China development boom: A house in the middle of a six-lane highway?

As China development booms, holdout or 'nail' homes are often hammered down to make way for a high rise or roadway. The Zhang family, though, was allowed to stay - in the middle of a highway.

By , McClatchy Newspapers

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    A man rides his bicycle across a pedestrian bridge as cars travel on the road below in Beijing, in this January 2008 file photo. As China development booms, holdout or 'nail' homes are often found in the middle of a six-lane highway, to make way for a high rise or roadway.
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Zhang Changfu’s street address could almost be: the middle of the road.

In this city of perhaps more than 17 million people where buildings seem to shoot up overnight, Zhang lives in what locals call a “nail house,” one that continues sticking out even after the surrounding area has been developed.

Zhang’s house juts into at least six lanes of road in a northeast section of Beijing, cutting traffic to a two-lane bottleneck and often causing jams of honking cars. Sitting at the bottom of a canyon of high-rise buildings, the ramshackle collection of rooms that Zhang and his brother own on Shuguang West Road recalls the Disney animated film “Up” – in which a curmudgeonly old man’s house is surrounded by skyscrapers – but with Chinese characteristics.

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Cinder blocks and wood planks anchor plastic tarps on the roof. Inside, the floors are bare concrete and the walls are covered with plastic sheeting and, in places, newspaper.

Next door, fancy apartments at 970 square feet are selling for about $400,000.

The house is a reminder that Beijing is growing rapidly amid an economic boom and massive migration from the countryside to urban centers. The growth has pushed ever outward, chomping up poorer neighborhoods and replacing them with more expensive properties. It’s hard to overstate the rate of change; even recent arrivals point to shopping malls where neighborhoods stood just a few years ago.

When Zhang moved into his house 24 years ago it was in a village. He worked on the local collective farm and quietly supported his family.

“The difference between then and now is as big as the difference between heaven and earth,” said Zhang, 53, a small man wearing a white T-shirt and blue shorts. “This was all farmland – corn, vegetables – now it’s buildings, skyscrapers.”

After his village signed a contract with a developer, Zhang received an assessment in 2003 that said his part of the property – a series of small buildings arranged in a walled courtyard – should fetch 840,000 yuan, currently about $124,000. While his brother declined to comment, Chinese media said that at the time he was offered a little more than half that sum for his share.

The Zhangs refused to move.

Other villagers sold their places and, one by one, moved away until Zhang and his brother were the only landlords left.

In this fast-growing city, holdouts aren't usually tolerated for long and “nail houses” are soon crushed. The Zhang family, though, was allowed to stay, possibly because the government had larger projects elsewhere. Buildings started to go up, and a road, eight lanes of traffic on one side and six on the other, was curved awkwardly around the courtyard walls.

Local officials declined requests for comment. One state media report blamed the lack of resolution on Zhang pressing for more money. At the prices now being paid for real estate in the area, the Zhangs’ property could be worth well over $1 million. Another report cited legal complications because Zhang’s brother had sold a small portion of the lot to a rural resident who legally couldn’t buy urban land.

Zhang Hongming, the Communist Party secretary for the local government, told state TV late last month that Zhang Changfu’s action “has jeopardized the interest of the public. We have to demolish his house eventually.”

Whatever the explanation, locals are not amused.

“There is always a traffic jam over there,” said Li Hui, a saleswoman at a nearby store that sells home and office safes. “Of course, it’s strange that there’s this house standing in the middle of the road.”

From her shop, Li can see Zhang Changfu when he rides by on his bicycle. With no indoor bathroom, Zhang has to pedal about 10 minutes, past all the gleaming development, to the nearest public facilities.

“I feel very sorry that our presence here has caused so much inconvenience to people around us,” said Zhang, who with the farmland gone now receives a little under $100 a month from the government. “But there’s nothing I can do.”

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