I live not far from the sluggish southern end of the river that runs through Chengdu. I go down to the river maybe three or four times a month with my two sons, and we throw rocks into the sewage run off, watch the old men throw small nets at the mouth of the same run off, and run through the rubble and jungle of the wild urban riverbank.
Just after the worst of winter broke, I noticed the old folk crawling around the wreckage of some old neighborhood, smashing big slabs of concrete into smaller slabs, and preparing the earth beneath for planting season. One old man dropped a huge stone down on the concrete floor of a razed hovel, over and over again, slowly creating his third patch. I do it for fun, he said, for something to do. His son bought a house in the high rises behind him, and he can’t stand being cooped up in the house. So he brings his tea thermos and a radio blaring old opera classics down to the flotsam strewn riverside and builds gardens.
Old women bent at the waste in the sticky muddy rise between the new buildings and the brown river. Plots walled off from each other with slabs of concrete, plywood, metal bars. One shoe and a pair of perfectly good shades in a sea of shattered bricks. I took the boys down there when it was cold, then later when the sun came out and the rapeseed bloomed, throughout the hot summer, and up until September 25th, when we found the entire riverside garden community razed to the ground. It had happened a few weeks ago, by the looks of the wreckage. Little weeds were already sprouting out of the piled up remains.
I took pictures and video as an afterthought, as a small project I knew would come to this, a little essay like a struggling bulge-eyed fish in an old man’s net. I know the gardens and the old men and women tending them hold incredible meaning, but I am not sure what the meaning is, or whether or not any of them feel it was more than just a lark, a habit unbreakable. Like the old grandmother of middle class aspirants unable to keep her hand out of the garbage cans and away from the plastic bottles. I wrote this story for Next City, and I think that’s as close as I came to contextualizing Chengdu’s urban plots.
Here are some of the pictures I took, along with the time they were taken.
Early Spring 2014
Late Spring into Summer 2014
Late Summer into Fall
Do you have any little communities like this near you? Let us know in the comments.