Vanishing Road

Pradeep Gooptu

Advance planning establishes a city’s reputation for ease of living and a great lifestyle. A city's planners have to look ahead to ensure that infrastructure stays one step ahead of citizens’ needs. It was this quality that made Calcutta one of the top destinations in the world. When the motor car hit the streets, Calcutta emerged as one of the bigger sales centres in Asia. The government moved swiftly to meet the challenges thrown up by this. Here are a few examples as a follow-up to our piece on the New Market area. Esplanade The area that is now occupied by the statue of Lenin and the crumbling tram depot was once a water body catering to horses and cattle used for transport. This was paved over in stages to widen the road and make it safer for slow transport (namely horses and carts) and faster modes (i.e., cars), competing for road space. Three-pointed streetlights were erected and parking was created on the east side to give birth to a beautiful avenue then called Chowringhee. Most importantly it was kept free of hawkers and encroachments that today make the area impossibly unfriendly. The older of the two photographs printed here shows the lamps and the parking. It looks unfamiliar now because the shot was taken before the construction of the Metro Cinema and the domed Whiteway Laidlaw building (now housing a Big Bazaar). To further improve the area, major international film studios like MGM were given space to build grand cinema halls like Metro, Globe, New Empire and Lighthouse. The later view of the same area shows tram tracks and more traffic but it was still uncluttered and free from encroachments.   Esplanade East The northern boundary of the Maidan was similarly upgraded with buildings like the grand Army Secretariat and Esplanade Mansions facing the East Gate of Raj Bhavan. There was adequate parking and the area was not isolated from the city with guard railings and other obstructions that make it a nightmare for motorists today. Most importantly, even in that early era it was mandatory for these mansions to provide some degree of in-house parking. This kept the street parking relatively free. Chowringhee One of the famous avenues in the world with establishments like the Grand Hotel and Firpos, Chowringhee was also lined with the famous Bristol Hotel at No. 1 and the Museum (with its adjoining 'ghost' mansion). New Market and the United Service Club mansion (now the Geological Survey of India) added to the unmatched attractions of Chowringhee. Old timers recall the majestic cars that used to be proudly parked on Chowringhee, from Packards and Cadillacs to Rolls-Royce and Hispano-Suizas. One of the photographs shown here depicts such a scene. Again the point to note here is the beauty of the clean approach with no hawkers and vendors mutilating the grand avenue. When we hear about how beautiful Calcutta was in yesteryears, we find it impossible to visualise what it may have looked like without viewing old photographs like these. It was a city of wide avenues and world class infrastructure. Above all there were no encroachments by hawkers and others of either the roads or of parking zones. It is not encroachments and law breaking, but infrastructure, that makes a city great.

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