by John Hughes
At the top of the roundabout where Nalbandian Street completes Sahkharov Square in Yerevan, as recently as five years ago the neediest of the city met to receive welfare flour through a dusty warehouse door on the side of the State Fund of Social Insurance. Lines formed, names were called, vouchers were collected. And if there was embarrassment in taking a handout, shame was suppressed by necessity.
Today, in what was that very room where the bread of life was stored, the dirty and dark walls are replaced by storefront windows and chic displays inviting passersby into the track-light elegance of the GF Ferre boutique, where a simple blouse off the rack costs $251.
Next door, the same firm offers a children's clothing shop. A T-shirt for a one-year old is priced at $100.
A 50-kilogram sack of flour in Yerevan costs $40, and it is likely to still be just as hard to come by for those who stood where the boutique now stands to get it. And harder, relatively, to afford than that $100 baby shirt for a select few in this city.
And in such ways the capital—2,787 years into its evolution—changes, daily earning the distinction the republic has carried since 1991. Yerevan is surely a city "in transition". Neither need nor greed disappears, but co-mingle ever more comfortably, with heads slower to turn either in surprise at the $100,000 automobile or in shock at the beggar with a palm up for 10 drams.
This summer a motorcycle dealership opened in a former bank on Abovian Street, offering glistening, bright trophies of high-speed conspicuous consumption. Near its doorway, but a universe away, one of the city's many pensioners peddles light bulbs and chewing gum, hopeful of sympathetic buyers.
It is, Yerevan, a city unstoppably on the move. And one where thousands will not be mobilized from hardship that is no more their doing, than the gust of good fortune that stirred a climate of change and a windfall for opportunists.
It is a capital, too, that hardly reflects its republic. The relative windfall that has powered Yerevan's transformation from gloom to glow is yet to stir the dust of decay in areas beyond the city limit. In fact, though spreading, the jarring change of appearance from a decade ago is still seen primarily in the city center, home to about one tenth of the population.
"The panorama of modern-day Yerevan is construction dust and cranes against the background of Biblical Ararat."
That's how a Russian writer described the capital in 1929.
If Maxim Gorky came back today, nearly a century later, his surprise may be no greater than those who have been coming and going over the past 10-15 years, whose memories of black nights and empty streets are impossibly distant from this Yerevan of new neon and rivers of unruly traffic.
And while the size has grown from 65,000 in Gorky's day, to its current 1 million, there is no fear of plagiarism in applying the writer's words to today's panorama of the capital. From nearly any window in the city, finding Noah's mountain comes through a forest of cranes and concrete that not only Gorky missed, but so has anyone who has not been here in the past five or six years.
In early August, government statistics showed that Armenia's economy grew by 10.2 percent in the first half of this year, primarily due to the Yerevan construction boom.
Minister of Trade and Economic Development Karen Chshmaritian predicted that the upswing in construction would be the main factor in the country registering double-digit economic growth for the fifth straight year.
Construction nationwide—and with most of it in the capital—is the fastest growing sector in the republic, showing a 43 percent increase from January through June. By comparison, the service sector grew by 15.5 percent, while industrial output rose by just 5.3 percent.
Agustin Carstens, deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund visited Armenia during the week the government figures were released. "Armenia is on a promising path toward sustained high growth and the alleviation of poverty," the IMF official said.
But it is a path more easily found by those living in the capital.
"There is a stark polarization of incomes," says Ashot Kakosian, head of the Chair of Mathematical Modeling of Economy at Yerevan State University, and leader of the poverty evaluation and analysis group of the Strategic Poverty Reduction Program. "Incomes are piled up in the hands of a small percentage of the population. And the majority of these rich people are in Yerevan. This is one of the reasons for the abundance of places of leisure."
One need only walk the streets of the city to realize that whatever financial relief is being offered by the economic turnaround, it is being rather unevenly distributed. In other words, the rich get richer, while the poor await the trickle down. In between, though, a middle class is forming—at least in Yerevan—and though it is yet difficult to define, it is surely becoming part of the social landscape of the city.
If leisure spending is an indicator, for many in Yerevan the corner has been turned on financial discomfort. People now pay to have restaurants deliver to their homes; Western-styled supermarkets are no longer mere images on TV; and throughout the city have sprung up children's entertainment places, where clowns and cooks tend to the celebration wishes of the youngest Armenians, whose parents pay for parties rather than prepare them.
An estimated 90 percent of the country's markets are in Yerevan and 78 percent of services are rendered in the capital.
Overall, construction-led economic growth contributed to a lowering of the poverty level (republic wide), from 50 percent as reported by the government in 1999, to 33 percent today according to World Bank statistics.
Misha Sanayan, 45, works at one of the city construction sites. He has been involved in construction for the last eight years and says he is pleased with the increasing job opportunities for him and other laborers in the Armenian capital.
Sanayan works eight hours a day and gets up to 90,000 drams (about $200) a month for his work. He says it is just enough to maintain his wife and two daughters.
"Life is getting more and more expensive, but I find my wages normal," he says, adding that he hopes construction will not stop, as it did just after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Laborers such as Sanayan directly benefit from the dozens of major construction sites in the city. But others, whose professions have nothing to do with putting up or tearing down buildings, are evidence that the construction also contributes to a more stable financial foundation for working Yerevantsis.
Seda Yeghiazarian, 52, has been a hairdresser for 23 years in Yerevan. She says that in recent years it has become increasingly difficult to support her family (she has two daughters) on her wages. But it is not because average people cannot afford her service (a regular haircut can cost from about $1.75 to $6 in Yerevan), it is because so many beauty shops have opened and have made the business more competitive.
The tearing up of streets and sidewalks has been especially welcomed by cobblers in Yerevan. During the Lincy Fund-financed street and road project two years ago, a report by ArmeniaNow.com Internet journal found that shoe-repair customers had increased by about 200 percent.
Gohar Avagian, 49, and her husband Manuchar Hakobian, 55, have a small family business selling flowers on Mashtots Avenue.
The mood of the city, to them, is reflected in sales.
"First during the dark and hungry years of our independence people stopped buying flowers. We could sell very few then and we even wanted to give it up," says Gohar. "But now it seems that people have again grown appreciation for the beauty of flowers."
Selling up to 300 flowers a day when business is good and about 100 on a not so successful day, Gohar says they can earn enough to take care of their essential needs and even help their children—two daughters and two sons.
"We see both good and bad in Yerevan," says Gohar. "Some people have become richer and buy more flowers. But poor people still remain poor and cannot think about buying flowers as they see to their day-to-day needs."
"The price of progress"
The physical face of the Yerevan makeover is unavoidable, whether marked by the addition of dozens of Vegas-ly vulgar casinos that greet travelers arriving at Zvartnots International Airport; or from the loss of greenery as trees are uprooted in favor of the city center becoming a café mall.
Whether it be the welcomed renovation and construction brought on by the Cafesjian Foundation's $30 million investment in the Cascade and art museum, or the embattled neighborhood where Buzand Street residences are being bulldozed "for the good of the state", the city center is the most noticeably affected.
But the phenomenon of cosmetic change is widespread. The Tashir mall opened last year with stylishly appointed boutiques replacing the cramped bazaar-like stalls more common in the city. In "Bangladesh", southwestern Yerevan, new businesses have opened in what was previously considered a district for warehousing people in thousands of soviet-built apartments, thus its name. And the Massif district, atop the hill north of the city center, has a Mercedes dealership. In the city center, modern apartment buildings have sprouted, in anticipation of occupants willing to pay premium prices for comfort and convenience.
According to Yerevan Mayor Yervand Zakarian, about $20 million has been spent so far on re-sculpting the face of the capital, in the North Avenue project. By the time it is finished in 2007, it is expected to cost $150 million.
North Avenue is a one-kilometer long thoroughfare that will link Republic Square with the Opera House. It has been a part of the Yerevan master plan since the city was designed by architect Alexander Tamanian in the early 1920s (for a population of 150,000).
North Avenue will be a pedestrian promenade flanked by multi-storied buildings with shops and restaurants on the first floor, elite apartments and offices above, and parking garages below. Though little has yet been said about who the occupants will be, the prime real estate is said to already be sold out. It is believed that much, if not most, of the project is being constructed by Russian businessmen. And it is (naturally for this society) suspected that oligarchs and government authorities not only have ownership but are also benefiting from construction kick-backs.
Destined to be a jewel of commerce, it is now an open wound of violated earth and interrupted transport, praised by government officials for what it will do for the city and cursed by displaced residents, for what it has done.
Until two years ago, Lidya Harutiunian was owner of 70 square meters of housing in the area that is becoming North Avenue. Today, she is looking for an apartment that can be bought for the $15,000 that she got from the state. "This money can at best buy me a two-room apartment in a far suburb of Yerevan. The house where my father and grandfather lived does not exist any longer. And if you call it social policy, then what is inquisition?"
Hundreds of residents like Harutiunian, whose mostly run-down homes were in the way of "progress", were paid off to move, under authority of Article 28 of the Armenian Constitution that allows for relocation according to the welfare of the State. On more than one occasion, bulldozers tore down roofs and walls, while occupants held their ground inside in protest of what they say is unfair compensation, even for property that was unsound.
"A brazen arbitrariness is occurring before the eyes of the whole society in which officials earn hefty money and explain it by the interests of the state," says leader of the "North Avenue" public (opposition) organization Vachik Hakobian. "Meanwhile, the same Article 28 of the Constitution also has part one that declares private property to be inviolable. The second part of the same article provides for commensurate compensation of damage caused by the state to its nationals. In other words, if in the teeth of the Constitution the state considers itself to be entitled to confiscate property also invoking the Constitution, then it must take care of the future of these citizens on the basis of the same Constitution. However, the state 'buys' one square meter of this area for $215, and sells it for $1,500."
Perpendicular to North Avenue, the city's second major urban development project, Main Avenue, will run 1.5 kilometers from the Kond district, parallel to Amirian Street and the "vernissage" bazaar, to the Vartan Mamikonian monument.
Standing in the way are historical buildings that have been the object of concern by preservationists who have petitioned authorities to not victimize cultural history while repaving the city's path into the future.
"What is happening on the streets of Arami, Buzand, Koghbatsi and others is an outrageous treatment of Armenian city culture," Yerevan resident Rita Manaserian says. "Of course, similar manifestations are taking place in other regions of the central part of the Armenian capital as well, but it is these streets that have concentrated the largest quantity and quality of valuable buildings. These are the houses where the pick of national culture lived."
And it is, too, these very properties that have the most money-making potential—a fact not to be dismissed by city planners for whom culture must be considered in tandem with commercialism.
Critics make a good argument that the scale has tipped in favor of commercialism. In 2004, a square meter of land in the Main Avenue area was valued at $20. But when plans were made public for the initiation of the development project, a flood of interested buyers created a sellers market. Realizing its potential, the Municipality doubled the land value.
"Taking into account the large number of building companies wanting to participate in the construction of Main Avenue, the municipality made a decision to raise the price for each square meter of the total area of the construction to $40," said Mayor Zakarian.
It is hoped that Main Avenue will be completed by the end of 2008, and will have added $34 million to the city coffers.
The politics of planning
In 1985, the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the USSR Council of Ministers drew up a new master plan for Yerevan, replacing a 1971 version, when the population was 25 percent less. The first stage, a feasibility study, was completed in 1991. Political and social upheaval made it irrelevant.
While in the Soviet period of the city's development all construction was conducted in strict compliance with the points of the master plans, independence brought wide-open—and some say reckless—opportunity.
A new Armenian bourgeoisie was in the making and it began to invest trade capital in real estate and this process acquired more distinct and large-scale forms after overcoming the energy crisis of the early '90s, and especially after 2000. New complexes began to be built in accordance with ambitions of private owners who gained vast lands in the administrative territory of the city. According to Gurgen Musheghian, Yerevan Project Institute director, "more than 45 percent of the city's modern territory does not enter the planned boundaries of the master plan of 1971."
A new master plan, for a population of 1.2 million by 2020, is expected to be approved by the end of this year. The proposed plan, however, is based on the capital's current form of government, in which there is no City Council, and the mayor is appointed by the President. The Council of Europe has said Armenia's membership in the CE should be with the stipulation that the mayor of Yerevan be elected, and that a city government should replace Presidential and Municipal authority.
"It—forming a stronger city government—is a very important aspect that must be paid attention to," says historian Ara Demirkhanian, director of the Avan historical-archeological museum at the Yerevan Municipality. "It is obvious that in case of having a city council, each issue immediately concerning city construction must pass discussion in the capital council. But the absence of an all-city elected body allows the municipal authorities to reshape the city at their own discretion and distort the architectural image of Yerevan and at times destroy buildings of historical value."
Currently, Yerevan is administratively divided into 11 district municipalities, the prefects of which are in fact sole masters of these territories. At their own discretion they sell land, often without heed to the logic of urban construction traditional for Yerevan.
"Unfortunately, the municipal authorities have a very foreign idea of what city culture is and how to preserve the architectural heritage of the city," architect Tigran Poghosian says in this connection. "In their wild impulse they are destroying the small number of buildings that, by miracle, survived the period of socialist construction. These are houses of the 19th and early 20th centuries that ensure the continuity of city culture."
Many architects and residents of the city consider that in conditions of such arbitrary construction in Yerevan the Armenian capital will lose its traditional look even before the approval of a new master plan.
Yerevan's chief architect Samvel Danielian is of a different opinion, as he is sure that the city will manage to preserve its "nationality".
"The master plan is a conceptual document containing the strategy of the city's development," he says. "It has chapters practically on all infrastructures of the city, including on the city center."
It is in that center, near a metro station, that 57-year-old Gagik Poghosian has sold books—mostly second-hand textbooks—since what he calls "the revolution" of 1991.
Most of his day is spent watching passersby dislodge from Yeritasardakan station and onward to Yerevan State University, to the shops of Abovian Street or the cafés that have replaced the park.
"Of course, there is a lot of change in the look of the city now. But I don't think that new cafés and restaurants are a real change," the bookseller concludes. "The real change should be in people. The change that they will feel is when they all have equal opportunities and when there is justice in this country."
Information for this article was reported by Aris Ghazinyan, Vahan Ishkhanyan and Suren Musayelyan.