July 01, 2014

Black Holes in the City- Chennai's Dying Malls

Spencer Plaza, Mount Road, Chennai

        Strolling into Spencer Plaza, at Mount Road, made me wonder if it was a weekday or weekend and a quick check on my phone confirmed it to be a Saturday. This mall which is a landmark in the city of Chennai and as large as three phases of shops and boutiques seemed absolutely deserted. A few visitors were walking about casually looking at the merchandise on display, some munching away corn and cookies from the respective stalls. Walking down the narrow aisles, trying very hard to evade an occasional clothes rack of night gowns and tee shirts and a scary mean-looking shop owner trying to get you to buy a carpet or a printed salwar I noticed most of the shops were on clearance sale or were packing up for good. I sneezed half a dozen times. The place hadn't seen a mop in eons.
          I remember coming to this mall as a child for everything that I wanted to buy, be it clothes for my birthday or a new bag and stationery for a new year at school. We always lost our way, my mother and I, and every visit to this mall was an adventure. The mall built in 1863 and reconstructed in the 1980s was one of the largest in South Asia at the time and the largest departmental store in India. Now people visit the mall only for specific purposes, mostly to purchase cheap electronics and accessories for phones and computers and to get a tattoo or piercing.
          There are other rather old malls and plazas in the city, Spencer's was just one such example, which were THE places to go to on a weekend when people just wanted a break from the monotony of life. They now seem to be dying centers of activity as their newer and fancier counterparts coming up in the city cater to the current standards of living of people. The newer malls seem to draw the crowd consistently with luxury brands, restaurants, clubs, food courts and multiplexes which offer new age entertainment, while the old ones reply on their regular customers to remain in business. Some of the older malls thrive also because they house offices in their premises whose occupants aren't in no hurry to move out.
           These dying activity centers are now a good breeding ground for antisocial activity as security is limited to none. The small crowd and empty shops result in many a dark corner and safety is not guaranteed. These places are thoroughly exploited by couples to get some alone time as they use the small crowd and the little chance of being caught by their angry conservative families and friends who might be at the mall at the same time, to their advantage.
             Many of these malls have historic value as they were built as early as the 1800s and I always feel that any building of some historic significance adds to a cityscape. I think its really up to the owners of these gigantic commercial spaces to keep these places alive and . Be it marketing gimmicks like flash mobs and badminton tournaments or just bringing in merchandise and the kind of entertainment people are looking for at present days. I went about asking my shopaholic friends what they thought these old malls lacked. The most common answer was lack of security, cluttered aisles, dim lighting and clouds of dust lingering in the air which gave the place an eerie atmosphere and terrible customer service. So it is clear that a better effort has to be made in order to maintain the space and provide enough security and services so people are not put off when they visit. If the owners of the various boutiques took the effort to make their shop fronts attractive and be a little more customer friendly rather than scaring potential clients by harassing them to make a purchase at their shop, it would automatically make shopping more enjoyable. Perhaps social media and newspapers can help highlight this issue and this blog post I hope makes a small difference.

Fountain Plaza, Egmore, Chennai

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This article was inspired by a post on a social networking site by a good friend +Manjith Mothiram who addressed this issue. Cheers to that!