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A ‘brutalist’ China Town and the Parisian ‘bo bun’

It was while sauntering through the delightful Chateau Fontainebleu during our Parisian stint this summer that I first made the connection between the 13th arrondissement and industry. Le Gobelins, a stop on the metro line (7) we often took into town from our suburban abode in summer, was where the French aristocracy got its tapestries from. Up until the ’60s, from what I understand, this area of Paris that lies south of the Seine was a marshy mish mash of industrial workshops and village like neighbourhoods interspersed with patches of gardens and farms. Inspired by Corbusier’s ideas of city planning, a massive urban project called Italie 13 was planned here in the ’60s for the urban professional classes, dominated by high rise towers and large interconnected public spaces on the ground level.

I had the chance to visit Les Olympiades, one of the prominent high-rise complexes built in the late ’60s and early ’70s, with a colleague recently. We were out to get some lunch and he kindly decided to show me around the China Town nearby. Which, against my expectations, was amid this giant brutalist complex of monotonous and monumental high rises! The tall towers of Les Olympiades, which I hear are now rapidly gentrifying, frame a large plaza with a market and access to multi level shopping centres. The design of the Pagode shopping plaza, with its pagoda style roofs, turned out to be prophetic because this neighbourhood saw the arrival of ethnic Chinese immigrants from Vietnam, Camobodia and Laos in the late ’70s, most of them escaping the Vietnam War.

IMG_4400IMG_4409IMG_4408IMG_4407IMG_4401IMG_4396Though architecturally this area hardly looks like the ‘China Town’ one expects, many of the businesses here are Chinese owned. A south-east Asian style set of vendors selling greens on the streets and a number of food stalls selling Vietnamese food were the most obvious signs here. Sitting on the sidewalk, we enjoyed a quick meal of ‘bo bun’, a dish of rice vermicelli with grilled meat, raw vegetables and tangy sauce that has become my favourite food in Paris. This one in ‘China Town’ was way better than the bo bun I have had around the university I work at, which is only a few blocks away within the same arrondissement, part of a later and arguable more successful redevelopment project called the Rive Gauche.

One of the nicest things about being interested in urbanism is that there is pleasure to be derived from the simplest things in a city like Paris. Walks, commutes, lunches and visits to friends are all part of a giant educational and sight seeing experience. And this is how the pursuit of a good bo bun taught me quite a bit about a chunk of Paris’ urban and immigration history.

All content and photographs © Mukta Naik

The story of gentrification of a local market

A friend wrote the post I’ve wanted to write forever. Cities never fail to amaze and surprise, and Delhi is special that way…

Rural-Urban Frontiers

Twenty years ago when I lived in Delhi I drove past Meherchand Market without giving it a second look as it was never a destination. It was simply a row of small shops, tailors and mechanics which catered to Lodi Colony residents. Lodi Colony was a run down low-income neighbourhood which housed those working in the nearby posh central Delhi locales of Khan Market, Jorbagh and Golflinks. I was surprised to find Meherchand Market now being widely reported as Delhi’s upcoming retail spaces catering to the high fashion industry and elite. Delhi’s “developing” urban fabric, its ever expanding metro network, numerous flyovers (being built supposedly to ease the traffic), the revamped airport have transformed the city, but all these did not surprise me half as much as what I saw the other day while driving past Meherchand Market. The humble shopping street which had held out for so long has gentrified into a posh upmarket street. Being located close to Khan Market, which attract Asia’s highest…

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Street vendors add to the landscape of urban memories, identity- July 16, 2012

Street vendors, or hawkers as we also call them, are such an integral part of our lives in Indian cities. I just finished reading a book by Musharraf Ali Farooqi, a delicious little novella named ‘Between Clay and Dust’. The story revolves around a pahalwan and a tawaif who share a beautiful platonic relationship that eventually surpasses all others in their lives, even blood ties. Set immediately post Partition, I found it fascinating that Gohar Jan’s source of news about the city was mostly through peddlars of wares and services like the bangle seller, the trinket lady, etc.

I remember the iconic Farooq Sheikh, Deepti Naval starrer ‘Chashme Baddoor’ from my childhood. Naval sold Chamko detergent powder door-to-door. I associated the film with a few visits to Delhi during my childhood when residential areas in South Delhi had a certain quiet buzz about them and vendors of many daily necessities, including fruits and vegetables, peddled their wares from door to door on a rudimentary wooden pushcart (redi). Coming from Mumbai, which had already become a big city where you went to the commodity and it rarely came to you, all this seemed fascinating.

From the two years I spent as an infant, I have very vague memories of the guys who walked through the streets with the bear (bhaloo) and the monkeys (madari with his bandars) to entertain us kids. We discussed this  at lunch on Sunday and between mum, Rahul and me, we added more variety to that list- the knife sharpening guy, the utensil repairing guy, in an earlier time there were people who would come and coat brass vessels with aluminum so they could be used for cooking purposes.

It pains me to see this breed disappear. Not just because they imbued a certain flavor to our cities, but because it signals the arrival of a use-and-throw culture in which we have no place for repair re-use. I feel this is criminal. While the world is waking up to the benefits if re-use, we Indians who had a natural talent for this are giving away the advantage by blindly adopting a consumerist culture that exhibits no conscience at all. Also, the trend signifies our paranoia of letting unknown persons enter our homes. With gated living becoming popular, the breed will disappear entirely.

And yet, street vendors continue to thrive in certain situations because of their flexibility in adapting to demand and the meager resources they need. And nowhere is this more evident than in the omnipresence of street food! What would our public places be without the bhuttawala (guy selling corn cobs roasted right in front of you on hot coals), the chaat wala, the aloo bonda wala, the lassi stalls, the chana kulcha and chowmein stalls, the burger wala, the momo-guy (a relatively new addition)..the list is endless! Outside the posh Galleria market in Gurgaon, where the well heeled shop and splurge, the anda bread guy does brisk business. Outside Gurgaon’s call centers, the paratha stalls mint money and provide excellent service even in the middle of the night, with piping hot tea or cold drinks, whichever you prefer! Outside every glass and steel office building, there are clusters of food vendors, selling hot and freshly cooked meals. This is the real India, never mind the people inside the glass boxes pecking on their grilled sandwiches and pasta, or alternatively gingerly opening a home cooked tiffin while yearning for takeaway Chinese!

It alarms me that municipalities like Delhi and Mumbai have taken a hostile stance towards street vendors. There are plenty of ways they can ensure hygiene without taking these people off the streets. A couple of evocative articles by Prof. Sharit Bhowmik from Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai,  tell a compelling tale of the relationship hawkers have to the city’s economy and make a case for nurturing street vending and providing it a conducive ecosystem.

Evictions and cleansing the streets reek of narrow-mindedness, complete apathy for the urban poor who make a living out of as well as subsist on buying from street vendors as well as a lack of sense of place, to which street vendors contribute in an immeasurable but significant manner. To me, it is critical that professionals and citizens alike talk about the kind of urbanism we aspire to. Without this sort of debate, we will continue to lose our identity to idiotic regulations, till we are left with a bland existence and even the memories of a fuller, finer life are erased.

 

 

Informality integral to Delhi’s identity, nurture it! May 10, 2012

I was delighted to see this video from Philips Livable Cities Initiative profiling New Delhi. Indeed, I agree that one of Delhi’s biggest challenges is to refrain from copying what other cities have done without really thinking it through. Delhi has such a unique identity shaped by its complex and interesting past and added to everyday by the thousands who migrate in and out of this melting pot; indeed, it would be a great pity to dilute its unique character.

I loved the fact that the video highlights one of the aspects I love best about Delhi- its informality. In fact, the piece highlights what I have always believed, that its informal economy is the soul of this city. One has to only look around to see how innovative citizens are about how they earn their livelihood. I blogged about Sarojini Nagar market and Sikanderpur, an urban village as great examples of thriving markets. Messy kitschy is what Delhi loves, while more organized, formal retail often gets miserably low footfalls. Small businesses, street markets, street-side food and public spaces full of noise and life are desirable to Delhi-ites. Clearly, it is upto designers, planners and policy makers to intervene to public spaces conducive to nurture small businesses.

Like anywhere, it is vital for Delhi’s citizens to be proud of their city. They already are! Most recently, we have seen an enormous fillip in the city’s self-image after the success of the Delhi Metro (and Delhi Daredevils, I dare say!). It would certainly be a blessing if experts and government could join hands to, as the video suggests, preserve the city’s heritage and revive its waterways and green spaces to create a cleaner, more livable urban environment.

 

 

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