Lab | Log

From Mumbai to Manhattan—Global Solutions to a Local Problem

Photo: used by permission under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 License from Benjamins Lichtwerk

It’s shocking sometimes how, despite immense differences in culture, political structure, and history, cities around the world seem to be grappling with the same problems.

This struck me a few days ago when I came across an article in Canada’s national rag, the Globe and Mail, detailing the struggle between public interest and private development—or gentrification—in Mumbai.

In this case, the struggle centers on an unusual site: the world’s largest open-air laundry, known as Dhobi Ghat, where some 10,000 dhobis (washermen) come to collectively wash more than a million articles of clothing a day.

The dhobis’ de facto labor union is locked in a legal dispute with the city government over a startlingly familiar force: condo development.

From the article:

The source of the conflict is simple: This patch of land in the heart of Mumbai where the dhobis ply their trade is only 40,000 square feet, about the size of two Shoppers Drug Mart stores—yet it’s worth a staggering 10 billion rupees ($220 million) and is perhaps the last meaningful chance at large-scale development in Mumbai’s land-starved high-density financial district.

. . .

The city’s current property bubble can be traced back to 2005 when the government opened up the real estate market to foreign direct investment. Today, land in Mumbai is worth more than land in Manhattan.

Mumbai’s developers believe that it is only a matter of time until the BMC [Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, the city government] gives in to the demands of the commercial real estate lobby and forces the dhobis to sell their land.

Sound familiar?

I happened to come across this article at the perfect time. Tomorrow Elma van Boxel and Kristian Koreman of ZUS [Zones Urbaines Sensibles] are hosting a discussion at the Lab called “Beyond Segrification: Models for Equal Glocalization,” which will focus on the question of how we can find sustainable models for development that do not push out locals.

It will be fascinating to see this discussion continue as the Lab moves on to Berlin and later to Mumbai itself.  It will offer us the opportunity to really understand the process through which we look for solutions to these ubiquitous urban problems within their individual contexts.

Does the cultural context change the implication of the problem itself? Even if the problem is the same, does the solution change when we move from place to place around the world? Can solutions to Manhattan’s problems be applied in a place like Mumbai?

You readers probably come from all over the world … so what do you think? How do we go about looking for solutions to global urban problems when their impact is felt on such a local scale?

  • Anonymous

    I live in the neighborhood near the BMW Guggenheim Lab and I have been unofficially monitoring activities at the lab since just before it started and considering it one of many art projects I have going. I took some pictures at the opening which I will post on my website I have also snapped a couple pictures since, as I monitor my internal reaction daily to having the “lab” in my neighborhood as I head to the subway, park my car, go shopping, run into friends and do the things that happen in a neighborhood.

    One of the things I found ironic from the very start is that visible from the “lab” on the day that it opened was the yin yang symbol in the window of the recently closed Wu Tang Physical Culture Association which local martial art master Frank Allen founded in 1979. An article on that situation and other neighborhood stories was covered in the NY Times a couple weeks ago here:

    “Mr. Allen and (Tina) Zhang began searching for a new place for their
    martial arts studio; thousands of students had trained with them at 9
    Second Avenue over the years. ‘This place has an energy that can’t be
    replaced,’ he said.” Yet this neighborhood landmark was forced to move to Center Street further downtown just days before the Guggenheim Lab opened. I am not saying the two events had anything to do with each other other than their juxtaposition in my mind which I couldn’t forget. But yes, this does all have a certain irony to it that was enhanced by the hundreds of noisy people sucking down free drinks at the opening of the Lab while that same night Frank and Tina’s new facility was having a more serene opening further downtown with demonstrations of martial arts and yes, celebratory partying, even while their yin-yang symbol still hovered disembodied over the cars passing on Second Avenue with the Lab being initiated across the street.

    Since then I have seen an ad for the Lab in a subway car which I snapped a quick photo of and, today, as I travelled over the Williamsburg bridge to retrieve my car from a shop where it was being repaired, I saw another ad, this one much larger. As the M train travelled above the Brooklyn skyline crossing the bridge heading east, I saw behind us an immense billboard for the Lab hovering high above Williamsburg casting a more spectacular image than the humble yin yang symbol had from the 3rd of 4th story window at 9 Second Avenue. The billboard was announcing the existence of this new addition to my neighborhood, an existence I was l already aware of. I wondered who, other than me,  was the billboard for and was it serving its purpose.