“In streets I’ve seen with people strolling, each day is new, fresh and bright”

By: Johns Mathew
Kozhikode too deserves special attention on par with any other ancinet settlement in India. And no visitor to the place can forgo the pleasure of a stroll through the historic S M Street. Apart from the local population, history records that Arabs, Jews, Parsees, Gujarathis, Konkinis and people belonging to umpteen nationalities have trodden this five-centuries old path. The Fire temple of the Paris bears mute witness to this ancient bond.

As part of the burgeoning development of urban India, Kozhikode too has started to expand of late. As part of such sometimes planned but mostly erratic expansion, that S M Street too is choking is a reality. Over the past 22 years I have had the opportunity to visit very many ancient cities, predominantly in Europe. It has struck me as commendable, that in keeping with the times all these places have creatively preserved their inestimable legacies, privileging the demands of pedestrians above all other considerations.

It is but meet that as a nation progresses, it cities and in turn the cities too are constrained to expand. It is as organic a process as when we too go for bigger fittings of clothing as our bodies grow. When ancient cities refuse to march with the times, it is the customer who is shortchanged. It is keeping in mind the conveniences and needs of both shopkeepers and customers that heritage streets have been created abroad.

Initially, the merchants in these streets were sensitised to evolving needs of contemporary shoppers. Various opinions, antagonistic stances were all amicably resolved by wise administrators. Such transformations afforded me a different experience.

The forefathers of my dear friend Yorgos Papandreou used to run their cloth shop in Ermou Street, which branches out from Stadiou Road adjacent to the centrally located Syntagma Square of Athens. The erratic traffic in the narrow street used to hound both shoppers and pedestrians alike. His papa Yannis once recounted to me how along with the clamour of vehicles, its toxic emissions gifted him breathlessness and burning eyes in his old age.

Then, in 1996 the one and a half kilometer street was pedestrianised. Incidentally, that was the year of my first trip to Greece. Over time, this process was extended and now a lovely stretch even extends to the ancient temple of Acropolis.

A coconut seller in Ermou street
Traditional shop-owners were up in arms against the changes, but heeding in part to their suggestions and convincing them of the needs of shoppers, authirities have turned Ermou Street into one with the heaviest footfall in the Greek capital. It is reckoned to be the fifth most attractive tourist destination in Europe, commanding high commercial rent on property. The street offers an eclectic mix of shopping options – exclusive showrooms of global brands, hotels, cafes, bars, bookstalls and shops selling cosmetics, ornaments and kids wear.

In summer tourists flock to Ermou Street first, lured both by the charm of the renovation and the easy saunter made possible by the vehicle-free ambience. Situated midway is the 11th-century Greek Orthodox Church of Panagia Kapnikarea built in the Byzantine style. Around the church are low walls for the weary to stretch their legs and catch their breath. Attractive rubbish bins are strategically placed, which ensures a litter-free environment. Despite this, there is an active cleaning crew to keep the crowded street spick and span. Adequate policing also enhances a sense of security. The sense of mental well-being that I have experienced while strolling this street in the company of friends cannot be had in other traffic-infested streets of this city. The stress-free atmosphere is also conducive to shopping without having to look out for vehicles over your shoulder; inducing more purchases.  

Laterna Player at Ermou street
Itinerant musicians from various lands lend a delightful touch to the street. Initially, they came from Eastern Europe and in time were followed by groups from Peru, Africa and other financially devastated regions of Europe. Adding to the festival air is the playing of the traditional instrument of Laterna {barrel piano} and colorful bands of gypies with their throbbing music. That all this merry-making lasts into the depths of crowded nights is also a tribute to the creative designing behind the renovation. Miming performances also act as crowd-pullers. All these artisitic outpourings are benefited by the ban on traffic. Visitors soak in this carnival atmosphere with heightened senses.

I could go on about similar experiences in other streets too reserved for pedestrians. Such would be Hohe Street in the old quarter of Cologne, Le quartier du Sentier and Montmatre in gay Paris and Khao San Road in Bangkok, famous for its riotous night life.

Johns Mathew, at Syntagma Square Athens, Greece
Common to all these popular destinations is the implementation of pedestrianisation, facilitating commerce with legacy. Re-imagining the heritage nature of S M Street with interests of the consumer as its corner stone would only benefit the trading community here. The realisation that ultimately the consumer is both king and queen should underlie all renovation.

(The author is a painter and was among the gang of four who paid sculptural tribute to O V Vijayan in Thasrak. He can be contacted at johnsmat@gmail.com



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