All aboard the High Roller

June 8th, 2011

Wouldn’t you like to know where the rich and famous live? Of course you would. You probably already do. Central Delhi is for the rich and powerful and their servants and servitors. When you drive down Aurangzeb Road or Amrita Sher-Gil Marg a certain amount of rubbernecking is allowed. Who wouldn’t want a spacious, low-slung home surrounded by lawns and old trees? When you drive down Mehrauli-Gurgaon Road between Delhi and Gurgaon you know that on either side are the farmhouses of the seriously rich. When you drive along Outer Ring Road past Panchsheel Park you know that these are the expensive town houses of the farmhouse owners.

In Mumbai, everyone knows that Malabar Hill is where the rich once had their bungalows. Now Malabar Hill bristles with ugly skyscrapers filled with expensive apartments. There is also Altamount Road, bits of Colaba, Worli and Bandra seaface — which is a pleasant stretch to motorbike along, and dotted with big old bungalows which belong to old names (and Shah Rukh Khan).

And so on. The rich in Hyderabad inhabit Banjara and Jubilee Hills. In Chennai they own Alwarpet, home to J Jayalalithaa. In Kolkata they are to be found in Ballygunge and Alipore.

There’s plenty of fascination about the rich — what cars they buy, where they travel, what brands they wear, what art they own, what they do to keep fit, where they eat, what businesses they set up for their children… But nobody seems to have cashed in on this normal and near-universal curiosity so far as real estate goes.

Recently on an American academic urban studies mailing list to which I subscribe, there was a flurry of e-mails about tourism focused on wealthy neighbourhoods. Someone mentioned that the US Library of Congress has “star maps” of Hollywood dating from the 1930s — that is, tourist maps which show not the obvious civic sights of the city but the locations of movie-star homes. A little later such brochures came with photos of stars standing outside their homes. There are still such tours, many of them, now that there are so many stars in LA.

In Chicago, another listmember pointed out, there are tours of neighbourhoods with houses designed by a famous American architect of the first half of the 20th century, Frank Lloyd Wright. In season, some of the owners open their homes to ticketed tours, and make money.

Fascinatingly, real estate companies got into this act a long time ago. A third listmember wrote that “Tours of residential neighborhoods and agricultural areas in [California] go back to the late 19th century, when tourists would take train excursions to see appealing residential and agricultural landscapes, such as the citrus orchards and affluent neighborhoods of Riverside and other communities. Promoters made money off of these excursions, but the main hope was that some affluent or middle class excursionists would buy property and return as new residents of Southern California.”

In America there are also tours of areas that were once poor or working class and are now becoming rich, or “gentrifying”. In St Louis, Missouri, a fourth listmember said, such a tour takes visitors through a once-elite area that fell on hard times and is now gradually being restored and gentrified. In Mumbai, as is well known, there is now slum tourism. But the Mumbai slums are full of successful businesses and businesspeople; there’s a great deal of money and commerce there, so they hardly need gentrifying. In any case, few Indian tourists will pay to see slums.

But they might to see the homes of the rich and famous. Imagine a double-decker AC bus tour (nicknamed the “High Roller”) focused on Delhi’s rich and powerful. The guide, who looks not unlike IIPM’s Arindam Chaudhuri, says with a flourish of purple shirtcuffs, “And now we turn onto Prithviraj Road, home to former deputy prime minister L K Advani. If half our guests will please climb to the upper deck of the bus, they will be able to see over the outer wall and into the grounds. Observe, ladies and gentlemen, the elegant columned facade of this Lutyens bungalow….”

Ah, it sounds like fun. I would take the tour. But things would probably change fast on the other side of the road. As yet another urban studies listmember wrote, “Today’s tours of the stars’ homes are disappointing circuits of tall hedges, security gates and misinformation from the tour guides.” If ever a High Roller Tour got under way, I’m sure Lutyens’ avenues would quickly look even more lifeless than they do today, with tall, blank walls and gates to deter the curious citizen.

(See for example the Wikipedia entry on Palam Marg.)

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