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Architecture, Cities, Events

Jane Jacobs WALKED! (and so did we…)

This is an account of UDC’s Jane Jacob Walk at Chennai on 5th May 2013 at Georgetown. Any chuckles resulting from reading this are purely accidental. 

The High Court skyline at Georgetown

The High Court skyline at Georgetown

Cities stand still.
Not metaphorically of course, but physically.

So really, the only way you get to see them is to move within them. You could drive a car, ride a bike, get on a bus, catch a train or even ride a taxi. On a fateful Sunday (actually it was last week…); an old friend and I decided to join a group of people who would walk through the city in search of The City. The Walk was organised to commemorate the birthday of Jane Jacobs, a wonderful woman who changed the way people thought about cities by applying a unique tool of urban design – common sense. The only problem was, this lady happened to be born in May. Now, if you live in Peninsular India, a walk around the city on a midsummer’s day is generally considered a mild form of insanity or a particularly strange manner of committing suicide. It has to be – temperatures reach the high 40’s and the humidity is almost always saturated. There used to be trees on the sides of the roads, but we cut them all down for cables and trains. There were once vendors of coconuts and their water, but the cops kicked most of them out for setting up shop without a permit. There is  incessant, reckless traffic, unbound by the rules that govern roads. This was what we were expected to walk through and survive (if we could).

Participants assembling at the Beach Station in Georgetown

Participants assembling at the Beach Station in Georgetown

We met in a suburban train station concourse; waiting to gather as people trickled into the station, standing in front of a crowded food outlet. Then, when enough of us gathered, we stood in the station discussing our route, our responsibilities, introduced ourselves and were shooed off by the station police for loitering.
Organizers introducing Jane Jacobs, Georgetown and themselves before we begin the walk

Organizers introducing Jane Jacobs, Georgetown and themselves before we begin the walk

We then began on our journey on the route, cursing the unforgiving sun (and the manically enthusiastic organizers). In no particular order, we saw a park built on the remains of the abandoned fort wall, largely undiscovered by the general populace, a person in the group was almost pick-pocketed,  someone else found a fifty rupee note on the road, a few people walked into an ATM and stayed for a while to enjoy the air-conditioning. We bought water bottles by the dozen and sweated them all out. We shared our snacks and our cold drinks. Our damp handkerchiefs and torn tissues forced us to search for and cling to shade and breezes wherever we could find them. The cars and buses whizzed by, trying their best not to avoid us, as we desperately scrambled for whatever pavement we could lay our feet on. And somehow, we saw a City.We walked through the old streets, in search of pieces of the City that were desperately trying not to be forgotten. 

There were many beautiful buildings. Most were broken down or breaking up. Some were in good repair. We walked past an old bazaar that once exclusively sold smuggled goods. There was a church that had survived for three centuries – outliving the religious sect that built it. The great factories that were once synonymous with the City stood there, lonely and quiet. They were not yet abandoned but will be. We stared at old doors and windows which stood there as anachronisms in a city that was once something quite different. We looked at old signboards and compared them to new ones – hoping to discover how change comes not just in waves or violently, but also to the smallest and most intimate things in our lives. Posters for movies we remembered from our childhood invited us to small cinemas that still stoically stand, waiting to become necessary again. Ancient cycle rickshaws stood on the sides of the streets- riderless and obsolete, perhaps waiting for a cooler time of day to rise once again. Among the dense, crowded urban fabric stood those phallic new residential towers; hinting at a future that would be far more different than the ones our predecessors had dreamed of.

And as we walked, we talked…

At 'Madi Poonga'- Remnants of the fort wall that has been serendipitously converted into a terrace garden

Serendipity moment at ‘Madi Poonga’- A terrace garden created from the remnants of the fort wall

Respite from the sun at the serene Armenian Church- A real jewel tucked away amidst the chaos of Chennai's erstwhile commercial and financial district

Respite from the sun at the serene Armenian Church- A real jewel tucked away amidst the chaos of Chennai’s erstwhile commercial and financial district

The organizers (they of undampened enthusiasm and drenched shirts!), had rehearsed this beat a few days earlier. They regaled us with stories of places, people and the buildings. There were tales of wealth and bankruptcy, of criminal acts and revolutions, of segregation and failing walls, of how cars came to the City, of absent buildings and present eyesores, of how things gain names and how they lose them. There were moments when we stood in front of public toilets and sat at the doors of corporate offices discussing how The City came to be what it is. We passed around I-Pads with old pictures of where we were standing and were asked to see the past and evaluate the present. The present didn’t do so well. Drunks and  curious people stopped to listen to us as we formed circles on the pavement talking. We posed for photographs under the burning sun. We answered good questions asked by a guy with a video camera (yes, the walk was video documented), trying our best to sound insightful and wise. We offered our opinions on what was, and what was to come, as we sat down on the sidewalk in front of a new metro station that was being built in front of us. There were conversations that sprung up all along the route as we discussed cities, urban design, architecture, religion, jobs and the nature of work. We told each other our own stories and listened to others tell us theirs. These small, fragmented discussions weren’t part of an unfolding philosophical dialectic, but were small pieces of humanity seeking a connection that only a city can provide. In the speaking and the listening of these little tales, is the largeness of the urban experience revealed.

We began the Walk hoping to discover for ourselves what Jacobs had revealed – a vibrant, powerful urbanism that is human, universal and under threat. As we sat down for a final photograph on the steps of the office of a multi-billion dollar conglomerate, we were exhausted, dehydrated and had not changed the city even one bit. The city instead, had changed us. The city is too large to describe or even comprehend. The stories we were told and we ourselves shared with the group were descriptions of the City as a series of intersecting narratives and accidents, each of which led the City along a certain path of History; and left it there. The histories of cities dazzle us, even as they crumble and dissolve into memories. We stare at their remains and their images hoping to connect them to our present, and make sense of the profound ugliness that pervades most modern cities and the surprising beauty that lies just beneath.  Urbanism is not merely an agent of economics or geography, but our collective message to our future. I wondered what a similar exercise- a Walk organised fifty years from now would reveal, and how my generation would come across in the eyes of those who see our works. Cities and architecture it seems, are representatives of our own confused interpretations of a past that we choose to call the present.

Five hours after we began, we found ourselves back in the station that began the day. The same cops appeared once again and told us not to do whatever it was we were doing. We spoke for a few more minutes, made the organizers swear that they would not attempt this again in the summer and began finding our ways back home.

A little while later, I fell on my bed, hungry, drained and elated.

This was a good day…

Parting ways at the Beach station- Back to where we started from and just before

Parting ways at the Beach station- Back to where we started from

Photographs Courtesy- Mahesh Radhakrishnan, Aishwarya Rajagopal and Jothivel Moorthi

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