How does one make a city livable?
This was the question Jane Jacobs, a local resident of New York City, asked in 1960s when Robert Moses, a bureaucratic city planner, decided to construct an expressway through her Greenwich Village to create access to the cars. Jacobs in “The Uses of Sidewalks: Safety” writes (1961) ‘streets and their sidewalks, the main public spaces of a city, are its most vital organs.’ She says that the ‘narrow, crowded, and multiuse streets’ makes the residents feel safe and lead them to participate in a ‘street ballet’. We know that street is a point where one experiences a city in its utmost splendor, simplicity and sophistication. I recently took to observing one of the streets of Karachi, with a friend as a part of my assignment. Only after visiting it a couple of times, we noticed the street name sign at the corner, hidden by the hotchpotch of hawkers, rickshaws, and garbage. The board said ‘Mahmud Ghaznavi Road’ (see, how the names embedded in the physical space can tell you a lot about the narratives people believe in). This is a ‘charged parking site’ approved by Karachi Metropolitan Corporation in Hyderi, but we also notice street hawkers all over the site.
In the morning, the only activity stems from uncountable wild and free pigeons fluttering, and pecking on the daana. It is sold by the poor vendors seated at the pavements to the visitors, like me, who often cross by and like to feed the pigeons. One of those days I noticed to my surprise, a female myna street hawker seated there. I started talking to her. My first question was whether she feels safe among all the men. “What can possibly happen to me?!”, she seemed indifferent. She opened up a little bit as I inquired more. She tells me about being robbed at least thrice without anyone ever tracking the muggers. She goes to purchase the Mynas from the Empress Market, but “how much can you possibly earn from it?” As we paid for one myna, she insisted we purchase another one and so we did. It’s strange how we are the slave of the very money we paid her to buy the freedom of the two little mynas. As we waved her goodbye, she told us with a smile pasted on her face to come back again.
It is when we went there on one Monday afternoon, I saw the street in its full splendor, with activity emerging from each nook and corner. I saw the cobbler on the corner, followed by the street hawkers selling books, paan, popcorn, shakarkandi, makai, and so on, lined up on one side. These are working-class men of diverse ethnic groups, from Urdu-speaking to Bihari, from Siraiki to Pushtun and more. A mosque marks the midpoint of the street. As I parked my car, I noticed wheeled vehicles, from the occasional police mobile to Rickshaws, CD-70 to Honda Accord, sprawl all over the right, left, and the center. I took the coconut juice, stood in the corner, marveling at all the activity bursting around me. I saw the crisscrossers; the locals parking their cars or catching a Rickshaw; the young men, women, old men and the families clustering around the hawkers; with the policemen, ticket collectors, beggars, transgenders, filling the landscape. It is a kaleidoscope, and you see a billion shades, but there are some that I wish weren’t there; how the beggars and khwaja serrras were being shooed away by almost all of the participants of the street, as if it’s not for them to share.
My friend and I are a part of the cluster around the book hawkers. That day, I was surprised to notice the sight of two flags waving in the air which I hadn’t noticed previously. One flag is hoisted by Mustafa Kamal on 4th September, 2016; and another flag erected with the name of Abdul Qadir Patel of Pakistan People’s Party on 11th September, 2011. It is from the book hawkers that I get to know they were asked to evacuate last month when Mustafa Kamal visited last month for this ceremony. They also tell me they have to pay the police and KMC authorities ‘bhatta’ (300 to 500 per week). However, they don’t really care about the ‘politics’ because they have no time for it; they spend the entire day here, go back, and sleep. In the conversations that followed, I got to know there used to be twenty-two book stalls, but now only three to four are left, because a lot of readers have shifted to the eBooks. It has a very low turnover, he tells me as he showed me an anthology reposing there for the last two years. It is tragic how those involved in the book trade struggle to make ends meet.
As I roamed on the streets, I also met many kids who were begging, or selling one thing or the other. At one point, I mindlessly told one of them to work and not beg but then I saw the two little chaps, right in front of me. They have been working at the mechanic shop all day long. This got me thinking whether a child laborer is better or a beggar, and if they have other options. It is not hard to tell how vulnerable they are, exposed to not just the physically rough life of sun, dirt and winds, but also under the direct attack of cruel words from all the passerby who have never really known what it is like to have blisters from walking bare feet. It also disturbs me to think of all the sexual assault they must have experienced, without even knowing about it. What should we do for these street children? Where do they come in the magnificent planning agendas and budgets? We are losing these beautiful minds. There are children on the street, but no childhood.
When I tell my friends, I was out on the street – the first question they ask me is if I felt safe with all these men around. I feel this is not even the question here. The idea of being unsafe didn’t even occur to me – it was perhaps because of the familiarity with the street, and then of course my privileged position. The important thing to ask is about the lives of the people whose livelihood are associated with this very street. I am in awe of their painful dignity – how they managed their work, spoke about their lives and conducted themselves. For instance, the old Pashtun cobbler prided at the fact he has been there since thirty five years. No history book will ever document how a life is experienced from the eyes of an ordinary citizen – how it unfolds from the eyes of a 16 year old Pushtun boy, growing up and old in Karachi. This is why we need to roam around on streets – day or night, and talk to people – children, men, women, trans; this is where we will get to know each other. As I lifted my camera to take a picture, he shied away from the scene, yet his warm curiosity to see the picture drew him back.
During this time, I bought a number of books. Once when I ran out of money, one of them gave me one book for free. I remember going there many times, and as the ticket collectors would come, I told them I have to take pictures – they let me do it ensuring they are here. It was after the evening, we hung out at the popcorn stall, listening to the stories Rashid had to tell. It was dark; the only lights emitting from the mall, yet we didn’t feel uncomfortable. Some of the words that come up in my mind when I think about these men are: welcoming, hardworking, and dignified, generous and respectful of each other. I could clearly sense plight and poverty, but they didn’t complain to me. This haunts me because did they think I come from a different world and I’d never be able to understand them? Or did they not complain because they have lost hopes about their lives?
One interesting thing that happened was the encounter with this random guy. After we got done talking to Rashid and and were about to sit in the car, this guy stopped us, and asked whether we are here to report the ‘illegal’ hawkers. I asked him why do you call them ‘illegal’ and he told me that they are against the government permission, and of the KMCs policies against ‘petharas’. I argued that this line of reasoning is only valid if they had other alternatives. He didn’t seem to care, and told me how they earn a lot, even more than the shopkeepers at Hyderi because these hawkers don’t pay the rent. In the conversation that followed, the guy told me he earns around thirty thousand a month, working all day in the firm where as the ‘popcorn wala’ earns more than him, just by coming at around 3 and being there till midnight. Are you beginning to see the problem here?
In the end, we summarize, but there is still a lot on my mind. This neighborhood is a dense, diverse, and multifunctional locus, lived as a commercial spot, street, or juncture, depending on the particular person, and the time in which it is experienced. However, diversity doesn’t ensure it’s democratic. In fact, it could mean that the unprivileged groups are at the risk of being exploited, and marginalized. For me, the balloons, a 10 rs popcorn, and a copy of original Vogue, are all cheapstake pleasures. However, the life of a balloon peddler, a hawker, a bookseller, is a sad place from the inside. I realized I only found happiness there because I was looking from my selfish eyes. As I spent some of my days there as a flaneur, I saw the dark hues unfold in front of me – only if we open our eyes, ears and heart to it.
My two cents: There is a need of concrete state-planned policies in order to, guarantee a secure livelihood to the street hawkers; integrate the beggars and khwaja serras in such a way that they are able to not just become a productive part of the street but are also able to reap the advantages of the city life; along with making it a user-friendly space with street lights, and mechanisms for the maintenance of the street hygiene. We need to reclaim the streets, and reclaiming starts from including the people who literally live there. The state of street compels us to ask the questions Jane once asked, and also to acknowledge that we need to ask our own in addition to them, and answer in regards of our particular context, considering the complexities, contradictions and congruities.