Everything else.. The Gentrification of Colombo: Community Stories

The Gentrification of Colombo: Community Stories

2020 Aug 25

Colombo has undergone a rapid transformation due to its gentrification agenda that aspires to make the city an economic powerhouse on par with Singapore. There are many development projects underway at present under the Urban Regeneration Project which includes the refurbishing and introduction of new infrastructure and housing relocation projects for residents in underserved communities. The Urban Regeneration Project will provide quality, high-rise housing for 68,812 families living in 1,499 underserved settlements in the city and its suburbs, which are currently unfit for human habitation and lack access to basic infrastructure facilities such as sanitation. 

The relocation of underserved community members into new high-rise housing schemes will be a leap towards transforming Colombo into an economic force to be reckoned with. However, the cost of the city’s makeover will have to be borne by long-standing residents who live in constant fear of being evicted on short notice.  

Maradana

Maradana is home to many secondhand bookshops, most of which are located along D.R. Wijewardena Mawatha, an avenue lined with government buildings that were constructed during the British colonial era. The string of bookshops has become a popular attraction over the course of three decades. The shops are built on government-owned land and rent varies according to size.

Most of the booksellers on the street have been bracing themselves for the possibility of relocation from 2011 when the demolition of nearby buildings began to pave the way for development. Speaking to Mr. Perera, a bookseller on D. R. Wijewardena Mawatha, he says that they cannot expect advance notice of eviction as the shops are temporary structures that have been built on government-owned property. The uncertainty around when the evictions are likely to take place has instilled a feeling of helplessness in some of the shop owners. “It’s frustrating not knowing when we will have to move out or if we will ever have to move out. We can’t plan ahead nor do we feel secure in the present”, said Mr. Perera.

Wanatamulla

Wanatamulla in Dematagoda has around a hundred homes that were built next to a railway line. As the railway track is to be expanded from Baseline station to Nugegoda, residents in these areas are expected to relocate soon. Some of the residents in the underserved community are looking forward to moving into brick and mortar houses. Others remain skeptical. The residents who are to lose their houses in this area will be moved to a new housing project called the “Sahaspura Housing Scheme” close to Maligawatte Samantha Hall. The project will provide residents with decent housing. However, the residents were expected to fork out LKR 50,000 upfront and another LKR 50,000 a few months later followed by a monthly additional sum for a two-decade period.

Speaking to Gauri Rajalingam, a long-time resident of Wanatamulla who moved here from Jaffna during her adolescence, she divulged that the 380 square foot apartment will be too cramped for the family of four. “I will miss being able to sit on the railway tracks and have my tea while chatting to our neighbours when the evening comes. It’s good for our children as they will be accustomed to a better standard of living than what we grew up in. But it’s the seniors who will suffer the most because this style of living is completely alien to us”. The housing scheme’s residents are from different areas of Colombo and its suburbs, namely Aluthkade, Dematagoda, Maligawatte and Grandpass, to name a few.

Rajagiriya
Image from https://www.primeresidencies.lk/apartments/rajagiriya-prime-wrendale/rajagiriya-prime-wrendale

Kotte is home to many underserved communities located most prominently down Arunodaya Mawatha, Obeysekarapura, Polwatta and Bandaranayakepura. The land in Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte that has been earmarked for development is within a 500-metre radius from the Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte Divisional Secretariat, the Esala Children’s Park, R.A.D. Janaka Ranawaka Ground, St. Stephen’s Church, Sudharmarama Purana Viharaya, Obesekarapura Walawwa in Rajagiriya and Hewawitharana Vidyalaya. In spite of the obvious benefit to residents of the underserved communities being moved into decent housing in close proximity to leading schools, places of worship and other amenities, dwellers are concerned about their jobs being disrupted, especially as most of the men residing in the area are three-wheeler drivers. The women in the area are engaged in vegetable trading in Colombo 01 and share concerns about not having the facilities to park their vegetable carts in the apartment complex they are to be moved into. 

Slave Island

In the decades that followed Sri Lanka’s decolonisation in 1948, Slave Island has since become best known for its distinct style of architecture, and multicultural makeup though some also associate it with crime, violence and prostitution.

Image from We Are From Here

Speaking to artist Firi Rahman, Co-Founder of the #WeAreFromHere movement who also calls Slave Island home, he divulged that many of the area’s residents have been forcefully evicted from the houses they have lived in for generations. “Residents of this area have been uprooted from what has been their home for generations and placed somewhere foreign to them; somewhere they don’t want to be. Some relocated communities haven’t even been properly compensated for their homes in spite of holding the title deeds”.

Slave Island is considered prime real estate as it is located South of the city’s business district, has its own train station and is also in close proximity to Pettah and Colombo 07- a more exclusive constituent of the city. Elaborating on the devastating impact gentrification has had on the area’s remaining inhabitants thus far, Firi shared, “There are many people who want to move back here but getting a place to stay here is virtually impossible now. The cost has gone up”. 

Speaking to Zulsky Passela, he shared that his home was one of the 70,000 households on Java Lane that had been demolished in 2014. His family was forced to move into the De Soysa building and they never received compensation for their property which was destroyed. The property belonged to his great-grandfather Abdul Rahim who was famed for founding the Colombo Central Club. 

Amongst the many frustrations shared by displaced residents is that the distinctive architecture of yesteryear for which the Slave Island vicinity was known to have since been either demolished or overshadowed by new, tall, ultra-modern structures. “They demolished the Castle Hotel. The old Laundrywatte was razed to the ground and the Dhobi community relocated. The Rio Cinema and iconic De Soysa shops are marked for demolition. I barely recognise the street I grew up on. The new tall, shiny skyscrapers have seemingly cast a shadow on the rest of our town and no longer can we see the sunset.”, says Akram Mohideen, the owner of one of Slave Island’s oldest corner stores.

Image from We Are From Here

For the dislocated communities of Colombo and its suburbs who find their new high-rises and new neighbours unfamiliar, the loss of their homes is about more than just the forfeiture of a physical structure. To them, it signals the loss of their communities and the trajectory of the life they’d once aspired to build. Many of them once lived in a “watte”, where they frequented their relatives’ and neighbours’ houses. Promotions or bonuses meant a fresh coat of paint, brand new furniture and renovating or adding to their houses. They could trace their lifetime’s work in the physical constructions of their abodes, especially since many have been incrementally built over generations. 

Much of Colombo is marked for “beautification” and the results of this are glaringly obvious with Indian and Chinese funded real estate developments already fragmenting some of the city’s tight-knit communities. Singapore itself has strict laws and regulations governing shophouses and the city’s planners have managed to successfully leverage dilapidated buildings as strategic assets to create contemporary urban districts with unique identities. One cannot help but ponder that if Colombo is to be an economic powerhouse on par with Singapore, it may do the city good to listen to the voice of its people.