Urban Greening Ideas Are Infectious, Union Square Park Case In Point

The image to the left is surely evocative for different people in different ways. I cannot see it without flashbacks to what that same spot looked and smelled and sounded like in 1987. It was a peculiar moment in time; I’ll leave it at that. This rendering reaches me just after seeing images of Penn Station’s recent renovation, which itself got me thinking about unique solutions to different kinds of urban challenges. In that case the interior was the thing. For cities where there is too much built space and traffic, greening of arteries is the thing. Also coincidental was last week’s news about the plan for the neighborhood where our sons attended school during the 2003-2004 academic year, which reaffirms my sense that good ideas are infectious.

Those news from New York and from Paris transported me to a very different urban space where we lived and worked for seven years. The image above and the title screen to the right both serve well to evoke an idea that was generated in one of India’s best preserved colonial harbor neighborhoods. Just prior to opening this property in that neighborhood we hosted four young creative professionals from Europe and the USA, two authors and two architects. One of the architects had recently completed work on our then-favorite model of urban re-utilization.
I stood with him on a rooftop overlooking the spice-trading on the street where our hotel was under construction. We had a breezy conversation about how this space might be made more accessible, and I commented on this neighborhood needing an urban design that, like the repurposing of two crumbling spice warehouses into our hotel would be respectful of history while not a slave to it. And the next day he disappeared, as guests do, but the idea is still out there, gestating, and in my hazy memory looks something like this image below.

“Envisioning Union Square’s Vibrant North Plaza” – Watercolor by Guido Hartray

Not the specifics, of course. But this dream-like watercolor rendering of Union Square Park’s future layout is a perfect reminder of that rooftop conversation about how Mattacherry might one day be a more effective version of its already awesome self. Carolyn McShea has posted this research note about the Union Square initiative on the website of Marvel Architects:

A Guiding Vision for Union Square and 14th Street

Union Square is famous for its rich activist history, successful Business Improvement District (BID) and 24/7 residential-commercial community that is also home to some of the city’s iconic buildings that have reached National Historic Landmark status. 14th Street is considered as a commercial corridor for New Yorkers and key cross-town thoroughfare. Continue reading

Elephants By The Sea

100 life-size lantana replicas of wild elephants will travel across three continents spreading the message of peaceful coexistence with nature.

The beautiful herd of Asian Elephants calmly drinking from this watering hole poses no threat to any onlooker. They’re actually sculptures made from the invasive lantana, introduced to the Indian subcontinent as an ornamental shrub by the British. The harmless looking plant is a scourge to native flora, animals and people of the regions where it’s taken over, as it literally poisons its surroundings so nothing else can survive there, destroying the natural biodiversity of the area.

30 of these extraordinary, life-sized works of art have been on display in Kerala, at Kochi’s South Beach, coinciding with the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. The outdoor exhibit, entitled Co-Exist: Matriarchs for a Whole Earth, is on display for only until the end of February, after which it will travel to Bangalore and New Delhi. In 2020, the elephant models will be taken to England where they will be displayed at the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Royal Parks, both in London. In 2021, they will travel by truck across the USA, where they will finally be auctioned, the proceeds of which will go to preservation of wild animals.

The project is a collaboration between multiple organizations, designers and indigenous community artisans. Members of the Ashoka Trust Trust for Research in Ecology & the Environment (ATREE) devised a way to safely craft with lantana as a raw material and support for the making and display of lantana elephants is through the NGOs Elephant Family, The Real Elephant Collective (TREC), and The Shola Trust.

Fort Kochi To Have 100 ‘Lantana’ Elephants. And Here’s Why You Need To See Them

Highlighting the cause of nature and wildlife conservation at a global scale, the Lantana elephants are part of a greater initiative to raise funds for conservation and help people and elephants live together more harmoniously.

On February 7, if you are wandering around the popular South Beach in Fort Kochi, you are sure to come across a magnificent herd of 100 Asian elephants.

If you are wondering about the possibility of such a huge congregation of these beings at one place, let us break the news.

These are beautifully sculpted life-size elephants that have been made by tribal artisans from Thorapalli in Gudalur using Lantana camara or Lantana, a toxic invasive weed.

Lantana elephants are part of a greater initiative to raise funds for conservation and help people and elephants live together more harmoniously.

“Our vision is to bring Asia’s elephants and the issues they face out of India and the shadow cast by the African ivory crisis. With Asian elephants numbering only a tenth of their African counterparts, the importance of this unique migration cannot be underplayed. The survival of a species is at stake,” says Ruth Ganesh, principal trustee and the creative force of Elephant Family.

She had conceptualised the Lantana herd along with Shubhra Nayar of TREC. Modelled on real elephants from the Gudalur-Pandalur region, in its bid to raise awareness and funds for the conservation of Asian elephants, this unique project is also clearing the harmful Lantana from the Nilgiri forests while providing livelihoods to about 70 artisans from the Paniya, Bettakurumba and Soliga communities.

With their inherent knowledge of wild elephants and their exceptional crafting skills with Lantana, these artisans are bringing life to the elephant forms, while earning a dignified income. The elephants are designed by Shubhra Nayar and Tariq T of TREC, with Subhash Gautam overseeing the process. Continue reading

Fortune & Misfortune On Kerala’s Backwaters


Partially submerged houses in Kerala, India last August. REUTERS / SIVARAM V

Any picture of a houseboat reminds me of our good fortune to live among the people of Kerala’s backwaters from 2010-2017. The photo below is no exception and I thank Fred Pearce, writing for Yale e360, for bringing to my attention the scale of misfortune facing our old neighbors from the most recent flooding. I knew about the disaster, but had not read in any detail until now what this implies for the future. Maybe this fortune could be applied to address those challenges:

In India, Nature’s Power Overwhelms Engineered Wetlands

The picturesque Kerala backwaters in southern India, increasingly popular with tourists, form a network of engineered canals, lagoons, lakes, and rice paddies. But a fatal monsoon deluge has highlighted the global problem of how developed wetlands often lose their capacity to absorb major floods.


Floodwaters inundated much of Kerala’s low-lying coastal plain, including the village of Pandanad, pictured here. MANJUNATH KIRAN / AFP / GETTY IMAGES

In India, they call the state of Kerala in the country’s far south “God’s own country.” That wasn’t how it felt last August, when monsoon floods devastated its densely populated low-lying coastal plain. Around 500 people drowned, in an area best known to outsiders for its placid backwatersa network of brackish lakes, lagoons, and canals where growing numbers of Western tourists cruise the picturesque waterways aboard luxury houseboats.

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A luxury houseboat moored along Lake Vembanad near the tourist town of Kumarakom in Kerala. FRED PEARCE / YALE E360

Now that the floodwaters have abated, questions are being raised about whether the disaster was made worse by water engineering projects in the backwaters designed to feed the state’s population and attract tourists. Increasingly, Kerala residents are wondering if “God’s own country” is damned as well as dammed.

The floods came out of the Western Ghats. This chain of mountains down the west side of India is one of the country’s wettest places, drenched from June to September in monsoon. In early August, the rains there were exceptionally intense and unremitting. The rivers flowing from the mountains west toward the Arabian Sea dumped their water into the backwaters on a coastal plain that is largely below sea level.

Sixty-mile-long Lake Vembanad, at the heart of the backwaters, rose up and flooded surrounding wetlands and rice paddies, cities, and farming villages. A quarter-million people took refuge in 1,500 relief camps; 6,200 miles of roads and 115 square miles of farmland were damaged. Cochin International Airport was awash. Continue reading

Kerala’s Stars Redux

We published this post in the early period of this site, but the beauty of the subject and the timeliness of the season begs its redux…

The colorful stars that begin to grace Kerala buildings in December from homes, to businesses, to places of worship have humble beginnings despite their current flashy status.  The were originally a simple white 7 point star that correlated with the beacon leading to the Christmas manger.

Many of these folded and cut paper stars are the handiwork of a group of women in a fishing villages around the southern Kerala city of Kollam. Continue reading

Still Standing – the Last Jews of Jew Town

The Paradesi synagogue in Jew Town, Fort Kochi, Kerala.  Credit: Alyssa Pinsker

The Paradesi synagogue in Jew Town, Fort Kochi, Kerala. Credit: Alyssa Pinsker

Xandari Harbour, going beyond a hotel, doubles as a gateway to history. Located between the tourist paradise of Fort Kochi and the heritage rich bylanes of the spice markets of Mattanchery, it sees people and time come and go. Among the tales we hold precious is the heartwarming lifestory of the Jews of Jew Town. A handful left, behind doors and windows they sit – reminders of a people who found warm refuge in an alien land. Reminders of a page of a history turning to close.

In a small neighbourhood in the South Indian city of Cochin, Kashmiri shopkeepers in Islamic dress stand in front of shops emblazoned with banners reading “Shalom!” Inside, Hindu statues and shawls vie for space with Jewish stars, menorahs and mezuzahs. Although this multiculturalism might seem strange, the majority-Hindu city is well known for its substantial Muslim and Christian populations. Less known is that there’s also a fast-dwindling native Jewish community, known as the Paradesi (Foreign) Jews, who once populated the neighbourhood of Jew Town.

Continue reading

Ferry Around


The Cochin harbor lights caught on the move from the ferry

“Airrrrr, waterrrrrr and laaaaaand” – my first grade Geography teacher chanted the three main modes of transport until we pony-tailed girls were sure to never forget them. While travel by land was a plain daily affair, air transport completed family vacations. It was the much-awaited – but timed – visits to the grandparents, their home on an island in the backwaters, that sparked my love for the ferry.

As with love of all kinds and sizes, it began with the unknown. “How much water is there in the river,” “Will we die if the boat breaks”, “How works the ferry” – curiosity trumped grammar in my little world. There were some answers but the fascination stayed because how could wooden planks and boards placed across two large canoes carry people and vehicles! So every time the car reached the water’s edge, out jumped a little girl with 5 rs ($0.08), stood on tiptoes to reach the greasy ticket counter and waited until the father maneuvered the car to climb onto a ladder placed between the ferry platform and the edge of the boat (craving to do justice to this bit but Physics is not my cup of my tea). If I promised to not go close to the railings, I was allowed to stand out in the open, letting the river breeze ruffle my curls and rouse up conversations I’d drown my grandparents in.

Yesterday, the ferry was about a little girl reaching her elders on an island where once there was no bridge. Today, two decades on, the ferry is the bridge that connects the old and the new, brings together kindred and the wayfarers, and tells her stories of the land and its people. Continue reading

Chinese Fishing Nets, Kerala

Marconi in front of of the nets in Fork Kochi


Marconi is an original decedent of the Mongolian people (a Chinese state at the time) who were the creators of the “Chinese Fishing Nets” in Kerala, India. These structures are at least 30 ft high and the nets stretch out more than 50 ft across the water! It takes half a dozen people to even attempt to heave the nets which work on a pulley system with GIANT boulders hanging from the opposite side to counteract the weight. Continue reading

Kuttanad – “the rice bowl of Kerala”

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If you are like me, you enjoy the fresh air, green scenic views and appreciate a variety of cultures. Kuttanand, south of Cochin is a promising destination with its rich rice picking culture and its backwater systems. It also offers diverse species of animals, especially birds which can easily be spotted due to the open landscape.

Next on my Kerala bucket list!

To read more click here

(photo credits: Keralatourism.org)

A drive to Fort Kochi, India

Sunrise over Cochin Harbor

Sunrise over Cochin Harbor

I flew into the Cochin airport in Kerala a few days ago for the first time. This is my first time to Asia and to a country whose language I do not speak (fluent in english and spanish). I was greeted by Udayan, one of Raxa Collective’s drivers who began driving me to the hotel. If you had read my last post, you would know that I am here to do an internship under Crist and Amie Inman (owners and operators of Raxa Collective), who I have been communicating with for months now. Amie especially, had warned me of the driving and how “In some parts of the world, people drive on the left side, others on the right side, but in India people drive everywhere”! That could not have been closer to the truth. As soon as we leave the airport parking lot, I hear horns going off, almost in symphony to one another, communicating back and forth. Tuk-tuks (a type of small yet quick 3 wheeler) are swerving in and out of traffic, motorcycles and cars zig-zagging in and out. The driver, completely calm and very good at what he does tells me that it will be a 45min drive. In my mind, I thought this wasn’t driving, but a type of noisy tetras.

Continue reading

If You Happen To Be In Fort Kochi

V. Venu, director-general of the National Museum in Delhi (in blue), viewing Xu Bing’s work at Aspinwall House  in Kochi on Sunday.

V. Venu, director-general of the National Museum in Delhi (in blue), viewing Xu Bing’s work at Aspinwall House in Kochi on Sunday.

If you are in town before the end of March, come see the show. We have mentioned the event in these pages more than once between its first iteration and this year’s; and if you follow Spice Harbour‘s social media you would have seen, among other things, that the formal opening of that property doubled as a fundraiser for KMB, as it is affectionately known to Raxa Collective. In today’s Hindu, an article reminds us that the event is not just for fancy folks, but serves a deeply important cultural education service for Indians of all backgrounds and education levels:

Prominent figures from the world of art, film personalities, art students, and the public turned up in large numbers at the Kochi Muziris Biennale on Sunday, even as the event completes a month on January 12.

Among the visitors to the contemporary art event on Sunday was V. Venu, director-general of the National Museum in Delhi. “The kind of consistent engagement by people from every walk is what makes the Biennale an unparalleled successful event in the country,” said Dr. Venu. Continue reading

If You Happen to be in Kochi


The second edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale opened with typical Indian energy, with drums and enthusiasm. Fort Kochi and Mattanchery streets were alive with painters, working solo or in teams, adding finishing touches to murals and other installations.

Riyas Komus’ words resonate well with the RAXA Collective ethos of Community, Collaboration and Conservation.

The story of Kochi-Muziris Biennale, an artist initiative which derived its confidence from artists, art lovers, cultural organisations and the people of Kochi, is the story of taking on challenges to create an alternate space, of sacrifices and solidarity to build an art ecosystem for the new emerging India. Conducting the biennale in Kerala — a state that had the world’s second democratically elected communist government — complimented by the history of the land in the context of art was an organic achievement of its legacy. Our mission is to draw energy from the rich tradition of public action and political engagement in Kerala and build a new aesthetic that integrates both the past and the present…. Continue reading

Indian Independence Day at Spice Harbour

10355655_10201665725084704_4823049703076743324_oYesterday at Spice Harbour I got to participate for the first time in an Independence Day flag raising ceremony.

It’s a good time to tip our hats to history. On August 15, 1947, after centuries of British imperialism, India gained independence. I am no expert on the Indian Independence movement so I won’t speak to it too much, but I know there were many political organizations and philosophies behind it that were united by their desire to end British rule. Mohandas Gandhi’s nonviolent philosophy and civil disobedience is what led the final parts of the struggle for independence that prompted the eventual withdrawal of the British. Since we’re talking about colonial India, we can put Kerala and Spice Harbour into historical context. Continue reading

Art Revival

Kochi Muziris Biennale on Google Arts Project


As we finish up our development of Spice Harbour and think about how to sculpt our space into one hospitable to both people and art the flow of news about the second edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale is welcome. We’ve written about art in many facets on these pages, including the connection between art and technology. It’s an amusing coincidence that just about a year ago I shared interactive links about the then new, and still very cool, Google Art Project.

So what fun to learn that the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2012 had “made the cut”, so to speak! It actually isn’t really news, but the good folks at the KMB 2014 website know their social media, and they popped it onto their Facebook page for followers like to me to find, like a wonderful sprinkle of breadcrumbs toward the next edition.

Do you want to revisit and experience the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2012? Thanks to Google Art Project potentially millions of people across the world can now virtually discover and explore India’s first biennale. With this the Kochi-Muziris Biennale becomes the world’s first and only biennale to be archived and digitized by Google Art Project which has till date only collaborated with museums and other permanent exhibitions. Continue reading