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.