26.1.08

There goes the neighbourhood

I woke up this morning to the news that the government is going to build more MRT lines (yay!), including a new Eastern Region Line that will link Marine Parade, Siglap, Bedok South and Upper East Coast, to Marina Bay in the west and Changi in the east.

I've lived within 7 minutes' walk of an MRT station for the last eight years or so, and it's been great in terms of convenience. That said, I'm moving on Thursday to a neighbourhood without an MRT station, which still works out because it's strategically placed along enough bus routes that I'm going to be well-connected to downtown.

I was kind of looking forward to not taking the train so often. There's something a little warmer about the experience of travelling on a bus as opposed to a train, though I can't quite put my finger on it. Maybe it's because there was no MRT before 1988, plus I never lived near an MRT station till 1999, so I feel somewhat transported back to my younger self whenever I take a long bus ride. Maybe it's because with SBS Transit's iris NextBus service, it's easy to check how much longer the next bus will be, which takes some of the frustration out of the waiting time (yes, it's a psychological palliative, I know).

Anyway, my new neighbourhood is now slated to get the new Eastern Region line. I don't know how I feel about that. On one hand, yay! I'm all for having a more comprehensive MRT network and more comprehensive public transportation routes overall. I'm a city girl at heart and I know that until we all get personal teleportation systems à la Star Trek, cities need good public transport systems to make them liveable.

But there are two things that make me sigh when I think about an imminent Eastern Region Line.

Exhibit A: the construction nightmare that is Holland Village (Flickr throws up some relevant images, though they don't full capture the dust, the mess and the rats). It's been going on for a couple of years but feels much longer, and the first thing that happens when the bulldozers and other arcane construction machinery move in, is that businesses suffer. Residents can or sometimes have to live with the inconvenience, because they can't pack up and move willy-nilly, and maybe they can stick it out. But businesses that get displaced or lose their customer base don't have the wherewithal to hango n and wait for the sparkling new MRT station to be completed.

And the thing is, the kind of businesses you find in offbeat little neighbourhoods like Holland Village or Siglap, are precisely what gives these places their colour and character. They're the reason people want to live and eat and do business there. They matured organically into what they are today without government intervention; no one declared they wanted to create a "Bohemian Hub" in either of these neighbourhoods (plus I don't think the Katong/Siglap stretch is really bohemian).

If you construct a massive rail network in such a way that undermines and destroys the businesses that were there in the first place --- the businesses that were thriving on their own and brought the neighbourhoods together, which is why then the government decided to install a new MRT station there --- then it's kind of ironic, not to mention frightful, isn't it?

Other related examples of death-by-government-intervention in Singapore: Dempsey Road (though that's not a residential area), Chinatown (the area's been screwed with for decades) and Geylang Serai, which lost its landmark 42-year-old market a couple of years ago.

The other reason I'm diffident about the Eastern Region Line is that there's something to be said for a place not being that easy to get to. Not that every place needs to be as isolated as Charlie's or the old Buckaroo's, either --- but there's a certain tipping point, so to speak, after which a neighbourhood becomes too popular, too crowded and pretty much goes to hell. Some people already think Holland Village has jumped the shark, Dempsey Road certainly seems headed that way (I mean, it's got a Long Beach Seafood Restaurant, for heaven's sake) and Little India would've been a casualty long ago if it wasn't so completely colonised by migrant workers from the subcontinent.

As I said, I'm torn. I want better public transport options, but the government's existing track record isn't exactly stellar. For every Chinatown that been stabbed through the heart, it's only created the likes of HDB Hub, AMK Hub and Tampines Mall instead.

Just as well I'm moving to Siglap, I guess. At least I'll have the chance to enjoy it before, well, whatever happens next.

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