor Ashe extolled it as the greatest thing to come Knoxville's way since the TVA. But when the time came to exert any sort of leadership or make any kind of commitment on its behalf, he was nowhere to be found. Still, as tempting as it is to blame pussyfooters like Ashe and County Executive Tommy Schumpert for the city's lack of progress, they are not the real culprits.
The fundamental problem lies with a populace that has an underdeveloped sense of civic pride, at least in terms of wanting Knoxville to become anything more than it is today. It's a populace that doesn't even care enough to vote in local elections unless it was to throw out any rascal who might support any kind of commitment that might require a tax increase.
Also, in fairness to our hapless politicians, Yatsko's book makes a compelling case that only an authoritarian regime could have carried off Shanghai's transformation. As one reason why, she estimates that around a million residents had to be relocated just to clear the way for expressways that have been an integral part of it. Those million people have mostly been dispersed to housing on the city's outskirts that typically offers them twice as much space per person as their cramped former abodes. But they have lost their neighborhoods—and the neighbors that went with them. In a democratic society they would probably have been able to resist their removal.
Authoritarian or not, Shanghai exhibits a sense of civic spirit and resolve that are sorely lacking in Knoxville.