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When New York was like Dhaka

  • Published at 05:58 pm June 13th, 2019
A commuter’s nightmare
A commuter’s nightmare / MEHEDI HASAN

Can our capital ever become clean and liveable?

When I lived in New York City in the early 1970s, writes John Hazlehurst, the city was deeply and visibly dysfunctional. The business climate was lousy; the middle class was shrinking; the streets were potholed; the parks were unkempt; the politicians were crooked or incompetent and the city was broke.

John Hazlehurst is a columnist at The Colorado Springs Business Journal. In his article “Dysfunctional cities lead to dysfunctional populations,” he sketches a grim picture of the 1970s New York City in a few words. 

A friend who lived near Avenue B gave me some advice when she invited me to a party at her place.

“When you get off the subway be aware,” she said. “Don’t engage, don’t respond. Don’t wear your stupid little suit. Walk in the middle of the street -- try to look like an off-duty cop, or some kind of badass.”

Well, Hazelhurst’s 1970s New York pretty much resembles our Dhaka in the year 2019. The Bangladesh capital is fantastically dysfunctional in every respect. Our daily commute experience in Dhaka is no less than a nightmare. Our footpaths are flooded by hawkers, mobile vendors, and tea-shops. 

Many of our parks and playgrounds have become a dumping ground, places for illegal parking, or are being occupied by makeshift shops; and they are palpably dirty, dusty, and smell of waste and excrement. 

Dhaka’s air quality ranks only second to Delhi. The pollution is easily felt. Just spend a few hours wandering the city’s thoroughfares and you will have blackened snot, not to mention Dhaka’s unending roaring traffic and round the clock blaring horns. At the end of the day, when you get home very late you are sorely exhausted with dizziness and about to catch a cold. 

The bottom line is we take pride in the first position to be the least liveable city on Earth and topping the list of most stressful cities in Asia.

The 1970s New York City didn’t have hellish traffic jams, but as said by Hazelhurst, the New Yorkers back then experienced numerous predicaments like Dhaka denizens. After getting off the subway, the writer was advised to walk in the middle of the street for some good reasons. But, for us in Dhaka, walking in the streets instead of not taking the footway is involuntary. Though, in some places there are safety issues. Many may have seen a notice on the Airport Road walkway advising passers-by to avoid the footpath after dark. 

While out on the streets, often I hear people ranting: The populace of this country is bad to the core. Nothing will change here in another 50 years. 

These rantings and vociferating are not always referred to the authorities, rather to our fellow citizens. Let’s present you with an example of the daily Dhaka street picture. You are driving your car and about to roll onto the main road. 

But you find the mouth of the road blocked by a couple of rickshaws. One is dropping off a passenger, another is collecting a passenger, and another empty one is just waiting. And needless to add, some cars and motorbikes are carelessly parked on either side of the road, making the two-lane road into one. 

Street vending even in residential areas has become a great nuisance to the city dwellers. Oddly enough, apart from the old part of the city, Dhaka streets of our residential areas are wide. You know, if you have travelled a few countries, their suburban streets are narrower comparing to ours. But you will not see any street vendors there obstructing the traffic flow.

According to a passenger welfare body report unveiled on June 12, 2019, a total of 221 people were killed in road crashes across the country during the 12 days of Eid season. No doubt most of these victims were killed during making their journeys to get in or get out of the capital to spend Eid holidays with families. 

How long do we have to wait to mend our broken city? How many catastrophes, how many hundreds and thousands will have to die to bring a change? 

The recent student protest movement for road safety was a wake-up call. Following the Holey Artisan attack in Dhaka in 2016, the Gulshan area changed dramatically. New circular buses, registered rickshaws now ply the richest part of the city. The streets are manned to ease the traffic minutely. No roadside shops or hawkers are seen there anymore. 

Why can this example not be applied to every part of Dhaka city?

Manchester in the 1960s was a mucky, filthy city. All the building walls were blackened by the smoke produced from hundreds of factories. The proof of Manchester atmosphere, writes James Walvin in Different Times, was to be seen in the contents of your handkerchief. You always carried a hankie, not because of a permanent cold, but because you needed to get rid of the blackened snot and bronchial filth that accompanied local life. 

Today’s Manchester is a different city. A clean, liveable, beautiful city. And so is New York.

If Manchester can, New York can, why can’t Dhaka? 

Rahad Abir is a writer.

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