A bird's-eye view of the Caoyang No. 1 Community ahead of the renovation project
China’s first worker’s community, once a symbol of pride and a dream for local people as well as a popular reception site for foreign leaders, is being refurbished with its history preserved and modern facilities added.
Work has begun to renovate the first batch of 20 houses at the Caoyang No. 1 Community in Putuo District. The layout of the neighborhood, a listed historic site, will be restored while the structure of the houses will be reinforced and partly rebuilt.
Over 1,500 households, including many former model workers and their descendants, have been temporarily relocated. By the end of the year, they will move back to their brand-new apartments with modern facilities.
The Caoyang Community, covering some 2 square kilometers, sprung up in September 1951 as a home for model workers, a forerunner to other workers’ communities built nationwide to accommodate a growing workforce during a period of rapid industrialization.
As the first “new community” in Shanghai that opened up to the outside world, it has received more than 300,000 people from over 150 countries and regions. High-ranking visitors include former US President Richard Nixon and other national leaders.
The Caoyang community subdistrict has established a foreign affairs office to be in charge of receiving foreign guests. A community museum has also been established to showcase the history of the community.
In this archive photo, foreign guests visit the Caoyang community after it was completed in the 1950s.
The community originally had 48 two-story brick-and-wood houses to accommodate the first batch of 1,002 model workers selected from local state-owned companies and factories.
The planning, design and construction of the neighborhood represented the most advanced concept of modern communities. The houses with red roofs and white walls were covered by trees and flowers. A 15-minute service circle has been developed, with public service centers, schools, medical clinics, banks and wet markets spread around.
Pan Jinhua, 64, was born, grew up and got married in the community. Her mother was a model worker at a state-owned cotton and textile plant. The family moved into the house, where she still lives, in 1952.
“We were among the few local communities that had gas and tap water at that time,” Pan recalled. “My mother said she would smile even in sleep after moving into the house.”
However, as the population ages, the high-rise buildings which were once a source of great pride have become a source of distress.
Walls have cracked while the wooden floors creak and are plagued by termites. The stairways are crammed with the inhabitants’ commodities. The shared kitchens have become oily and dirty while residents have difficulty in enjoying a warm bath in winter.
An additional floor was later built on the structures to offer more accommodation, posing a heavier burden on aging buildings.
The Caoyang No. 1 Community before the renovation
“Without revitalization, the profound history of the historical community might be forgotten along with its aging population and facilities,” a designer for the renovation project said.
Shanghai built 18 “workers’ communities” in the 1950s but many are in poor condition now.
Featuring 30-square-meter apartments, with communal kitchens and bathrooms, the homes were much sought-after at the time and were offered only to the very best workers.
The renovation project at Caoyang aims to become a pilot for other local workers’ communities, according to the subdistrict.
The additional third floors will be rebuilt to be in harmony with the original features of the buildings. The appearance of the structures will be preserved as its old residents remember them. Some textile elements will be involved in the exterior decoration to showcase the “worker’s culture” of the community.
Wooden stairways will be replaced with concrete and adjusted to allow additional rooms for private toilets and kitchens. Bespoke plans have been made for each household.
Xu Jiancheng, a former Paralympic athlete who uses a wheelchair, expressed his wish for more accessible facilities. Architects designed a slope at the entrance and adjusted the position of the gate for his apartment.
His neighbor, Zhu Huimin, said she had been reluctant to move out because her apartment was just refurbished two years ago.
A worker erects scaffolding ahead of the renovation of the Caoyang No.1 Community on Tuesday.
The residential committee officials helped negotiate with the construction company to help restore part of Zhu’s interior after renovation.
Community workers also helped to rent nearby apartments for residents during the renovation period. The district government will subsidize part of their rent.
“We’d like to keep every brick and tile for the historical community,” said Chen Zhongwei, an official in charge of the project. “The historic, cultural and art values are expected to be retained to the largest extent.”
Resident opinions have been widely heard ahead of planning. Designers spent two weeks talking to residents, many of them senior citizens. The talks highlighted major problems, such as a shortage of exercise space, seats and parking slots.
To answer some common demands, dozens of modern street lamps will be installed across the community. The lamps will not only illuminate the streets automatically, but also monitor air quality and display notices and information as well as call the police in an emergency.
The district government plans to welcome the residents to move back with gongs and drums, just as at the ceremony for their parents when the community was initially built. The renovation will also become a major celebration for the 70th anniversary of the community and the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China.
A worker works on an apartment building at the Caoyang No. 1 Community.
Editor: Liu Qi