Category Archives: Social

The Yerevan of Tomorrow

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Yesterday I had the privilege of attending a discussion called Yerevan Spring sponsored by Yerevan Productions at the Armenian University of Armenia (AUA). Although the event was poorly attended, the invited speakers gave considerable insight as to what Yerevan currently offered to the global community, and the general consensus to summarize was “not much.”  But the one thing that troubled me was that in reference to Yerevan through words and images they seemed to be talking solely about Kentron, specifically its hub, ignoring its other thriving districts altogether.

There is nothing particularly spectacular about the architecture of the new monolithic, styleless buildings that have been constructed during the last decade and continue to go up. The history of the city has all but been erased, only slivers remain of the city I fell in love with in 2000. One of the speakers, an artist who lived outside Armenia for many years, described the free-for-all urban development, some of which involves the destruction or careless renovation of historical landmarks as we saw last year with the “Pak Shuga” on Mashtots Street, as “anarchy.” This term is appropriate I think since zoning of any kind is clearly not being enforced, especially when you consider that strip bars exist in residential neighborhoods.

And when you look carefully at the construction of these high-rise buildings you’ll notice that the reinforcement rods they are using for these concrete buildings of dubious quality are already rusty, and the cinder blocks used for walls are poorly formed and literally crumble in the hands. Needless to say most of these dozens of new apartment buildings, some of which are lacking inhabitants,  have gone up in Kentron, especially the smaller center of Yerevan where the city’s famous tourist sites and the business district are found. And let’s face it — most of Yerevan hasn’t seen major development of any kind in the last 20 years, save for occasionally repaired roads that begin to crumble again before long.

Rather than figuring out methods to make more people smile as one woman pondered during the Q&A session, viable ways in which to improve districts of Yerevan beyond the confines of emblematic Kentron should be explored. Here’s a few thoughts:

1. Establish other centers of commerce and entertainment. People, especially tourists, want to be lured to other integral parts of any city they visit. Yerevan already has sites that can have immense appeal if only they were transformed into hip, attractive alternatives to the posh and sporadic pretentiousness of Kentron.

Karekin Nzhdeh Square located in the “Yerort Mass” neighborhood of Shengavit is a shining example of an area that can be a lot more if the vision and determination was put into action. Virtually all of the Stalin-era architecture, similar to what you find downtown, is intact and storefront property abound. With invested creative talent and capital  Karekin Nzhdeh Square can become a place where professionals weary of the bustle of Kentron can meet in bistros and cafés (the likeness of The Green Bean, Caffé Vergnano or Louis Chardin). Open some high-quality art galleries, eclectic gift and clothing shops and you have yet another attractive tourist destination that people will flock to — a 10-minute metro ride away from Republic Square.  It’s a goldmine of opportunity and creative output that earnestly needs to be explored.  The same can be done in Nork, a lovely hillside community a five-minute drive from Kentron that’s dying of stagnation and neglect.

2. Build a brand-new designated district for artists to create and live. This is not an original concept but it’s urgently needed. Just as Boston has its Fort Point Channel and New York City its Soho district, Yerevan likewise needs an area where artists can congregate in a common location to create, inspire and interact with one another. In turn, galleries, theaters and restaurants will open that cater to appreciators of the arts and artists themselves. It would be a center of performance art, living art, painting, sculpture, independent filmmaking and modern music, and would attract peers from around the globe. There are plenty of run-down and abandoned industrial parks that can be rejuvenated. Shells of former manufacturing plants can be revived and serve as loft space to the countless emerging artists that need the right work environment. To get there, you offer a dedicated bus route from a central bus stop in Kentron or hop in a taxi and pay a few bucks for a one-way trip. Better still, build affordable lodging that caters to visiting artists living on a tight budget.  Sure, loft space does exist in Yerevan, there are a couple of Soviet-era buildings on Hrachya Kochar Street  that thankfully were built to accommodate Armenian artists.   But a district dedicated solely to the arts is something that will establish Yerevan as a world center of creative innovation.

3. Make things. Investment in the manufacturing sector is weak. The IT sector needs to expand four-fold to encourage software engineers and innovators to stay put instead of fleeing to Silicon Valley or Canada.  According to official statistics the IT sector saw 23 percent annual growth from 2008-2012, with $244 million in total revenue for 2012. Ideally Armenia should see close to $1 billion in annual revenue, it should not be perceived an unrealistic feat. There is boundless potential and untapped talent starving for opportunity and the chance to prove themselves. And instead of outsourcing to China to make widgets, why not choose Armenia as an alternative manufacturing hub? Granted, Armenia is currently lacking direct access to ports, but the Black Sea is not inaccessible. On the contrary, international commerce has been conducted in Batumi by Armenian businessmen for years. Issues regarding the cost of freight and duties could be worked out with the government, if only there was the earnest of the business world’s desire to consider Armenia as a conduit for prosperity. Entertaining the notion isn’t foolhardy.

4. Beautify legendary sights. Victory Park perched high above Kentron is one area that seriously needs TLC. There’s the amusement park area, and that serves its own purpose. But the entrance and green space flanking the sidewalks leading to it are neglected. The vendors selling cheap toys, pinwheels, sunflower seeds and ice cream have to be relocated to the carnival venue, they shouldn’t be selling their junk in the actual park. In the central area where a stone sculpture of a clenched fist stands lie a string of claw machines filled with all sorts of crappy things, from cheap stuffed animals to packs of cigarettes. Last year when I took my son there early one evening parts of the sidewalks were crumbling and some gaps were impassable. On top of that we had to be vigilant of maniacs speeding around the park on four wheelers. The park is downright ugly and there’s endless ways to tastefully restore its tarnished magnificence. This is the ideal project for two young and dynamic landscape architects I know, brothers no less, who I hope are reading this post.

In the days to come I hope to visit some areas of Yerevan that I mention and document the unbridled potential in photographs. In the meantime, the images at the top and bottom of this post are before and after shots of the intersection where I live. I’ll let you be the judge of what scene is more attractive.

 

Living in Shame

Hetq Online, which sponsors this blog, just posted a new opinion piece that I wrote about Armenians’ obsession with shame and being shamed and the guilt complex some Armenians cope with perhaps their entire lives.

Here’s an excerpt:

“Amot eh” is single-handedly quelling creativity and freedom of thought in modern Armenian society. With its submissive waive of the hand as if to state “no more,” it discourages entrepreneurship and spurns innovation. Living in fear of failure because it is perceived as shameful essentially leads to a repressed, uneventful life, to be content with the mundane because society deems it safe. Progress is ironically being suppressed.

“Amot eh” strangles ingenuity and favors complacency. Just like a scouring sponge, shame completely absorbs potential for exacting progressive change then scrubs out the inspiring light. It renders its victims incapable of consciously deciding of their own free will: “I want” or “I do not want.”

“Amot eh” promotes resentment and anger, as the victim yearns to break free from the confines of conformity and behavioral normalcy. People overact because they are not free in mind, spirit and conscience. They are in a constant struggle with themselves to behave as expected, to move about as predicted, and when the boiling point of frustration is reached they explode. And the process is cyclical, uncontrollable.

To read the entire article go to http://hetq.am/eng/news/31266/armenias-amot-eh-complex—living-in-shame.html

Stop the Custom’s Agreement from being Signed with Moscow

Armenian citizens should not allow the customs agreement to be signed with Russia.

Joining a still-abstract Customs Union, with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan confirmed onboard, is a disaster in the making and would the worst thing the Armenian republic ever did in its 22 year history. It would be tantamount to entering a screeching time vortex and landing in the dark ages, complete with the classic communist slogans pasted across the city walls and statues being re-erected glorifying the days of the Soviet dream. Putin’s dream is to bring it all back, under a different guise, but all the same associated nonsense.

After 4 years of negotiations with the EU on signing the Association Agreement and the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement, which would have entered its final phase with a formal signing ceremony in November, one man’s abrupt decision should not lock Armenia’s fate and compromise its long-term sustainability and prospects for expanding growth. The Armenian people themselves must decide their own future, not someone who places his own personal interests over those of the people he is supposedly serving.

Any citizen who has had the privilege of studying or even visiting Europe, the US and other free democratic nations, and has a concept of what living in a democratic society means, and cares about the long-term viability of Armenia for his children and future generations, and wants to see expanding growth on all levels — economic, social, cultural, educational and so forth–must not permit the agreement for Armenia to join the Customs Union to be signed. It will neutralize the Association Agreement with the EU–this has been confirmed by EU officials.

According to RFE/RL’s report:

Elmar Brok, the German chairman of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, likewise said Armenia’s Association Agreement will not be signed any time soon. “I feel very sorry because it is legally — because of certain conditions — not possible to be a full member both of the Customs Union and have an association agreement and free trade area agreement with the European Union,” he told an RFE/RL correspondent in Brussels.

It’s not too late to stop this customs agreement with Russia from going through by any means. Fatalists in Armenian families, especially anyone over the age of 50, need to be locked up in the closet. It’s time to ensure that Armenia does not squander its opportunity for tighter integration with the west and opportunities abound for Armenia’s sustainable development. It’s time to demand that the Armenian government intervenes and forces the President to go back on his promises in Moscow. Armenians need to stand up.

Yerevan’s Digital Billboards – Are They Really Necessary?

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About six weeks ago a mounting stand for a digital billboard was fixed on the corner directly across the building in which I live adjacent to the printing house, at the intersection of Vartanants and Hanrapetutyan Streets. It was supposed to be installed across the street but someone came by and complained that it would block their windows, and remarkably whoever was in charge listened, then they hauled the thing away. Last week the LED  screens were installed, and yesterday the blinding advertisements for luxury ski resorts, casinos and expensive furniture stores began, in the heart of a middle-class neighborhood.

I have become so numb to such buffoonery that I’m not even trying to understand the logic in installing this billboard and others like it in the first place. But I wanted to get an estimate for what such a billboard would ordinarily cost and I found a web site that provides instant quotes.

I’m not very good with guessing measurements but to my eyes the billboard measures about 3 x 3 meters.  The screen seems to be high-resolution, judging from the picture quality and brightness, which brings the price at around $18,600. The stand seems to be constructed of some heavy duty metal, perhaps iron–the site estimates it to cost around $11,800. Then there’s shipping and installation to take into consideration, about $800 and $1800, respectively. At 7 cents per kilowatt, the current price of electricity that is scheduled to increase incidentally, the monthly operational cost is just over $103. Altogether, including other fees such as connectivity, the total expenditure comes to around $56,640, and again, this is according to the data that I fed into the calculator, it’s not meant to be an accurate figure.

Some alternative, more constructive ways to put that $56,640 to use:

1. Subsidize low income housing for two newlywed couples. In more remote parts of the city like Sepastia, Nor Nork or even Avan, Soviet-era apartments could be found for $25,000, maybe even less. Give them another few thousand to furnish the place properly and inspire them to be good citizens in the process. Or, find housing for families living in crammed quarters like sardines in the Erebuni hostels. The homeless, naturally, could also benefit from proper living conditions and mental rehabilitation.

2. Renovate one or two schools in dire need of repairs, especially in rural areas of Armenia far from the capital. Many still have broken windows, improper heating, dysfunctional lavatories. State-subsidized hospitals are also in need of funds–the shabby, unhygienic maternity ward where my child was born in Zeytun comes immediately to mind.

3. Build additional playgrounds, especially soccer fields, and thereby encourage children to be more active in playing sports. While your at it, might as well start a physical education campaign to get kids off their asses and exercise properly.

4. Increase the wages of the invisible street sweepers who are out there at 4 o’clock in the morning each day. Who knows what they make–it can’t be much more than a hundred bucks a month, realistically half that.

5. Install new, clean public toilets, especially in areas heavily frequented by tourists, like Republic Square and the Vernisage. If Armenia aspires to be European, it needs to act like it and properly cater to so many of its guests from Italy, France, etc.

The list goes on. I could sit here all night and think of more useful ways to spend that fifty grand, and I’m sure anyone reading this will have some other useful suggestion in mind. Installing digital billboards is not the answer to demonstrating progress. It comes from smaller, tangible things that are not easily noticed but make a huge impact on the community. That’s how society expands and transforms.

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Why I Love Election Time

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Two days ago the Yerevan municipality was repairing the roadway through the courtyard behind the apartment building where I live. Huge potholes ran along the pavement making both driving and walking troublesome. They also installed brand new lighting on the walls of the tunnel leading into the courtyard, making the evening stroll back there less ominous.

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But repairs are being made in other parts of my neighborhood, too. Here’s a photo of a commonly traveled shortcut between two garages up the street that has been completely repaired, the exposed rocks, concrete and broken asphalt covered over.

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The area in front of my rented garage (above photo), which was laden with potholes and strewn trash thanks to the location of the garbage bins, has also been redone. The ugly metal cans have been replaced with new, heavy-duty plastic bins that have folding lids, so the broken styrofoam and cellophane bags won’t fly around any longer when a gust of wind blows. The walls have also been patched up since this was taken.

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Critics will cynically argue that city hall is making all sorts of cosmetic repairs around town, like changing the curbstones (which I do think is a needless expense), as a way of vote buying. But I don’t see it that way. Rather, I see my tax money being put to good use. I want the taxes I paid to be spent on improving my community. This is work the Yerevan municipality should have been doing anyway, regardless of whether elections were around the corner. It’s definitely a good thing.

I really hope the upcoming Yerevan municipal elections are held democratically without vote rigging, intimidation, ballot stuffing, etc. But I’m not putting my hopes on that. I will, however, commend the great work the current administration is doing for my community, albeit four years plus late. At least it’s finally getting done. And I hope it continues, regardless of who’s in charge a few weeks from now.