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PAKISTAN: Troubled Karachi Finds a Happy Enclave

Zofeen Ebrahim

KARACHI, Jul 17 2011 (IPS) - The long boardwalk, balmy sea air and ebb and flow of water under the bridge, but most of all the festive carnival-like atmosphere of people enjoying the Karachi sunset, are images that stand in deep contrast to the violence this metropolis recently witnessed.

The images abound in the Port Grand Food and Entertainment Complex built in the centre of old Karachi along the waterfront on what was once the 1,400-ft Old Napier Mole Bridge, more commonly known as the Native Jetty.

“It conjures up an image of Pier 39 which I visited last summer,” says a 19-year-old college student who came to see the place with a group of friends. Her reference was to the popular tourist point in San Francisco, California.

“The idea is to revive the culture and traditions of old Karachi,” says 59-year old Shahid Firoz, the chief executive of the enterprise spread out over a 200,000-sq-ft area that was once a garbage dump and a regular hangout for junkies.

While many people are delighted at the transformation, others have criticised the project for various reasons, including the high entrance fee and the fact that Firoz had to get foreigners to build the project.

The bridge was built in the mid-1800s by the British to connect mainland Karachi to the harbour. Having outlived its utility in 1996 after the Jinnah Bridge was completed, the Karachi Port Trust decided to demolish the old one.

The idea of “urban regeneration” was floated to developers again in 2000 but there were no takers. This was during President Pervez Musharraf’s time, recalls Firoz. “When there are too many stakeholders, things fail to get delivered,” he said.

Among those who stood up to demand that the bridge be restored as “an architectural space” was Firoz, who grew up in Karachi with “good memories.” He used his own money, making it easier to get things done, he said.

Pointing to a spot under a huge majestic 150-year old banyan tree, Firoz said, “It was a place where people carried out black magic. It was not easy to get rid of these people.”

Today, Napier’s Tavern, an exclusive club for members only, has been constructed under the tree using the old wood and stone of the original bridge and designed so that it “matches the contours of the tree.”

Though the initiative is a purely commercial venture with eateries, an art gallery, crafts display and indoor mall, Firoz insists the intentions are altruistic as well. “You do some things in life for passion,” and also to “make people happy around you.”

He has certainly made many people happy as the place has received a tremendous response in terms of being a crowd-puller, even only two months after it opened on May 28.

There is a set entry fee of 300 rupees (3.5 dollars) per person, out of which 200 is consumable for food or any item at the shops which Firoz says is “a screening” to ward off spoilers.

But not everyone is happy with this. Visitor Reshma Tabani pointed out that the management could lower the entrance fee till more restaurants have been opened and people can use the redeemable entrance fee to foot part of the restaurant bill.

“Right now, the place does not have enough restaurants to cater to the huge crowd entering the place,” she said. “During dinner time, there is a waiting period of a minimum of an hour in any of the restaurants. There is not much to do to bide your time.”

Another visitor added: “What if I want to visit the art gallery and not eat anything? I find the entrance ticket of 300 rupees too high.”

“We need public spaces but not expensive commercial ones. This one is a little expensive for a middle- class family outing,” pointed out Niilofur Farrukh, an art historian and editor of art magazine NuktaArt. “If it’s the city’s land then it should be used for everyone and not just people who can afford it,” she said.

Though the city had many well-known architects and urban planners, Firoz decided to shop elsewhere and engaged an architectural firm in the United States, with landscaping by an Austrian and lighting by Italians.

“Does the city have anything of this scale to show?” he asks, and then elaborates, “I needed a team with exposure, experience and capacity and I couldn’t find it here.”

Yasmeen Lari, national advisor to UNESCO and director of the Heritage Foundation that documents and conserves the traditional and historic environment of Pakistan, says it does not really matter who designed it as long as the “authenticity of the place is retained.”

“There is no harm in making it a dream world as long as a link to history is maintained,” she added.

An old staircase long turned “public urinal” has been converted into an air-conditioned art gallery.

But urban planner and architect Arif Hasan took serious exception to the way the “public monument” and urban space have so completely been hidden from passersby. “It’s a sin to have blocked the view of the harbour and destroyed public interaction. It reeks of insensitivity to the urban environment in both the social and the physical sense.”

Terming himself old-fashioned, Hasan argued that he would have been happier if the space had been developed preserving the historical aspect, “like a maritime museum to walk you through the history of the port of Karachi.

“The way I see it, it does not serve the function related to its heritage nature,” he concluded.

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