Listen, Criticize, Build
On the familiar drive from my aunt's house near Woodstock to Manhattan, you soar away from the cliffs of the palisades and pass under the silver webbing of the George Washington Bridge. If you are going to the East Side, or maybe Brooklyn, you pass through the cavern of the Maj Deegan and down Harlem River Drive and then FDR Drive. Before you reach the familiar skyline, before the black obelisks of Park Avenue or the crystalline spire of the Chrysler building appear, you straddle the East River and dense blocks of towering buildings. On the right, fields of brick apartment buildings jut up into the haze of the summer sky. Blue towels and air conditioners hang next to iron railings and window-bars, with a light breeze it looks as though they might plunge downward, crashing into the sparse trees littered on concrete plazas. The stark brick projects on Manhattan's upper reaches are just some of the reminders of the city's mid-century urban renewal. Along with public housing projects, from the late 1940s to the early 1960s, New York embarked on a decade of 'slum clearance'. Pushed into prominence by a federal initiative, New York looked to erase the dilapidating structures of old-law tenement neighborhoods from the landscape of a new modernist metropolis. The leader of this transformation: revered civil servant Robert Moses. Leading the slum clearance committee, Moses destroyed the fabric of the city's small neighborhoods by evicting the long-time residents and replacing the affordable tenements with gleaming new apartment buildings. The neighborhoods destroyed were worn and poor but they had a social structure and a community that went unacknowledged by the process of redevelopment.
"Those who can build, those who can't criticize," Moses once famously remarked.
As the city of Mumbai grows seemingly exponentially, it faces similar problems to those covered hastily by New York's Moses. In the center of the Mumbai lies Dharavi, one of the most densely populated settlements in the world. Over eight hundred thousand people reside in the roughly one square mile of twisting alleyways and make-shift buildings. As a gaping and unpleasant reminder of the inequality of India's modern growth, for almost fifteen years now the city has struggled to 'redevelop' Dharavi. The leader of the most recent redevelopment proposal is Mukesh Mehta. Seen in the documentary Slum for Sale it seems that India has met its Robert Moses. Like the restless promises made during New York's razing, Mehta's agency assures Dharavi's residents, "we will put an end to all of your struggles."
Dharavi is unique as a commercially active low-income community and not just a residential area. Dharavi has an estimated economic output of nearly 600 million US dollars each year. As the city proposes to give developers the freedom to build for-profit apartments and provide residents with free housing, it becomes clear that this distant understanding of urban redevelopment has persisted with the years. A plastic recycler in Dharavi cannot lug barrels of plastic pellets to the eleventh floor to make his livelihood no matter how nice the apartment building is. A Dharavi mother cannot watch her kids play on the street from the perch of a seventh story balcony.
While the solution to Mumbai's urgent growth problems is unclear, Slum for Sale shows that Mumbai is dangerously close to betraying Dharavi's residents the same way that New York betrayed its own. The people of Dharavi deserve better living conditions but they also require a creative solution to urban redevelopment that acknowledges the needs of small business and the social structures of a dense, low-lying community. The sterile treatment of Dharavi's redevelopment painfully shows the fact that a creative solution for global urbanization has not emerged in the sixty years since Moses. The fate of Dharavi's urban redevelopment appears to rest on the shoulders of Mukesh Mehta. And in Slum for Sale as his black Mercedes sedan rolls into the neglected streets of Dharavi to present his plan, I simply thought that Dharavi and the world's cities deserve better.