A walk from the station to Tulsi Pipe Road offers a glimpse into the paradox of Lower Parel, where past and present coexist in such close quarters. People selling fish, grocery and spices line both sides of the road. A group of loaders carry cardboard boxes from the godown close by. At some distance, men, steel tiffin boxes shining in their hands, make their way to the station. Every few minutes, a car drives in, horn blaring, carefully navigating the limited space. But once you reach the main road, the scene alters rather dramatically — a large mass of concrete-and-glass bursts into view. The buildings in these complexes house residences, offices, malls, boutiques and upscale restaurants. Standing on the road, looking ahead, it’s also all one can see, the city of gold.
It is this that Jaideep Singh Bika bought into when he decided to open Talaiva in Kamala Mills Compound a year ago. “In the last seven years or so, Lower Parel has become a happening place with a big mall and so many restaurants and pubs. Such places always attract people. The clientele is never out of options here. If they ate Italian the last time, they may want to try Indian at my restaurant the next time. If they didn’t get a table at another place, they can always explore options next door,” explains Bika, who launched his eatery two months ago and views parking space as a big advantage of having an establishment in Lower Parel.
But saying that Lower Parel has emerged as a hub over the last decade would be denying it its place in the city’s history. Formerly part of Girangaon, which literally translates to ‘mill village’, it was home to some of the biggest mills, set up by the British in the 19th century. With schools, hospitals, drama theatres and chawls a walk away, it was the city of gold. But after the closure of the mills in the 1980s and a long legal battle between the owners and workers, the mill land finally opened up for redevelopment in the 1990s.
When High Street Phoenix opened in 1996, it set the precedent for others by retaining the high ceilings and other elements of the old mills, such as the chimney. In the years to follow, the high ceilings and exposed ducts of the original mills became a statement and many restaurants and pubs continue to have the industrial look. But the greatest draw was the vast amount of space in the heart of the city that had suddenly opened up for commercial purposes.
Among the early movers was AD Singh who opened The Bowling Company in 1999. “It was the catalyst to open up the mill areas to leisure and lifestyle many years ago. The huge growth that followed was largely owing to the availability and accessibility of so much real estate so close to South Mumbai. This was at a time when restaurants were tiny owing to scarcity of space, therefore the mill phenomenon was amazing,” points out Singh, who recently launched Lady Baga, a Goa-themed restaurant at Kamala Mills.
Kamala Mills, in fact, arrived on the scene rather late. Cafe Zoe at Mathuradas Mill Compound was among the first prominent and spacious restaurants to open up in the neighbourhood. With The Loft, an art gallery, next door, and Good Earth in Raghuvanshi Mills, Lower Parel started to shape up the way we know it today. In the last seven to nine years, at least a 50-odd upscale F&B outlets must have opened and shuttered across Phoenix, Raghuvanshi, Mathuradas and Kamala Mills. In fact, most of the 30-odd restaurants in Kamala Mills alone have popped up over the last three years. In fact, 1 Above, where the horrific tragedy took place Thursday night, is less than a year old.
Architect and activist Neera Adarkar, who has for long fought alongside mill workers for their right to the land, believes one cannot view the recent tragedy in isolation of the history of the mill land. “The development of the mill land was envisioned very differently. Architect Charles Correa, as part of the committee set up to plan mill land redevelopment, had proposed that the 58 mills not be viewed as individual structures but as a chunk of land that can be freed and made available for development,” she says.
The idea was to reclaim those mills for open spaces, which were located in a cluster and connect them via walkways. That could become a promenade of up to 8 km and an open park for the city while portions of that connected land could have been transformed into a cultural hub.
Pointing out that the promised public spaces were never handed over to BMC by developers, Adarkar says, “Each mill had a water body, meant for the purpose of countering such tragedies as fire. When the redevelopment plan was drawn up, these water bodies were supposed to be retained. Where is the water bodies that were part of Kamala Mills and Victoria Mills? Perhaps if those were still accessible, this tragedy may have been dealt with differently.”