Chennai’s Would-Be Rodeo Drive

It’s cliche by now to talk about the starkness of India’s inequality: Everyone knows the country is ridden with indecent displays of affluence right beside the most abject poverty known to this world. That hasn’t taken away its ability to screw with your head.

Conspicuous consumption comes in many forms in Chennai. There are a handful of full-scale malls, from the aging Spencer’s Plaza to the bright and shiny Express Avenue, which has a luxe movie theater on the upper floors. There are also thriving shopping avenues, lined with thousands of jewelry stores; a substantial chunk of the country’s wealth is vested in gold and gems.

But none of those playgrounds for the rich and aspiring carries quite the air of exclusivity that’s settled on Khader Nawaz Khan Road, affectionately known as KNK. That’s where international luxury brands you’d see on any fashionable thoroughfare in Europe or America have set up shop, with palatial custom buildings of the style that haven’t really been constructed since the British Raj (at least in the case of a new Louis Vuitton, pictured). 

Unlike Rodeo Drive or the Magificent Mile or 5th Avenue, though, there’s no attention to the  experience of walking between them. The sidewalk is as difficult to navigate as any in Chennai, strewn with beggars and piles of bricks. There’s nothing planned or coordinated about how the strip functions as a place, despite the effort that’s gone into designing the retail environment within each building.

Perhaps the property owners will get themselves together as the shopping district matures to make it the kind of destination you’d go to just to promenade along it, rather than pick up your Coach bag and leave. Or perhaps not—they’ve been talking about it since 2004, and not made much progress.

Escape!

CitiCentre.

This is the kind of “restoration” that would drive D.C. historic preservationists insane.

The bizarrely awesome Spencer’s Plaza.

Metal detectors are also a common and completely ineffectual feature.

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