Times Square is surely on everybody’s mustsee places when they visit New York City, whether the first time or on repeat visits. In the 110 years since it acquired this name, it has become one of the most coveted destinations in the world.
On my maiden trip to the US as a rookie journalist in 1983, I made a beeline for the Square almost immediately after checking in: essentially because the iconic New York Times’ offices were located there, though the promise of Yankee razzmatazz was no small incentive.
The first thing that struck me about being at Times Square was the pulsating energy all around. People thronged there in large numbers and from all over the world. Tourists were swept into the rapid pace of New Yorkers going about their work with grim sense of purpose, not a second to be squandered.
After dusk, the wink and blink of wondrous neon lights added a surreal dimension to the Square. The energy levels seem to rise further. It was like being on a different planet altogether. The experience has been no different on subsequent visits.
The allure of Times Square is extremely strong and many countries in the world would desire something similar. That Shripad Naik, minister of state (independent charge) for tourism has proposed to give Mumbai its own Times Square reveals just that.
The ambition is laudable, and apart from all else, I suppose it also helps the government make a statement. But some questions arise: Does Mumbai need an artificially created, government-regulated imitation of New York’sTimesSquare? More specifically, does it need be at the art and heritage neighbourhood of Kala Ghoda?
In raising these, I am only playing devil’s advocate for the idea that improving the city’s cultural and entertainment quotient is not without merit. Also, the Kala Ghoda area is largely bereft of residential complexes, so there is conceivably no hindrance to the everyday living of people.
However, over the past few years, Kala Ghoda has been carefully nurtured into a cultural hub for Mumbai. Heritage buildings have been highlighted and art galleries promoted. The Kala Ghoda Festival has become an enormous draw for citizens and tourists. Filling it with neon signs may disrupt and destroy that ethos.
Equally, important is the politico-socio-cultural factor. Together with what makes Times Square what it is, Mumbai’s politicians will have to dump their ideas of imposing regressive cultural ideas on the city. For instance, The Bombay Police Act, outdated notions of vulgarity and so on will have to go.
Are the people in power – and even more so those not in power but who call the shots in such matters – be amenable to this or will there be more of the now frequently recurring complaints about ‘erosion in Indian culture’ that could spell kaput to these ambitions?
This can happen anywhere, not j ust at Kala Ghoda. But wherever such a square is located, only bright lights will not make any substantial change. The gods of neon cannot live in the sounds of silence.
Times Square is not just about razzle-dazzle, but a metaphor of a lifestyle and culture that is distinct to New York City — even in America. It is unclear which sort of tourists the Mumbai version will attract if the other attributes are ill defined or missing.
Moreover, the joy of Times Square or Piccadilly Circus/ Leicester Square in London is that these precincts have grown organically, not contrived by government grants. In that is its essence.
As stated earlier, I have no objections, only compunctions which need to be thought through keeping all aspects in mind. Better yet, why not ask Mumbai what it wants. For all our apathy we can also be a vocal people.
On another note, and in keeping with the newfound bonhomie with Japan, Mumbai would also do well emulate that country’s capital.
This year, TripAdvisor’s World City Survey rated Tokyo best in the ‘Overall Experience’ category as also first in ‘Helpfulness Of Locals’, ‘Nightlife’, ‘Shopping’, ‘Local Public Transportation’ and ‘Cleanliness of Streets’. (Source: Wikipedia).