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As the calendar year turns over, we’ve grown accustomed to the barrage of lists telling us where to travel during the next 12 months. Oftentimes these places are a country or even a whole region – you could spend an entire year exploring just one of the locations listed and still barely make a dent.

We like to travel on a smaller scale. Forget countries and cities, for us the neighborhood is the ideal unit of exploration. Celebrating neighborhood life and businesses is, of course, essential to what we do as Culinary Backstreets. Since our founding in 2012, we’ve been dedicated to publishing the stories of unsung local culinary heroes and visiting them on our food walks, particularly in neighborhoods that are off the beaten path.

Last January, we declared 2018 as “The Year of the Neighborhood,” and what a fruitful year it was. We had our fair share of fresh experiences and were also able to contribute to the economies of neighborhoods otherwise neglected by the tourism industry. Tourism is an important economic force in many cities, as it should be, but if it is not dispersed responsibly, it can devastate the urban ecosystem, one that’s based on the sound health of all of a city’s neighborhoods.

With that in mind, we are happy to again focus on neighborhoods off the main tourist trail in 2019, as well as the people and places that keep them going. Below is a compilation of the less-visited areas that our correspondents are planning to explore this year:

Shanghai: Old Town

We often lament the loss of Shanghai’s historic neighborhoods (and the culinary gems hidden therein), so this year we turn to re-exploring Old Town, a 500-year-old area south of the famed Yu Gardens, east of Laoximen (the old West Gate) and abutting the south Bund area.

It’s arguably the fastest changing area in the city due to increasing development encroaching from all angles, and also from within. “What little remains dates from the early 20th century, and these precious last bits are reminders of a way of life that is far from the glass-and-steel reality of today’s Shanghai: narrow lanes, hidden temples, crumbling mansions, generations-old communities and traditions, and a lively street life,” explains Tina Kanagaratnam, one of the founders of Historic Shanghai, a preservation and educational society.

Despite the changes it has experienced, the Old Town in some ways still offers the “purest” glimpse of what life in Old Shanghai must have been like. Truth be told, the old lilong alleyway buildings that surround the Confucian temple are extremely rundown – in spite of their charms and architectural interest, years of deferred maintenance have made it much more economically feasible to start from scratch. The construction marches on, despite increasing concern about preserving architectural heritage and traditional neighborhoods – that is still a luxury that some argue Shanghai can’t (or won’t choose to) afford.

As a result, we’ve had to say goodbye recently to the peanut sauce dumplings at Er Guang, along with all the other late-night stops on Zhaozhou Lu and the nearby Tangjiawan Lu Market, the city’s oldest open-air food market. But a few blocks east at Ninghe Lu and Penglai Lu, a morning market still thrives. Find the intersection on a map, and get lost in the warren of alleyways that snake around the area.

Nearby pioneer Jackie’s Beer Nest, with its ever-increasing selection of local beers on tap, also closed up shop in late 2018, but we rededicated ourselves to drinking even more traditionally at Kong Yi Ji with their tasting paddles of huangjiu (Shaoxing wine) aged five to 30 years in a setting worthy of the Confucius temple it adjoins. Their menu, décor and ambiance are amazing year-round, but especially worth a visit during hairy crab season in late fall.

No one faults Shanghai for developing its inner city core amid decades of unprecedented wealth creation and economic development – it’s only logical that the prime real estate would eventually evolve. Yet given that the city prioritizes progress over preservation, the time to visit is now. – Kyle Long

Click here to read the full neighborhood guide.

Kyle Long and Phoebe Amoroso

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