Before 1914, the vast area enclosed within the tram lines between Chitpore Road and Dharmatala Street in Esplanade and Galiff Street in the north was a scary zone of long narrow lanes and winding streets, probably best described as the ‘black hole’ of contemporary Calcutta.
The bold mission to build the mother of all avenues right up to the five-road crossing at Shyambazar and Galiff Street from Esplanade would modernise the road transport system, revolutionise motoring and create a proper route for travelling across the city.
Fortunately, the government of that era agreed to this visionary proposition and a geographical plan was laid out. 136 properties in the lanes were notified for acquisition of which 71 were mansions of the who’s who. Cash compensation and concessional land was offered in the city’s new suburbs. For example, my relatives who lost property to the road construction, used the compensation to buy similar properties in southern Calcutta. Demolition started without delay and smaller by-lanes vanished.
It was awe-inspiring that from the beginning C R Avenue had underground drainage and water and power supply, as also a concrete road surface, a material never used before on this scale.
And a grand avenue it was, being a constant 100 feet wide its entire length from Esplanade to a loop via the Shyambazar five-point crossing to Galiff Street-Bagbazar Street, as pictured. With hardly any bends and no obstructions, the promenade was fronted with majestic buildings to enhance its beauty, like the offices of CESC and Statesman, the Calcutta Medical College complex, Mahajati Sadan and also Girish Park and other iconic locations.
Historical structures were spared like ancient twin temples at Sovabazar and the residence of Girish Ghosh near Baghbazar, giving Central Avenue a special character. Big buildings on both sides had commercial establishments. The new Central Avenue became a ‘must-have address’ for the rich and famous.
Difficult to imagine today but Central Avenue caused a sensation not only throughout British India but instantly, all over the world! Writers commented on the large volume of car and bus traffic it could carry while simultaneously offering the finest motoring experience in terms of speed and smoothness. As diesel engines were not in use, all the commentators observed the low pollution and very low particulate matter experienced while speeding along the avenue.
The Times of India, Bombay reported in 1920 that it admitted Bombay was no longer ahead of Calcutta. Streets in our city were cleaner with the absence of filthy clouds of dust. Calcutta roads were good and it was possible to get a real motor joyride even in the erstwhile congested central parts of the city. Calcutta had many more cars than Bombay but accidents were lower. Sidewalks were far better than in Bombay and so people did not walk on the road.
Residents were pleasantly surprised by the improvement. Letters and books waxed eloquent on how unrecognizable the city had become after such a grand project while some, invariably, lamented the loss of the simple life in the lanes and ‘gallis’.
Foreign visitors from Europe and the USA praised the excellent infrastructure that motorists enjoyed in Calcutta. They hailed the movement of vehicles along wide thoroughfares avoiding “crowded and unsavoury quarters, (which) altered even the centre of the city…The Central Avenue is 100 feet wide, and already shows signs of a great artery. Huge structures of four, five and six storeys are already flanking it. No Tram-cars run there, and the public vehicular traffic is confined to motor buses, of which, owing to provision of wide roads, there are now a great number”.
There were some tensions though. Many got prior information of the road layout and bought up properties close to the 100 feet frontage before acquisition started. The poor felt cheated and pressurised. There were disturbances spilling over from slums and lower-middle class Burrabazar and Colootalla areas into Central Avenue. In fact, traders from different religions clashed and there were riots in 1918 and 1926!