Urban Treasures: Under-The-Radar in Kolkata

One of Kolkata’s special features among Indian cities is the way its cultural and historical fabric extends beyond a singular city center, or a walled medieval old town into several city neighborhoods throughout Central and North Kolkata. Most of these neighborhoods are dense districts providing housing for the city’s middle income and lower middle income population. Some enjoy close proximity to Park Street, the bustling thoroughfare marking the commercial city center, or to the city’s largest park at the Maidan or to the public buildings at BBD Bagh (or Dalhousie Square). In addition, these neighborhoods are conveniently connected through the efficient Kolkata underground train service and the ferry service on the river Hooghly.

At first glance, these neighborhoods come across as congested areas with narrow streets, too many people and traffic. But a closer inspection reveals a rich concentration of history and architecture that is both a living monument, a major source of affordable housing to Kolkata residents and a means of preserving the cultural vibrancy and context of the city.

Building on Elgin Road

Building on Elgin Road

Shopping at Shobha bazaar

Shopping at Shobha bazaar

After discussions with Sukanya, Piyali and Anjan on themes of historic preservation, redevelopment of existing urban infrastructure, transit-oriented development and affordable housing, we visited several inner-city neighborhoods in Kolkata. The rich and obviously under-valued architectural quality of the buildings in these neighborhoods surprised us tremendously, almost as much as we were disappointed in the sorry physical state of many of the buildings and their unsuitability as housing. These neighborhoods gave us a great example of the difference between a qualitative housing deficit and quantitative. These are houses, and people live in them, but they badly need to be rehabilitated, as do infrastructure, services and amenities.

Another fascinating aspect of these neighborhoods is that they’re not only clusters of central, urban, affordable housing but also centers for several cottage industries. You see the same thing in certain urban villages in Delhi, and one of the big controversies around Dharavi is about this very topic of how to accommodate the livelihoods and industries that have been woven into these neighborhoods. At Kali Ghat, we found a large scale presence of the cottage industry making idols of gods. At Kumartuli, mansion-like colonial buildings housed cottage textile mills. As we watched men haul huge rolls of fabric out to the railroad just adjacent (another great example of the connectivity of these areas), we remembered we were told that several top global fashion designers produced textiles at these mills.

Idol Makers in Kali Ghat

Idol Makers in Kali Ghat


Not only have these urban treasures been forgotten by the more affluent city dwellers moving out to new suburbs, but they also barely figure into any tourist map or guide. Everywhere we went people were incredibly warm, and curious locals were happy to provide directions and show us around. We were invited inside a cottage textile mill in Kumartuli, where the old caretaker turned on the machine just for us to see. At another occasion, we were offered freshly made savory snacks at a cottage snack-making operation in Kali Ghat. Shobhabazar, another inner-city historic neighborhood in Kolkata, is a popular fresh fruit, vegetable and fish market.

Historic neighborhoods in India present several opportunities to add capacity as centers of both affordable housing and market infrastructure and trade in these visible city landmarks.

On our trip, we found that most buildings in these neighborhoods even though of significant architectural and historic value, were degrading due to underinvestment, neglect and poor maintenance.

These areas seem ripe for revitalization and redevelopment to improve residents’ living conditions, attract people back to the center of the city, bring complimentary adaptive uses to selected buildings and spaces, and formalize infrastructure for electricity, sewerage, commercial deliveries and trash collection. Of course, such change would bring the dilemma of gentrification, and the question of how to redevelop, add capacity, improve quality of life and preserve cultural context without driving residents out.

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