Dharavi Vendors Advance Our Understanding of the Street

by George Carothers

In a recent post on the URBZ site we presented a series of conversations with the street vending community of Bombay. A follow-up workshop to this exercise, The Dukaan Workshop, has been announced for the 13th of June, 2010.

In the spirit of the ‘user-generated city’, this activity pointed towards a particular user of the urban system. The ‘citizen’s city’ is one that exists within the simplest of thoughts and actions; ideas that were advanced less by distinguished intellectuals and theoreticians, and more by practicing urbanists such as Jane Jacobs, and ultimately the everyday urban-dweller.

This ideology is therefore translated into alternative methodologies that can lead to deeper, less exclusive understandings of cities and the people within them.

As URBZ has confirmed through its conversations with local vendors and through many other participatory exercises, there is a better way to go about understanding a practice or phenomenon that is taking place in the city. Rather than consulting a textbook or hiring a so-called ‘expert’ in the field, in many cases, the greatest contextual experts are found in their true element; on the street.

Credits: Photos of Dharavi vendors by George Carothers.


  1. Hi George

    Interesting post, I have some questions regarding the use of the term “citizens city”, the reference to Jane Jacobs and the post at URBZ.

    Citizens are those who have rights in the city, make part of its political community and the nation state. Usually this sense of belonging is attributed by birth, lineage, or by becoming a member after years of “official” contributions. There are obviously other types of citizenship, cultural, biological, cosmopolitan and a new one you may be interested in Insurgent citizenship: http://www.amazon.com/Insurgent-Citizenship-Disjunctions-Democracy-formation/dp/0691130213

    But there may residents in the city, who may not necessarily fall within the conventional criteria of citizenship. For example, so called “illegal immigrants” in the American City – who arguably do offer “unofficial” and official contributions to the economic, political and social life of American cities IMO, but are not considered citizens. Therefore a term like “Citizen’s city”, while alluding to inclusion – and civic attitudes – could also be exclusionary. My question is: What are the dimensions of the use of this term in Dharavi? Is it inclusionary, exclusionary or both?

    Now to “mother Jane” (As Alex Schafran refers to her). Jane Jacobs’ adorable grandmotherly face is the poster image that reminds us about the failure and arrogance of experts. Instead the truth lies in the everyday life of the street. I follow you. Yet the irony is that mother Jane, as well as her tropes – “Eyes on the Street”, for example - are constantly co-opted by practitioners, politicians and public officials. Far from a radical stance, in the place-making practices (Architecture and Urban design), Mother Jane not only stands against experts but she is also re-branded to facilitate designed spaces focused on livability, quality of life, etc. These types of places may be ok for those who live in cities like ours and have access to particular consuming lifestyles.

    My question is: How do we read Jane Jacobs in the context of Dharavi? Are “Eyes on the Street” in North America (Canada and the US) the same as “Eyes on the Street” in Dharavi or the developing world? Can we even compare? Could we even challenge the value of her tropes given today’s inequalities? Is she really an appropriate reference to understand the life of informal street vendors?

    And this is where I would like to conclude by taking this comment a bit further and offer a couple of questions to URBZ. Certainly, attention needs to be brought to the life of informal vendors in Dharavi. But the post you refer to in particular offers a study of typologies that focuses on the infrastructures that serve to illustrate the heroic entrepreneurial spirit of the informal worker. Sure, this is one way to look at the life of the informal worker. But I wonder what lies beyond that typology of infrastructures; what are their actual lives like? What are their oral histories, conflicts, politics, values, etc? In essence what lies beyond the frame of the photograph.

    As always, thanks for your provocative posts (They make me think) and I look forward to your response time permitting



  2. Thanks for sharing this, George. Amazing photos and exploration of functional, innovative typologies usually deemed as, at best, anachronistic and, more often, illegitimate. Despite the fact that residents in the "global city" of Mumbai almost universally buy goods from informal vendors. The quick assembly comes in handy when sellers have to take apart their vending materials at a moment's notice when the police descend. At the row of vegetable stands near my apartment in Mumbai (which have been there for years), the vendors would cover their wares with a tarp when the police came by - as if that made them "invisible." Of course everyone knew they were there, and the tarps came off as soon as a few batons were wagged and money changed hands. Just a patronage system at work.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.