Sunday, May 07, 2006

Long-winded entry on Urban Planning

Clearly I have spent a lot of time in the villages and rural areas of the country, and I tend to take more photographs out there as I find those areas so picturesque. But, I realize that it’s only fair that I take some pictures of my city as well. Yerevan is the largest city in Armenia (population of about 1 mil.), and is growing to be quite metropolitan. Girls, it’s true: there’s even the Spanish-retailer MANGO here.

These are pictures of Republic Square (which is very close to my apartment) at dusk: my favorite time of day. It’s not quite dark yet, but the lights are turned on, and the sky is always lovely at this hour and leaves a blue haze. These pictures are very unique for one reason: there are no people in them! In about a month or so, seeing the Square so empty will be a virtual impossibility. Bring on tourist season!

There is a LOT of construction underway as the new “Northern Boulevard” slowly breaks ground. Apparently, the original plans for Yerevan, as conceived by the architect Alexander Tamanyan, foresaw a street that went directly from Republic Square to the Opera House (the two main features of the city). So now, this plan is being actualized. The street will be pedestrian-access only (this is a GREAT idea), and will feature many modern (and very expensive- think $100,000-$150,000 2 bedroom apartments) apartment buildings, and shops/cafes.

Though it will certainly be good for business, attracting tourists, upping the overall aesthetic of the city, and encouraging investors, this whole project has been rather controversial. One reason is because many people were ejected from the homes they’d been living in for generations, to make way for the developers to put up new buildings. These displaced people were compensated minimally for their troubles. They weren’t paid anything near market value, and thus in most circumstances, the money they were given won’t be enough to purchase another home in Yerevan as real estate continues to skyrocket. Furthermore, if you simply ask around, you’ll come to find out that it is common knowledge that most of the buildings going up on the Northern Boulevard are being financed by the Russian mafia. People in government and so-called “oligarchs” are going to profit handsomely however. To be sure, there is a lot of money to be made in construction here. It is a grand scheme of money laundering and personal profit for the very few, and there’s really nothing anyone can do about it (case in point: the one lawyer who tried to defend the displaced people who were being kicked out of there homes on human rights/anti-corruption grounds, was thrown in jail for months on trumped up charges. The government’s message to “shut up” is clear).

And finally, the design is rather controversial as there is no unified plan for the architectural style of the Boulevard. It seems each developer is building in whatever style they want without heed to what the others are doing, or to preserving the historical aesthetic of the city (one of the finished buildings closest to the Opera looks more like a Tyson’s Corner-style corporate office building than anything else): thus, the result may be a rather motley sight of buildings completely dissimilar to one another…but only time will tell.

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