Every Ghetto, Every City: Hauz Khas Village and Gentrification

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Rajyasree Sen (a new name to me) has a few things to say about Hauz Khas Village.

You should read her words, but for those not so inclined, she’s largely interested in pointing out that the Village, for all its “alternative” vibe, is little more than a playground for South Delhi’s affluent classes to feel a bit out of the mainstream while consuming the trappings of a lifestyle they outwardly reject.

And she’s not wrong, per se. But the bigger question that one can’t help but avoid is “what’s your point, Rajyasree?” And who, exactly, do you think your audience is? Because the reflective kids in the Village already understand all this. And the others aren’t reading your words.

Rajyasree writes – never using the word – about gentrification. This is not new territory, and it’s a debate that I try to avoid; any thought I have on the subject has probably been written a dozen times. Change the context just a bit, and she could be talking about Brooklyn a decade ago, lower Manhattan twenty or thirty years ago, or any formerly rundown part of any city: the story is the same.

The arty kids find a centrally located but dilapidated bit of city and do something fun there because it’s affordable. The rich kids who want to be edgy jump on board and they’re welcomed with open arms because they can finance the whole thing. But then too many rich kids jump on board, and not just curious and interesting ones any longer. The forces of commerce begin to see a distinct market. Things get more expensive, and the arty kids have to move on.

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Credit: Owen G. Richards on Flickr

Sure, Delhi flips the script a little; here, even the arty kids probably have family money behind them somewhere. In the English language space, Delhi’s cultural production is a distinctly elite affair. And if one was looking for an interesting and new take on gentrification in Delhi, that might be a useful direction to explore.

But Rajyasree is more interested in condemning the affluent who think they’re breaking new ground because their luxury goods come from an urban village instead of a mall. Which is all well and good. But aside from being an easy target, you can’t help but wonder if she’d prefer a pattern of urban development centered around massive malls in the city’s outskirts, or one that involves mixed-use development in the urban core. And if it’s the latter, what exactly is the problem? You don’t like rich kids who pretend they’re slumming while buying luxury goods? Fine, get in line. But you’ll have to do a better job to convince me that your point merits an entire article. In a world of mass commodity production, small batch anything is the new Veblen good. Why would HKV be any different?

Beyond that, it’s too easy to write off HKV entirely as being faux anything. Yes, those elements are around; increasingly so. But Yodakin offers books that you’re unlikely to find at any Vasant Kunj mall. Gunpowder provides a South Indian culinary experience that’s rare in Delhi’s idli-dosa scene. And TLR, until recently, created a space for non-mainstream music that simply doesn’t exist in most of this city’s venues. And while none of these establishments are priced for the masses, they certainly cater to an audience far larger than the uber-elite targets of Rajyasree’s rant.

I don’t write this to defend the village. In truth, since TLR’s closing, I rarely find myself in Hauz Khas Village unless I’m being paid to be there, or a friend is performing. But Rajyasree seems to be condemning an entirely expectable phenomenon without either bringing a fresh analytical lens or offering up any alternative, aside from an offhand reference to “innumerable home bakeries and sabzi mandis”. And truth be told, if she thinks that there’s anything green about the wholesale sabzi mandi, she doesn’t know much about how most produce is grown in India.

So yes, it would be nice if rich people didn’t feel the need to find authenticity through an “alternative” lifestyle that isn’t really. Yes, it would be nice if money didn’t follow clusters of cool in a way that ends up ruining things for everyone. And yes, people are hypocrites.

But until you have something new or interesting to say about these things, until you’re willing to engage with the broad canon of work by thoughtful individuals who have spent a great deal of time thinking about the phenomenon of gentrification, you might want to keep your thoughts to yourself.

You’re not wrong. But being right is only half the battle.

written by Kerry Harwin
Photo taken from the blog By All Means Necessary

NEWS - 21. June 2013   CITY - New Delhi

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