Bandra is changing, but it isn’t being gentrified

22 April 2014 – Mumbai Boss

“Bandra has arisen from the humble rank of a village in the possession of the Jesuits – as it was in the 17th century – to be one of the most popular suburbs of Bombay.”

Braz A. Fernandes, a Goan Bandra Catholic, wrote this in the introduction to his 1927 monographic Bandra: Its Religious and Secular History. He went on to describe the arrival of the first train here in 1867, and the population boom that ensued (by 1873 there were 24 trains running between Bandra and Virar). In 1876, the Municipality was established. “The influx continued,” Fernandes wrote, “and the Christian landlord who had lived on his estate like a small potentate, suddenly found himself hustled out of the way by the wealthy Parsi. Today, Bandra is a cosmopolitan town.”

If you know anyone who’s lived in Bandra for more than ten years, they’ve likely told you a similar story. When they first came to Bandra, they’ll tell you, the so-called Queen of the Suburbs still felt like a village, its tree-lined streets quiet, its buildings mostly low-rise, its population dominated by Catholics, but happily mixed with Parsis and Bohras, who arrived around the turn of the century, and the Punjabis and Sindhis, who had come after Partition, and the occasional cool kid from town or elsewhere who’d arrived but recently. By the late 1990s and early 2000s, the influx had begun, with young creative types (graphic designers, musicians, artists, media people, etc.) moving in. Then came the foreigners. Today, Bandra is an even more cosmopolitan town.

You’ll notice a significant difference, though, in these two stories: Fernandes tells his with a certain triumphalism, describing with pride the transformation of his native place; he describes the continued influx as part of Bandra’s history. The second version will likely end with a sigh and the complaint that Bandra’s not what it once was (surely true), that it’s been ‘discovered’, that, worst of all, it’s being gentrified.

* * *

That word ‘gentrification’ tends to come with quite a bit of baggage, much of it flown in long-distance. Coined in the late 1960s by the English sociologist Ruth Glass, ‘gentrification’ originally described a process of urban change taking place in London, and specifically in Notting Hill and Islington (both now decidedly gentrified), wherein working-class renters were gradually forced out of their neighbourhoods by bourgeois bohemians (the equally derisive analogue and precursor to the modern-day ‘hipster’) with cash to burn. It described an invasion of the ‘gentry’ that subverted and ultimately destroyed the neighbourhoods’ preexisting textures.

Since its invention, the word has gained extraordinary traction, becoming particularly useful for describing trends in American inner cities that began in the 1990s with the reversal of ‘white flight’, the departure of wealthy white Americans from city centres to suburbs in the decades following World War II. Gentrification meant artists and their studios, followed by young professionals and the trappings of upper middle-class urbanity (e.g. cafes, restaurants, galleries, boutiques), moving into neighbourhoods previously treated as reservations for working-class minority communities. Real estate prices skyrocketed; fresh waves of even wealthier gentrifiers arrived; new businesses opened that deliberately (or at least obviously) alienated locals who soon left for cheaper pastures.

In 2003, Mathew Rofe, a professor of Geography at the University of Adelaide, wrote an article titled “I Want to be Global: Theorising the Gentrifying Class as an Emerging Elite Global Community” (a nicely academic mouthful), published in the journal Urban Studies. In that essay, Rofe discusses the intersection of “a nationally disembedded group whose members are globally aligned” and the class of people typically identified as gentrifiers, who bring to inner-city neighbourhoods “a sense of cosmopolitanism” and use that sense to create what he calls “consumptionscapes […] characterised by the presence of cafés, restaurants, boutiques and art galleries.”

So far, so Bandra. Kirpi Patel (he goes by Nanu), a Bandra native who has worked as a real estate broker since 1988, says he has seen the rental price of a modest one room-kitchen apartment rise from Rs5,000-Rs,6,000 per month just over a decade ago to Rs30,000 per month today. He has also seen a rise in the number of renters (he estimates roughly a quarter of apartments in Bandra these days are rentals), primarily young professionals, childless couples and increasingly – though maybe not to the extent people like to imagine – foreigners. The bars and cafes and boutiques are self-evident.

Cost of living was the most important draw for that first wave of young creatives to arrive in Bandra, along with location and a generally laid-back attitude more or less unique to the area. This new population brought a steady rise in the number of bars and restaurants and, as some would have you believe, made Bandra cool. Rents skyrocketed as wealthier people started moving in (a standard second-step in gentrification scenarios). The Catholics who once represented the neighbourhood’s majority started leaving, selling their suddenly valuable bungalows to ravenous developers, and buying spacious modern homes in new Catholic enclaves positioned in cheaper suburbs like Malad and Borivali.

Today, Bandra is an area closely tied to the cultural attitudes and tastes of the west, particularly a relaxed outlook more accommodating to lifestyles otherwise held suspect in a socially conservative nation. Bandra offers its increasingly international denizens many of the comforts of western cityscapes (walkable streets, international food, relative ease of movement, etc.) otherwise lacking in most of Mumbai. Some people make the logical leap from this supposedly ‘emergent global community’ to the word gentrification. In doing so, they’re missing some important steps (and opportunities) in between.

* * *

Whatever else we might associate with the word, ‘gentrification’ always represents a rupture, usually one in which a globalised, majority-controlled aesthetic culture replaces a local, minority-controlled one. That rupture, in turn, almost always results in tensions between the two communities for which those cultures stand in. Check out, for example, Spike Lee’s furious response to a question about ‘the other [i.e. good] side’ of gentrification during a talk at the Pratt Institute in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn: “There were brothers playing motherfuckin’ African drums in Mount Morris Park for 40 years and now they can’t do it anymore because the new inhabitants said the drums are loud.”

The anger that Lee expresses here is a hallmark of gentrification. About five years ago, New York saw a particularly ugly and illustrative showdown over a chunk of Harlem’s westernmost periphery. As part of an ambitious campus expansion plan, Columbia University euphemised the area as ‘Manhattanville’ before euthanising it with eminent domain laws. In the interim, denizens of the area who had not been bought out of their properties over the previous decades, staged protests over Columbia’s gentrification scheme (they used the word on signs paraded across campus). It was a fight over land rights and power and race and money and cultural capital; over an institution of international renown, a bastion of white privilege despite its long history of leftist activism, attempting to rechristen and ‘redevelop’ (the University’s word) a historically black neighbourhood. People were pissed; it got ugly.

Nothing like this has ever happened in Bandra. Indeed, real Bandraites – people who were born and brought up in the area, not the first wave of ‘cool’ migrants – see the neighbourhood’s current position within Mumbai’s urban imagination as a continuation of, rather than a break with, its past.

An example: the supposed ‘hipster’ population and its affinity for globally vetted, largely western musical trends is in fact a continuation of Bandra’s long-standing affinity for western music. During the height of Bombay’s Jazz Age, from the 1930s-’60s, many of the musicians who played in South Bombay’s clubs were Goan and East Indian Catholics from Bandra. Denzel Smith, an actor and lifelong Bandraite, credits his own interest in western music and theatre to his upbringing there. During his childhood in the 1960s and ’70s, Smith said, “If you walked down Chapel Road on a Sunday morning, you would hear houses competing with Jim Reeves and the Rolling Stones, each one blasting his fucking music.”

Another example: Bandra’s laissez-faire socio-cultural attitude is a point of pride for long-standing residents. It’s not just the presence of foreigners and musicians that have made Bandra the most comfortable place for Mumbai’s gay community, after all. Genesia Alves, whose family members own homes in Pali and Ranwar village and burial plots at St. Andrews Church (true marks of a proper Bandra heritage), told me that when she was a teenager in the late ’80s, “there was always a cross dresser in line for communion.” When I told her I would quote her on that, she said, “It’s a point of pride!”

On a recent evening I visited the 187-year-old Waroda Road bungalow owned by 72-year-old Peter Pereira and his extended family. He poured me a glass of homemade wine (Bandra Catholics have been brewing this stuff for generations, part of the reason the neighbourhood developed its raffish reputation for partying, and a natural precursor to the bars and clubs that have turned up here more recently) and showed me dozens of pictures from his years spent traveling for work across Europe and Asia. “He has friends everywhere, practically – from Africa, Hong Kong, Singapore,” said Pereira’s nephew, Ibsen Murzallo – named (naturally) for the Norwegian playwright whose masterpieces dealt with women’s lib and syphilis, not exactly suitable subjects in a more traditional segment of Indian society.

As Rofe writes, “The individual must actively construct and place on display an identity marking them [sic] as ‘being global’. […] ‘Being global’ is a title of distinction, infusing the individual with a sense of cosmopolitanism.” Membership in Rofe’s élite global community, then, is something one assigns oneself. Whether or not Bandra’s Catholic communities ever represented a financial élite (they didn’t), they have always represented themselves as cosmopolitan in much the same way that newer, would-be gentrifiers do, through their tastes in clothing, food and music. As Smith told me, “We were always the gentry.” And the gentry – whether built on real or perceived cultural capital – can’t be gentrified.

* * *

It would be disingenuous to claim that Bandra hasn’t changed dramatically in the last 20 years; it would be equally disingenuous to pretend that that change isn’t consistent with the neighourhood’s history. As Blaine Murzallo, Ibsen’s older brother, told me: “Bandra is a place of change.” That changes have come more rapidly and haphazardly in recent years has nothing to do with gentrification and everything to do with Bandra’s geographic placement in the new heart of a metropolis whose population is leaving the historic core.

A 2013 study from the Asia Research Institute found that, since 1981, the percentage of Mumbai’s total population living in the suburbs has risen from 60 per cent to 75 per cent. The same study shows that between 2001 and 2011, the population of A Ward (Fort, Colaba) declined from 210,000 to 148,000. In the same period, the population of H West Ward (Bandra, Khar, Santa Cruz) rose from 337,000 to 420,000. “I guess we’ve more or less reached the saturation point,” says Asif Zakaria, a Bandra native who has served as municipal corporator for H West Ward for eight years. “Or if we’re not there, then we’re getting there.”

But what’s really interesting here is the nature of that demographic change. It’s basically impossible (or at least really difficult) to get solid data on the exact demographic breakdown among new migrants to Bandra, but anecdotal evidence abounds. Nanu, a Hindu, recalls a time when he was the only non-Catholic living in his building near Pali Market; today, he says, the building is roughly 60 per cent Muslim, 20 per cent Catholic and 20 per cent “others”. In the last 20 years or so, many families have sold their homes in Bhendi Bazaar and Byculla to shift north, particularly following the 1992-’93 riots, seeing Bandra as a safe space for minorities of all kinds. And while Bandra’s native communities – Catholic, Parsi, Bohri – have nurtured their neighbourhood’s cosmopolitan reputation, cracks have appeared in its foundations as the demographic ground has shifted.

Anil Kably, who founded Zenzi in his native barrio in 2005, told me, with a roll of the eyes, “I’ve heard people say ‘Pali has become Ali and Ranwar has become Anwar’ and shit like that.” This kind of thing, he said, is inimical to Bandra’s cosmopolitan ideal, but has become increasingly common. Ayaz Basrai, a lifelong Bandra resident and founder of the Ranwar-based architecture firm The Busride Studio, has been at the receiving end of these tensions. After a client (Muslim, like Basrai) purchased the St. Jude Bakery on Waroda Road a couple years back, rumours began circulating among local Catholics that the pair planned to turn it into a mosque.

In Bandra, Basrai told me, “your religious identity is mediated by your geographical identity. For me, for example, the fact that I’m Muslim comes way down in the hierarchy. The fact that I’m from Bandra is way up.” Whatever racial tensions exist in Bandra, he says, relate primarily to a new community of Muslims, settled in formerly Catholic areas like Bazaar Road and Chapel Road, that many Bandra natives feel, rightly or wrongly, has not reorganised its identity to align with the neighbourhood’s ethos. “Part of the culture of the suburb is to maintain a certain demographic mix,” Basrai told me. The conflict here, quiet though it is, arises from a clash between a cultural ideal of inclusion, and the fear that that ideal will be its own undoing.

During our chat, Nanu had told me “the people who are generally from Bandra, they feel a bit unsecured. With the people who have come from outside you have lots of riff raff.” A month or so ago, an East Indian Lady told me that St. Andrew’s Church had to lock its Hill Road gate to keep out the “bhaiyas” who gather on the Bandstand. These aren’t the tensions characteristic of gentrification. They’re closer to the ‘there-goes-the-neighbourhood’ attitude of American white flight.

* * *

Even these tensions tend to be, as Kably describes them, “soft”. You’re more likely to hear a Bandra native complain about the volume of traffic than about the volume of the call to prayer; I’ve never heard a real local complain about a new café opening, except, perhaps, to lament the new traffic it will attract. “There’s hardly a day where I don’t get a complaint of traffic issues or parking issues,” Zakaria told me. Noise complaints from neighbours of busy bars come in sometimes, too, he says, but not with nearly as much frequency.

Bandra is, of course, notably better off infrastructure-wise than virtually any other suburb. The roads are reasonably good and flooding is rarely a problem, though traffic surely is. According to both Basrai and Zakaria, the credit for this goes primarily to the system called ‘Advanced Locality Management’, a grassroots programme wherein each street has a committee of volunteers who field and remedy local complaints. “In the entire city of Mumbai, I think Bandra has the maximum activism,” Zakaria had told me, though that activism tends to be dominated by the neighbourhood’s older residents. Grassroots activism can, in fact, help correct the neighbourhood’s most pressing issues.

The lack of infrastructure, overcrowding, restriction of pedestrian movement and the unscrupulous developers responsible, at least in part, for creating these problems – these are the major concerns for Bandra’s native population, not the supposed scourge of gentrification. The people who concern themselves with the latter tend to represent a different community entirely. The people I have heard use the term most freely – an actress, a filmmaker, a graphic designer among others – are almost all people who came to Bandra in that first wave of cool, young migrants.

As neighbourhoods all over the world have demonstrated, gentrification is an unstoppable force, a cultural/economic juggernaut that, once started, doesn’t stop. The march of gentrification continues through Brooklyn; Columbia has begun moving forward with its plans for Manhattanville; even Mumbai has seen the disastrous consequences in Lower Parel as chawl dwellers have been forced from their homes and an essential piece of Mumbai’s urban history has been systematically and clumsily obliterated.

So the problem here is not just semantic, nor is it just factual: the problem is diagnostic.

Using the term ‘gentrification’ to describe what’s happening isn’t just wrong, it’s lazy; a combination of Mumbai’s two favourite forms of fatalism: nostalgia and political apathy. As the ALMs have demonstrated, Bandra’s symptoms can be identified and, to an extent at least, treated. By calling the neighbourhood gentrified, we’re really calling it terminal. And that’s important, possibly disastrous. Because if Bandra’s already terminal, what kind of hope is there for everyplace else?


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