This guest post was written by David Rypel.
Even though Yerevan is said to be 29 years older than Rome, it is difficult to find any parts of the old city that predate modern constructions. There are, of course, some landmarks whose origin dates a few centuries back scattered around the city, but in fact these are merely a disappearing islets of history, surrounded by buildings from recent years and decades. And it might not be too foolish to worry that even these last historical imprints will eventually be consumed by the jungle of hotels, bars and high end fashion boutiques.
Armenians, a nation which had to get through many harsh tests of history, now face another challenge. Their capital is currently going through the process of a ruthless redevelopment, which favours commercial interests over welfare of current inhabitants and the cultural value of historical buildings located in certain areas. Though, locals do not stand by idly. Indeed, in recent years the Armenians got used to expressing their feelings in mass rallies and other forms of protest – and this case is not an exception.
The face of Yerevan has been evolving for centuries depending on which empire has ruled over its territory. With the first modern plan of the city’s organised reconstruction came the Russian-born Armenian architect Alexander Tamanyan after Armenia had gained independence from the Ottoman Empire, gotten rid of Turkish occupation which came next, and became a part of the Soviet Union. Many of his designs exist today, such as buildings and esplanades, most noticeable of which is the green zone encircling the centre of the original old town of Kentron. But hundreds of houses, churches, markets and mosques – including the remnants of the 16th century Erivan fortress – vanished as a result of his ambitious project. In following decades the city had to deal with large amounts of workers migrating from the countryside, which led to housing shortages. As in the case of many others Soviet and Socialist cities of the time, Yerevan reacted to the situation by constructing simple prefabricated buildings around the whole metropolis.
Other parts of the very centre of the Armenian capital have been disappearing since the year 2000, which marked the beginning of another phase in the city’s reconstruction so poignant among some Yerevan inhabitants. But this time, the issue is not the realisation of a visionary plan or the need to quickly build driven by migration, but rather a process of radical gentrification. Many buildings of varying historical value have been torn down in the past fifteen years – and in many cases against the will of their inhabitants or owners. The local authorities have been imposing the “eminent domain” rule, according to which the real estates are “in accordance with the public interest” being expropriated and are to undergo the process of redevelopment.
People who have been living in such houses until then are offered a financial compensation or substitute housing – however this often does not correspond to the value or size of the original houses. A few families, dispossessed in 2004 and 2005 of their homes in what had then been called Buzand Street, reported this to the European Court of Human Rights, which has issued a decision in their favour. However, the original housing in this area has already been literally cleared away and replaced by the spacious Northern Avenue with its luxury cafés, bars and shops. And similar policies are still being implemented today.
Although most of the “redeveloped” houses did not bear any names, they were the buildings whose origins dated a few centuries back, and as a whole they created the historical atmosphere of the city. Some areas destined to be torn down indeed resemble a slum rather than a historical centre, for which poor treatment in the past decades is to blame. The solution could be a renovation of such houses rather than their destruction. But this is not the case, and instead the properties are being sold to developers who profit because of their central location, and large parts of old Yerevan have now been covered by what Sevada Petrossian, the founder of the civic movement UrbanLab calls “surgically imposed, new and unnatural form of urban environment which shows no concern for the consequences“.
This is for example the case of the semi-legal devastation of the unique roofed market Pak Shuka from 1952. In spite of being on the State List of Immovable Historical and Cultural Monuments of Yerevan as an officially recognized architectural landmark, one of Armenian oligarchs eventually succeeded in turning Pak Shuka in a mall. Today, within its very premises, which are located opposite the famous Blue Mosque, there is a supermarket, a bar and a few shops.
The list of destroyed historical and cultural sites could go on for some time. The problem is that heritage protection, although formally proclaimed, does not really work: the true symbol of that is the Afrikyan’s Clubhouse, a building with a unique façade dating back to the second half of the 19th century. Despite the formal inviolability provided by the Convention on Architectural Landmarks Protection and the State List of Immovable Historical Monuments of Yerevan, as well as protests of activist and foreign diplomats, also this building was eventually chosen for redevelopment and in 2014 torn down.
Nevertheless, the Afrikyan’s Clubhouse is not to disappear for good: along with façades of other 13 historical-cultural buildings it is planned to be rebuilt in a new artificial quarter in the west part of the very centre of the city under the “Old Yerevan” project, which attempts to bring back a feeling of the now lost city of the 19th century. However, while the dismantled houses are resting in depots, the project might be still far from being launched. The date when the construction should begin is currently set for autumn 2015, but it has already been on the agenda for ten years now. The reasons for postponing vary; from the weather being too bad to the economic crisis and so on. This development inevitably makes people worry about the fate of the disassembled buildings.
The disappearance of old Yerevan has not been left unnoticed indeed. The resentment of its inhabitants is stirred both by the displacement of people and by the slow destruction of historical imprints. In the course of the last few years, the citizens of Yerevan have expressed their disagreement in many different ways: some of them have reported to the European Court for Human Rights, others have decided to collect signatures for a petition to be handed to the government. Some others have started protests in the streets and even gotten themselves into violent clashes with the police.
Literally under the ground, there are seeds of another form of protest growing. Seminars, exhibitions, performances and even a wedding ceremony have been taking place in a cellar of a house designated for demolition for over a year now. Under the name Home 45, a heterogeneous community of young artists, activists, scientists and journalists have been trying, through these activities, to prevent the demolition of a 19th century house on Yeznik Koghbatsi Street 45. “I have participated in the protests against the demolition of the Afrikyan’s Clubhouse and I did all I could,” says Artak Gevorgyan, one of the leading members of the movement. “We won’t allow them to follow the same scenario in the case of the Home 45”.
The interior of the Home 45 base is decorated with anarchist and Marxist symbols, one of the walls is covered with political slogans and quotations of various well-known people, including Ulrika Meinhof for example. An ashtray in the shape of the head of the Armenian president Serj Sargsyan clearly expresses the attitude of the activists towards the political establishment. According to Artak, the government is corrupt, a dialogue is not going anywhere, and that is why they are not interested in it anymore. The gradual disappearing of Yerevan can be, according to him, prevented only by occupying the endangered buildings and through civil disobedience.
That is, however, only a part of his ambitious plan: the ultimate goal is a cultural revolution and a radical change of values in the society. Certain progress in this aspect, a result of the efforts of his movement, can according to him already be seen – the difference between the presence of an active civil society today, compared to what the situation was like only five years ago, is allegedly striking. This corresponds with the appearance of mass rallies, which the president Sargsyan faces on a regular basis almost every year.
The last case was marked by a series of protests nicknamed “the Electric Yerevan”. Tens of thousands of people went to the streets in cities throughout the whole country to show their discontent with a hike in electricity rates. And more protests are to take place soon. “We have no other hope,” says Artak. “The president is Putin’s puppet, the opposition keeps talking but does nothing and Europe has been legitimizing all the dubious elections that have taken place. The only hope is the civil society, which is step by step moving forward. And the Home 45 is the only free platform in the country, allowing people who care about common values to communicate, to organise themselves and to unite,” he adds. In fact, there is a lot of other various movements, and ultimately Artak admits that he is cooperating with them inasmuch as they have similar aims as he does.
Still, advocates of the relocation plan for the houses previously mentioned still see no reason for the fuss. “Before the case got so loud, some of my colleagues had not even seen it [the Afrikyan’s Clubhouse]. It was in such an urban environment that it was unnoticed,“ says the author of the relocation project, the architect Levon Vardanyan. “It was indeed dismantled by professionals, all the stones are kept. It is a unique monument. I myself wanted it dismantled,” he adds. According to his words, the project aims at the creation of a social and cultural centre which would become the symbol and the pride of Yerevan. Moreover, apart from the recently stripped buildings, the new Old Yerevan should also include constructions lost in the Soviet Era, which are to be rebuilt on the basis of archive photographs and documents. The president of the Union of Architects of Armenia Mkrtich Minasyan is unconvinced about the prospects of this project though: he fears that a complex of shops with the facades of old houses will hardly create an effect of a historical city centre.
Gentrification is a process which at a certain stage in a city’s development cannot be avoided in any organically evolving metropolis. Regardless of whether it is in the USA, in Central Europe or in the South Caucasus. It is obvious that to preserve the existing state without changing anything is neither possible nor desired. But especially in the post-Communist countries, the impacts of this not fully natural gentrification are a radical cut into the face of the city, as the “pioneers of capitalism” conquer territories which were until now inaccessible and which were 25 years ago, or even less, marked as “hic sunt leones” on the free trade maps. In Armenia, this trend with all its consequences is further encouraged by the existence of a close link between business and politics, and by its monopolistic or oligopolistic economic structure, which is after all one of the causes of this year’s electricity rates hike.
It is absolutely crucial that the city succeeds at providing its inhabitants with higher living standards, but also that it maintains its links to the past at the same time and is not carried away with the vision of a rapid development. In Yerevan, where the protection of historical and cultural buildings or whole neighbourhoods is apparently a rather vague term, this has been impossible to achieve so far. If the situation does not change, we might soon find out that the original dwellers have been forcibly pushed out of their homes with little compensation for the sake of a construction of luxurious hotels, shops and cafés which anyway a vast majority of locals could not afford to frequent. Moreover, this picture of an artificial Yerevan without identity and memory may offer only little to either the Armenian people or foreign visitors.
As I was leaving the Home 45 I met an old lady living in the very same house with her husband. “I think that Yerevan has become a really nice city recently. I like it,” she says. And she is right, new beautiful streets have replaced the old crumbling ones. Indeed, a city should, foremost, serve its dwellers and make them feel comfortable and happy. Nonetheless, we should bear in mind not only the current residents, but also those of the past and of the future. And what is most important – we must not be deceived into thinking that crony capitalism aims at anything more than at securing its own benefits.
David Rypel is a student of Security Studies at the Masaryk University. Mr. Rypel was an intern at the Institute of International Relations during Summer 2015.