Madras Week 2019: Know your Chennai

Once a people’s park, now a concrete jungle 

A view of the Poonamallee High Road, between the Ripon Buildings and the Central station, in Madras in 1973; and right, a view of the same area shows how the green cover has been wiped out over the years.

A view of the Poonamallee High Road, between the Ripon Buildings and the Central station, in Madras in 1973; and right, a view of the same area shows how the green cover has been wiped out over the years.   | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives/B. Jothi Ramalingam

Park Town, designed by the British for the 'health and pleasure' of the people, has been reduced to congested streets with crowded footpaths

The postal code for Park Town still exists, but is a far cry from what the British designed in 1859. The People’s Park was established in 1861 and had 12 lakes, five-and-a-half miles of roads and a bandstand. One of its waterbodies, the Victoria lake, was used for boating.

The 116-acre park was created,  keeping in mind "the health and pleasure of the middle class population", wrote S. Muthiah, chronicler of Madras, in one of his columns for this newspaper. He has referred to the park as the largest green lung space in the city at the time.

Today, the People’s Park exists only in archives. It has since given way to sports stadia, a concrete multi-storeyed structure for the railways and more recently, the swanky Chennai Metro. The park remains only in the memory of a few senior citizens who lived in the area in their childhood. It housed a zoo, and until 1970, public officials connected with the Chennai Corporation tried finding ways to improve it by introducing more animals. In its heyday, the zoo housed lions from Africa and a rhino from Assam.

Flowers on display

Theresa Herst, 72, was born in Pudupet, and lived in Periamet. She recalls that the area surrounding the park was called New Town during her youth. She remembers going to dance programmes  with her husband at the Victoria Public Hall. “We used to take pictures,” she says. The park held flower shows even in the 1950s, and exotic roses used to be on display. The Corporation took upon itself the responsibility to organise the flower shows and maintain the park.

Mr. Boag, the Commissioner of the Corporation of Madras in 1924, wrote in The Hindu about the flower show and urged people to visit the park. In another entry in 1929, Corporation president A. Ramaswamy Mudaliar and Corporation Commissioner Conran Smith participated in the flower show.

According to some former residents, if George Town was the residential area of the British then, New Town and Park Town saw a concentration of Anglo-Indians. Several families have since migrated abroad or moved farther away in the city to Perambur or Maduravoyal. When Mrs. Herst shifted  with her family in 1971, she remembers that small shops were coming up around the park. The rest is history.

What now remains of the area are small congested and overcrowded alleys. The wide footpaths along Central station have since given way to shops and squatters. Harry MacLure, who has penned a book on Anglo-Indians in Chennai, said the settlement slowly grew, with Muslim families also settling down and setting up leather shops. “It was cosmopolitan,” recalls another former resident.

Augustine Roy, who worked with the Southern Railway for over 30 years, says with a twinge of nostalgia that the once neatly laid streets have turned unkempt and dirty. “The streets off Wall Tax Road were among the cleanest places, once upon a time. Now they are the dirtiest. There used to be a recreation centre. All that is left of the locality are some streets with English names. The apathy of the civic body has led to flooding during monsoon. We had to fold our trousers up to the knee to walk into the office. Women had to tuck up their saris to avoid getting their clothes dirty. In the last five years, the situation has worsened,” he rued.

Chaotic and commercial

Today, Park Town is an extremely busy and congested area but well-connected by train and bus. The area is served by the Metro, the MRTS and the suburban train service. The locality, which houses Central and State government buildings, including the Rajiv Gandhi Government General Hospital that receives around 10,000 people a day, has become a commercial district. Mr. Roy calls it "chaos", but hopes that the Corporation wakes up and improves the surroundings.

‘The street has changed beyond recognition’

First Person - J. Madurai, Park Town

J Madurai, retired porter, Central Station, during an interview with The Hindu, in Chennai.

J Madurai, retired porter, Central Station, during an interview with The Hindu, in Chennai.   | Photo Credit: R. Ravindran

 

My mother is a refugee from Burma. She settled down on this street when she returned. I was born in 1944 and have lived here since.My mother used to work for an Anglo-Indian family in the area. I used to play marbles with the boys from Anglo-Indian families here. It was quite a peaceful and pleasant locality to live in.They were sons of train guards and railway employees. Some Chinese families also lived in the locality. Some became dentists and continued their profession. We used to live in harmony. During my school days, I used to go to the bandstand and watch them play. There used to be a zoo too near here. The bandstand is still around, but everything else has changed. The Chinese families have also moved away.I studied up to Class IV at the Pachaiyappa’s High School in Parry’s Corner and then I became a porter. When I started out, a head load would fetch me 25 paise, and a trolley load, ₹1.25.After the Anglo-Indians migrated to Australia, the Chettiars, who owned the houses, rebuilt them as lodges. There is nothing left of the park. In the last 15 years, the street has changed beyond recognition. I am the oldest living resident of the street now.-------------------------------------

Today's Picks

Quiz: Madras quiz for college students on 'Madras Heritage, Art and Culture', Stella Maris College, 17, Cathedral Rd, Poes Garden, Teynampet, at 9.30 a.m.

Inko Centre: ‘Core’, an exposition of abstract paintings, Inko Centre, Adyar Club Gate Road, Raja Annamalai Puram, at 10 a.m.

Exhibition: Military history of Madras, Madras Literary Society, 45, 16, College Road, DPI Campus, Thousand Lights West, Thousand Lights, at 10.30 a.m.

A Madras retrospective

Once a people’s park, now a concrete jungle 
 

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Printable version | Feb 28, 2020 5:50:55 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/chennai/once-a-peoples-park-now-a-concrete-jungle/article29266391.ece

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