In search of the “Golden Age:” The Selective Nostalgia of Urban Renewal Projects in Shanghai, China and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico

Image Caption: China’s Shanghai, like Mexico’s Ciudad Juárez, worked hard to define its image by employing positive nostalgia for its past while brushing over some of the more negative parts of its history.


Historical preservation has become an important motto of different urban development projects throughout the world. They evoke a nostalgic feeling about a glorious past that younger generations have not experienced. This essay discusses the selective nostalgia that has characterized two urban renewal projects, located in very different metropolitan areas. The first is in Shanghai, the world’s largest city, with 24.2 million inhabitants. The second is in Ciudad Juárez, a city located on the Northern Mexican border, with a population of 1.39 million people.

In both places, the switch from industry to financial and commercial services greatly affects the ongoing urban renewal plans. These changes reshape the nature of urban experiences and the power relationships among institutions, social groups, and individuals. The transition into a hegemonic discourse of development – Shanghai by the post-reform national strategy of economic growth, and Juárez by the pressures of neoliberalism and industrial restructuring – plays a core role in the process of urban redevelopment. Both examples present a particular concern with historical preservation in their urban development projects. This has both symbolic and material implications to the production of urban space in Shanghai and Juárez.

The “manipulation of collective memories” through the creation of a cultural industry of nostalgia is a process that affects both the Mexican and the Chinese cities.[1] The first aspect of this cultural industry is the cosmopolitan and international character of the “Golden Age” in both cities, historically situated around the 1920’s and 1930’s. The second is the neglected memory related to the working-class residences. This memory is treated very differently in Shanghai, with the shikumen houses – contemporarily used as a “symbol of Shanghai’s cosmopolitan and global future” – as compared to Juárez, where the adobe houses are completely ignored by the public administration.[2] This different treatment, however, has similar implications in terms of reproducing social-spatial inequalities and selecting who may effectively access the memory of old Shanghai and Juárez. A final comparable aspect is the “dark past” that both urban renewal projects intend to hide with this selective nostalgia. In Shanghai, this relates to the socialist era, when the city was experiencing marginalization by the national development strategy. In Juárez, this relates to the harsh narco-related violence that has affected the border-city especially after the 1990s.

Those three aspects of the aforementioned urban renewal projects highlight the cost of selective nostalgia in terms of reproducing and deepening urban inequalities. In this sense, the preservation of memories pertaining to working-class residences, taking in consideration the particular social practices that those environments used to present, emerges as a way of resistance to the homogenizing trend of globalisation and its pro-development atmosphere. It also offers an alternative to think of the historical preservation of urban spaces not only in terms of restoration of fixed built environments, but instead, as an intervention over a dynamic place under permanent construction by social-spatial practices.

Golden Age for the Foreigners: A Glorious Past Of “Openness”

It is interesting to notice that in both contexts the rescuing of a “Golden Age” implies a shift from a negative image of stigmatisation and humiliation to a positive and romanticised perception, highlighting its cosmopolitan and international character. The direct association between cosmopolitanism and the foreign exploitation – in the case of Juárez, by its northern neighbour, the United States, and in the case of Shanghai, by the colonial settlements – is a valuable indicator of the international character of those projects and of whom their outcomes are available to. The representations of “Old Shanghai” and “Juárez de Ayer” (Yesterday’s Juárez) bears the intention of creating a more attractive place for international tourism and local elites.

The negative reputation of Ciudad Juárez as a site of narco-related violence has its roots in the socio-economic differences between the communities in the south and north of the Mexican-American border. Recognizing the origin of the “Black Legend” of the Mexican border space is a crucial step towards understanding the production of Juárez as a stigmatised place. The Black Legend of Juárez refers to the dark and dangerous nightlife in the city. This idea has become more popular with the recent events of violent crimes that took place there – namely the femicides and narco-trafficking that have become internationally known since the 1990s. However, the origins of this stigmatisation process go back to the beginning of the 20th century, when journalists and representatives of the Puritan movement in the northern side of the border used the term “Black Legend” to describe the lecher lifestyle of the border. The historic centre of Ciudad Juárez was full of bars, casinos and brothels, where all kinds of addiction and sins were tolerated. The stigma of city of excesses consolidated during the 1920’s, with the prohibition of alcohol consumption in the United States. This is when Ciudad Juárez was formally labelled as a space of extravagances, addiction and violence.[3]

During the Mexican Revolution (1911-1919), many public buildings were destroyed in Ciudad Juárez while the oldest neighbourhoods of the city were being founded. The moral crusades (a conservative movement driven by Puritan ideology against sin and immorality) advanced in the north during an economic crisis south of the border. During the crusades, a legal corpus was enacted and led to the prohibition era in the 1920s. The increasing demand for alcoholic beverages, especially by the soldiers of Fort Bliss, characterizes the extravagant years of the Golden Age of Juárez. This corresponds to the original accumulation of capital in many families on the border, who would constitute an incipient urban bourgeoisie in the following decades.[4]

Nowadays, with the intent of “recovering” the city’s image, the 1920’s are nostalgically brought back with the aim of “reactivating” and promoting the tourism in the city’s historic centre. This is necessary because after those years, the city was thought of as a place of gambling, alcohol, prostitution, and impunity. The Black Legend of Juárez turns into its Golden Age through a multidimensional process of restoring the city’s image. Many remaining bars from those prosperous bohemian years have been restored by the city’s redevelopment plans through a process that celebrates the history of those establishments in many ways. The public authorities interested in making the city attractive to international tourism and investment frequently highlight the visit of international celebrities and personalities such as Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Jim Morrison, and Al Capone to the emblematic bars of the historic centre of Juárez during the Golden Age.

In Shanghai, the current nostalgia about its semi-colonial past also changes the meaning of a “century of humiliation,” especially during the socialist era, to a Golden Era of openness and cosmopolitanism under colonialism. The selective reconstruction of collective memory considers Shanghai in the 1930’s as “‘Paris of the Orient’, an ‘open’ city, or the city of sin and lust.” This is a significant shift from the previous understanding of the period. Other stereotypes, such as the “Whore of Asia” and the “Paradise of Adventurers,” “associated with the tales of magnates, gangster, writers, artists, and prostitutes” approximate 1930’s Shanghai to the 1920’s Juárez.[5]

In both cities, there exists a process of place-making based on an urban ideology of cosmopolitanism that celebrates the presence of the foreigners appropriating and using the cities’ spaces for their pleasure and fun. Cosmopolitanism here is a synonym for adulating foreign things, and it is directly related to the domain and exploitation exercised both in Shanghai and Juárez during the celebrated Golden Age. The ongoing gentrification practices in Juárez and Shanghai have many local particularities, but the transformations they promote focus on the creation of spaces that appeal to the upper-class consumers who are able to access and enjoy them, a group mainly composed by foreigners – now, tourists and expatriates – and the local elites.

Working-Residential Memory: A Different Cosmopolitanism

The industry plays an important role in the urban history of Ciudad Juárez and Shanghai. In the case of Juárez, the Maquiladora Industry (MI) still represents the main economic activity and source of jobs in the city, although the recent urban development plan has presented a greater focus on other activities like commerce and services, especially in zones like the historic centre.[6] In Shanghai, the production of an industrial space after the liberation, supported by an ideological process of promoting proletarian ideology, has also left its marks on the urban environment. Nowadays the post-industrial economy has a stronger relation with consumption, financial and entertainment services.

In the current wave of historical preservation and increasing concern to the image of the city, the shikumen houses are cherished as an important architectural element of Old Shanghai.[7] Shikumen houses were built predominantly in the 1920’s and 1930’s and remained the main residential style in Shanghai until the 1980’s.[8] They correspond to “residential row houses built by Western landlords for Chinese tenants in the former foreign concessions of Shanghai.”[9] In terms of architecture, shikumen are houses with entrances containing gates wrapped in stone. The mixed architecture style – with both Western and Chinese elements – is celebrated by the recent strategies of urban renewal in neighbourhoods such as Xintiandi and Tianzifang. In order to make these places more attractive to groups of tourists, expatriates and local elites, a set of entrepreneurial strategies have been undertaken. These strategies value determined aspects of the Old Shanghai, particularly related to their Western influences instead of the local practices of former dwellers.

In the case of Juárez, the entrepreneurial strategies do not relate to the preservation of memories of working-class residences. The casas de adobe (adobe houses), with their handcrafted essence, were used to house the migrant workers who built the city. They are some of the oldest structures of the city’s historical centre. Most of them were built between 1913 and 1920. They not only represent a sustainable way of constructing, but also an important part of the architectural inheritance typical of the areas along the border. Because of its desert climate, the city was largely benefited by the thermic qualities of adobe. The easy flow of heat and cold was limited inside the residences, helping maintain comfortable and stable internal temperatures.[10] In contrast with the shikumen houses, however, the local urban planners treat the adobe houses as something that should be replaced because of their antiquity, instead of valuing them as a historical legacy.[11] For them, the adobe houses have no marketable or cosmopolitan appeal that could be included in a plan of making the city’s image more attractive to the world.

The museumification and spectacularisation of shikumen houses in the contemporary landscape of Shanghai is not an inclusive way of rescuing the residential memory of the working-class in the city. It responds to a consumption demand created by the local authorities and developers using elements of the city’s historical background, which can be mostly enjoyed by “high-income urban professionals” and tourists with a significant purchasing power visiting the city.[12] Based on the mere rehabilitation and adaptation of old urban forms for new uses, this process presents an absolute spatial conception instead of a relational one that considers the social-spatial practices as an important part of the historical-geographical content of the preserving sites.

The social practices of those places included solidarity ties of a migrant community made of people of various origins, both in Shanghai and in Ciudad Juárez. At the end of the 19th century, “a large number of refugees flooded into Shanghai from nearby provinces (…) Targeting this influx of Chinese migrants, Western landlords started building shikumen houses in the foreign concessions.”[13] In the case of Juárez, migrant workers from all over Mexico came to the border since the 1940s, coinciding with the boom of industrialisation. This constituted a very diverse and cosmopolitan community in the border.

In a historical context of economic and cultural globalisation, the memories of places being rescued and emphasized as important aspects of heritage and identity should serve to display a social meaning and a way of organizing our relation with the past.[14] These places, and particularly the workers’ residences, are more than a physical structure. They also present a symbolic meaning related to the everyday lives of the former dwellers. That is why an effective rescue of those places must, to some extent, preserve the social practices that used to characterize and structure them, not mediated exclusively by the consumption, but instead by a community spirit, social contacts and human care.

Erasing a “Dark Period”: The Role Of Selective Nostalgia

The selective nostalgia highlights some aspects of history at the same time that it hides others. Shanghai and Juárez share a historic feature that somehow challenges the romantic image painted by the Golden Age discourse. In both cases, the municipal authorities and urban developer want to forget about something. A period in the urban history that instead of stimulating the creation of a new space of consumption, blemishes the city’s image, threatening the international attractiveness that they once had.

In Shanghai, the glorious past of the Golden Age was sealed by the Mao era, when the city lost its prominence and cosmopolitanism to some extent, losing its former status of international metropolis and world’s financial and trading center. In Juárez, this dark past is related to a very different reality: the violent events that took place in the city during the 1990’s and the unprecedented upsurge of narco-related violence from 2008 to 2010, which made Juárez be considered the world’s most violent city.[15] Furthermore, this past is not entirely overcome in Juárez, since the city continues to face problems related to drug trafficking, state militarisation and gender crimes associated to the disappearance and murder of working-class women.

We could argue that Juárez has not left its “open” character, since it still plays a core geopolitical role both in illegal (mainly related to the narco-trafficking) and legal markets (primarily associated to the Maquiladora Industry) in a way that the city is marginally included in the globalisation process. However, the recent events that peaked in the unprecedented wave of murders drove the tourists away from the city. Shanghai has never lost its commercial spirit either, but the pre-reform era represents a significant decline in the city’s cosmopolitanism through a self-enclosure due to the shift in the national strategy.[16]

In both cities, an effort is being made of historic reinterpretation to suit a new development goal. Restoring Shanghai’s past prestige as a world-class city and making Juárez an investment-attractive city by bringing tourism back are the main objectives. In this sense, the selective nostalgia aims to bring back the shine of a Golden Age also to obfuscate a non-glamourous past of violence and incompatibility with the modern features of a global and modern city, “free of dirt, danger, offending smells, and local people.”[17]


The selective nostalgia creates a specific understanding about the “Old Shanghai” and “Juárez de ayer” (Yesterday’s Juárez) at the same pace that it marginalises certain fragments of history. The creation of a new urban space by rescuing particular pieces of historical heritage has not only symbolic implications that shape the collective image about the city’s past but also “material impacts on widening already fissuring gulfs of social inequalities among the urban population” both in Shanghai and Juárez.[18]

By comparatively analysing those cities, it is clear that the cost of a selective memory in urban design is the production of also selective spaces, since it denies the access of certain groups to it based on a class-criterion. The only way to rescue history under an inclusive perspective is to consider the social-spatial practices that used to take place in the “rescued” spaces. In other words, the concept of historical preservation is not only related to the physical rescue of old buildings, demanding a more complex conception of space. This conception goes against the ongoing marginalisation of the underclass citizens, and the approach of shikumen and adobe houses by the current urban renewal plans illustrate how the working-class memory is being contradictorily celebrated in the case of Shanghai and completely neglected in the case of Juárez.

About the Author

Larissa Santos is an undergraduate student of Geography at the University of São Paulo, Brazil, on an exchange period at Fudan University in Shanghai, China. Her bachelor’s dissertation in urban geography focuses on the process of urban restructuring of Ciudad Juárez, a city located in the US-Mexican border, where she undertook a research internship in 2017.


[1] Tianshu, P. “Historical memory, community-building and place-making in neighbourhood Shanghai.” In Restructuring the Chinese City: Changing society, economy and space, eds. Laurence, J. C. M. and WU, F., 122-158. New York: Routledge, 2005.

[2] Ren, X. “Forward to the Past: Historical Preservation in Globalizing Shanghai.” City and Community, 7, no. 1 (Mar 2008): 23-41.

[3] Pereyra, R. G. Ciudad Juárez: La fea. Ciudad Juárez: Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez, 2010.

[4] Martínez, A. F. G. “Breve historia del centro y su ciudad.” In Relatos de la memoria: la erosión del centro histórico en la ciudad fronteriza, edited by Carpio, E. M., 15-28. Ciudad Juárez: Editora UACJ, 2010.

[5] Tianshu, P. and Zhijun, L. “Place matters: an ethnographic perspective on historical memory, place attachment, and neighbourhood gentrification in post-reform Shanghai.” Chinese Sociology and Anthropology, 43, no. 4 (Summer 2011): 52-73.

[6] Wright, M. “Feminicidio, narcoviolence, and gentrification in Ciudad Juárez: the feminist fight.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, no. 31 (2013): 830-845.

[7] Wai, A. W. T. “Place promotion and iconography in Shanghai’s Xitiandi.” Habitat International, 30 (2006): 245-260.

[8] Lu, H. “Nostalgia for the future: the resurgence of an alienated culture in China.” Pacific Affairs, 75, no. 2 (Summer 2002): 169-186.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Morones, M. “Difunden bondades del adobe,” El Diario de Juárez, May 13 2016. Retrieved from

[11] Mexico. Chihuahua. Municipal Institute of Planning and Investigation of Ciudad Juárez. Plan Parcial del Centro Histórico de Ciudad Juárez, Ciudad Juárez: IMIP, 1998.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Bourdin, A. A questão local. Rio de Janeiro: DP&A Edit., 2001.

[15] Ortega, J. A. “Cd. Juárez, por Segundo año consecutivo, la ciudad más violenta del mundo,” Seguridad, Justicia y Paz, Jan 11 2010. Retrieved from

[16] Pomeranz, K. The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.