Xinyidali was the brainchild of Chinese resource developers at the beginning of the property boom that gripped the country in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Built in an inland area with good road and rail connections to major population centers, it was the site of several major heavy industry plants built astride major trunk lines during the crash industrialization program of the Great Leap Forward.

Like most industrial sites from that era, the old settlement–which had no official name, only a post office address–was rapidly being rustbelted out of existence in favor of much better-built facilities closer to the coast. Sensing an opportunity, developers from Shanghai entered into an agreement to purchase the land as the industrial plants wound down one by one and were dismantled. In exchange for the burden of tearing down the old structures and assuming liability, the investors got the land practically for free.

A grandiose plan emerged to develop the area into a mixed-use shopping area, theme park, and retirement village catering to Westerners and the wealthy. Renamed Xinyidali–roughly “New Italy” in Mandarin–the owners built a concrete half-scale replica of the Colosseum as a centerpiece and arts venue while surrounding it with blocks of flats with shops on the first floor in the Mediterranean style. Broad parks were laid out in between the blocks, radiating out like spokes, to be filled with light amusements and food stands.

The site was roughly 40% complete and some early tenants had already moved in when one of the industrial plants being demolished nearby suffered a major accident. A pesticide plant, it produced carbaryl for agriculture but had not been properly decommissioned before demolition started. Several large holding tanks that were assumed to be empty were instead full, and when breached released large quantities of phosgene and methylamine into the air and soil.

Phosgene had been used as a biological weapon in the First World War, while methylamine is a flammable toxin in its own right. The resulting explosions and leakage killed 27 people and forced a hasty abandonment of the site. Further testing confirmed dangerously high levels of chemical waste in the surrounding environment, even in places uncontaminated by the phosgene or methylamine. The investors, it seemed, had simply thrown a layer of topsoil over the industrial sites and hoped for the best–a hope buttressed by lavish bribes.

With the site contaminated, the investors bankrupt or in jail, and a government embarrassed by the negative attention the incident, the site was simply fenced off and abandoned. Xinyidali remains in a broken state even today, attracting a small trickle of photographers, urban explorers, and other thrill-seekers drawn by its stark decay despite the danger.

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