Walking in the City

“One salient feature of the new urban space of global cities is the widening gap between two types of city users, a small group of professionals and a large number of low income people (pg. 108).”                         

-- Michelle Huang, Walking Between Slums and     Skyscrapers

 

Walking in Mumbai exposes the city’s schizophrenic nature.  Dichotomies between lifestyles are sometimes visible in the same eyeshot, but it is more my understanding that Mumbai is a city of districts and zones.  The city is dominated by zones of slums and informal business strips (such as bazaars) and newly built middle- and upper-class dreamworlds.  Upon viewing the YouTube videos below, a clear difference between walking through the slums of Nehru Nagar or Dharavi and walking the main streets in the business districts emerges.  Mumbai’s rich/poor bi-polarity induce many questions: how does a city that is building or planning to build over 60 buildings of at least 30 floors over the next decade only have toilets enough for 1 in every 1440 Dharavi residents?  How does a city that presumes to be the next financial hub of the world plan on transporting visitors when its trains are so stuffed with people that they are hanging out every train entrance and window?    

There are two stark realizations about Mumbai that one gathers when virtually walking through the city: first, this is a city in the throes of economic rebirth.  As discussed on the other dreamworlds page, Mumbai contractors are building or planning over 60 new skyscrapers.  Construction cranes dot the skyline.  Second, the western assumption that slum dwellers are miserable and apathetic is challenged.  One look at the slum of Dharavi shows the passer-by that this is not a miserable place – it is a community, complete with homes and shopkeepers and social activity.  It appears to be quite a tight-knit community, with a collective understanding and consensus challenging the redevelopment plans that the city of Mumbai has for the slum.

       What comes out of this schizophrenic collage of space is a conflict about what the future of Mumbai might hold for its people.  On one hand, there are the millions of slum dwellers.  On the other, there are the international businessmen, the new wealthy, and the blossoming middle class.  The slum dwellers heavily outweigh any other demographic – Mike Davis talks of as many as 12 million in Mumbai in his book, Planet of Slums.  But the future of Mumbai is not up to the masses.  Mumbai’s government is mincing no words in its pursuit of “global city status.”  According to Economist, Indian central and state governments are making promises to spend the money (about $60 billion worth of public/private investment) and overhaul the laws and regulations that will free up more investment capital.  Over the course of a decade, Mumbai will be what the government hopes is a financial hub on par with the likes of New York City or Tokyo. 

 

Below is a great video that shows many of the highlights of a tour of Mumbai

Michelle Huang, in her book Walking Between Slums and Skyscrapers, discusses the upper class’ need to drive home the ideal of a “better, richer” tomorrow.  She says, “such luminous images of successful people seem to ‘humanize’ and concretize for low- and middle-class people the otherwise invisible life led by successful people (pg. 109).”  Through Mumbai’s neoliberal transformation, the slums dwellers are invited to see what their lives could be like, if they only allowed private contractors and government agencies to build it for them.  It seems as though the slum residents of Mumbai are not merely contrarians; they would be happy with the Mumbai of tomorrow looking just like the Mumbai of today.    

Above -- take a ride through the streets of Mumbai

 

          Outside the slums, walking the city is noisy and congested (see video below).  Everything looks as if it needs a layer of paint.  Taxis, rickshaws, motorcycles, bicycles, and pedestrians litter the concrete, while every direction yields the similar views of multi-story apartment buildings and offices interspersed with the occasional British colonial architecture, such as Victoria Station.  The atmosphere is hazy and polluted.  But Mumbai is a vibrant city at a unique juncture in its history.  It is simultaneously lavish and destitute, and seemingly moving in two different directions.  From a distance, it appears to be a city that wants to be more transnational, like it doesn’t quite belong to the clique that it looks up to, even though it knows how to act similarly.   Within the city, however, it is apparent that most of its inhabitants are not a part of the newly found wealth.

I first heard of Mumbai when my father first returned from the city after a business trip when I was a teenager.  He told me then that the difference between the few that have and the many that don’t was so visceral that it bothered him to see.  During his taxi ride from the airport to his hotel, he saw immaculate colonial palaces, people sleeping on top of each other on the sidewalks, gated luxury apartments, malnourished children, people defecating in the street, and rivers of trash.  He said the smell in some parts of the city was nauseating.  He never forgot the experience; when I asked him to help me pick a city for this project, without hesitation he replied, “Mumbai.”

by Stephen Marotta