Shanghai: Street Level by Mary P. Campbell

 Shanghai, January 2013. It’s cold, cold as Chicago, and a veil of particulate covers the morning sun as I set out in the wrong direction from my intended destination—the Shanghai Museum. The tony atmosphere of Xintiandi fades into the pedestrian morning routine of the Shanghainese. Parents take their children to school on the backs of scooters. Lines form at the fried-dough-stick vendor. Older women move quickly down the sidewalk laden with bags of produce. Small stalls line the sidewalk in an amazing concentration of raw hustle. Everyone has something to sell: bike tires, dumplings, old electronics. A man on the sidewalk displays something that looks like cat pelts. A bicycle passes with an impossible Dr. Suess-like stack of flattened cardboard perched on the back.

Drawn by the energy of the street-hive, I give up the museum for the time being. Surprise takes discovery a layer deeper. What lay ahead looked like grandparents’ day at the park. Except there are no children, only seniors exercising on brightly colored equipment of simple stationary bikes and elliptical machines. A playground for adults! Some sit on a bench drinking tea and talking while others perform an exercise of torso slapping. Do seniors in the States gather outside together in the middle of a city like this? It seems the image of the old man or woman sitting on a park bench has become a vintage postcard of Americana. Shanghai, on the other hand, squeezes its people, old and young and in between, out into the public spaces forming a massive, moving social organism.

Conventionally, neighborhood parks or parklike open spaces are considered boons conferred on the deprived populations of cities. Let us turn this thought around, and consider city parks deprived places that need the boon of life and appreciation conferred upon them.

—Jane Jacobs, The Life and Death of Great American Cities

Jane Jacobs would have loved Fuxing Park because the “boon of life” overflows here in Shanghai’s French Concession. And the park is fully enjoyed if not appreciated. Again, more elderly. They sit at myriad tables playing cards and drinking loose-leaf tea. It’s not only seniors though; everyone is here. Kids ride the merry-go-round. Acapella groups serenade. Kite-fliers race across a large field. Like a game of pick-up basketball, people cycle in and out of a tai chi group. This place is enchanting.

I slip into the fantasy of all my trips: What would it be like to live here? I will study Mandarin at the place I passed earlier. Find a part-time job. Connect with a group of ex-pats. Learn to cook local dishes. The fantasy dissolves at the question of healthcare.

“Where you from?” someone calls from a crowd of kids exiting the subway near the Bund. “Chicago,” I answer. “Chicago!” a few mimics call back. My city’s Big Shoulders narrow in this city of 24 million.

Beyond the river of people, a real river appears—the Huangpu. It teems with activity like the morning sidewalk and street, although without benefit of traffic lights. Small craft cut each other off and race at precarious speed with their decks piled high with scrap metal and other teetering piles of stuff. The chimes of a nearby building clock ring ridiculously dainty against this furious show of commerce.

The Shanghai Museum, removed from the street, is quiet. It’s a wonderful place to be alone with the silent artifacts and their stories. But I am not alone. The guards watch suspiciously. People’s eyes cut away when I catch their stare. I feel conspicuous, even here at a tourist destination. I notice a group of three older men whose skin is weathered and clothing threadbare but tidy. Farmers from the countryside? One of them approaches and in gestures asks to have their picture taken with me. Of course. I am the specimen—Westerner in Bright Pink Jacket.

BIO: Mary Campbell is a student of cities and lover of gardens and woods. Through her blog femmebanale.com, she often shares with readers the restorative powers of the natural world.